Bulldogs Await Sunday Bowl Selection

The coach is on the recruiting road, since knowing his current Bulldogs will be bowling is fine for now with Dan Mullen. It's fans who will watch the final regular-season weekend wondering, worrying, how every play and point impacts Mississippi State's post-season destination. They can all rest easy. Go Christmas shopping, even.

Barring the most unexpected series of events, Mississippi State's bowl address will be settled not on any field Saturday. The selection, or more accurately assignment, hinges on how strongly a group of post-season events make their cases with the Southeastern Conference to reserve the schools and teams they want. For Mississippi State, the most serious suitor is the Liberty Bowl.

The Memphis classic (December 31, 3:00ct) has attended at least half of 2013 Bulldog games, including both of the make-or-break contests at the end of the schedule where Mullen's team outlasted Arkansas and Ole Miss in overtime(s). Those dramatic victories not only secured bowl eligibility for the Bulldogs, and for a program-record fourth consecutive season. Beating both Western Division rivals electrified the fan base as well and bodes very well for holiday travel and ticket sales.

In fact, within an hour of Mississippi State returning the Golden Egg to its campus home, athletic director Scott Stricklin announced advance bowl ticket orders would be accepted. Those pre-orders included the Liberty, the BBVA Compass, and the Advocare V100 bowls; which by then were acknowledged as State's three possible destinations.

Thursday, a MSU official reported advance orders of over 4,500 tickets had been placed in advance of Sunday's evening announcement of all SEC bowl berths. The order pace had picked up, the official said, in favor of Memphis in recent days as signs trend to that direction. In fact the Bowl itself sent a very strong signal on its Facebook page by showing ‘Mississippi State' in one end zone of the Liberty Bowl field.

This is still a wish, of bowl and Bulldogs alike, though and far from a done deal. Per the SEC's 2013 media guide (page 32): "The AutoZone Liberty and BBVA Compass Bowls share the eighth and ninth selections and will make their selections, not in any specific order, but in consultation with the SEC Office. The Advocare V100 Bowl has the league's final selection." That is where the rub comes for everyone involved, extending above this ‘tier' of SEC affiliated bowls. Most analysts assume two conference teams will find places in BCS bowls; even if not the national championship game this year a SEC squad is assured for the Sugar Bowl and another will likely end up in the Orange Bowl.

The real picking/pecking order begins with the Capitol One Bowl taking the third most attractive league option, pending on how the SEC Championship Game finishes. Then the Cotton and Outback Bowls make their ‘shared' selections, with an obvious but not necessary leaning towards West and East division clubs respectively. They can go cross-Division but to do so means letting the other bowl pick first from within ‘its' Division. The Chick-fil-A Bowl has the next pick.

None of the above would seem to have any impact on Mississippi State's eventual selection. Where the wheeling and dealing begins is the Gator Bowl, which shares the broadcast timeslot on New Years Day with Orlando and Tampa and needs as attractive a TV option as possible to compete. Ticket sales are another obvious issue, more so than ever for a midweek game day as was proven last game. On January 1, 2011 a crowd of 68,000-plus dominated by Mississippi State fans watched the Bulldogs blast Michigan with its built-in TV audience. That was on a Saturday; whereas the 2013 game was played on Tuesday though the crowd was 48,000. Many MSU fans could not get away from Monday or Wednesday work for a quick trip to Jacksonville. That was one example why bowls fight harder for their favored choices, and fan bases, with midweek games.

The Gator clearly would prefer a Texas A&M or Georgia, both eight-win teams with real TV attractions. Also, in the mix for the Gator is another eight-win team, Vanderbilt. And to their credit Vanderbilt fans turned out for their last two bowl trips, to Memphis and Nashville, though current home-field attendance is problematic. Bowls noticed that latter bit, too.

Also, Vanderbilt has made clear their goal is taking a trip in 2013 and not staying in the home state for a third winter. This wish can be met, but indications are it would send them not to Jacksonville where eight wins has been a recent baseline. The Commodores would have to go to Birmingham or Shreveport instead, if they really wish to leave Tennessee—and certainly their home town--for the holidays.

This would also put the SEC in something of a p.r. dilemma with observers from outside the region which look only at records and not at realities of bowl ticket sales and TV marketing. What is not now an official factor though is the win differential that in the past would have automatically given an eight-win team precedence in picking over a six-win squad.

And this opens the door for 6-6 Mississippi State to jump both Vanderbilt and 7-5 Ole Miss. Memphis has certainly reaped the rewards of inviting Bulldog teams in 1991 and 2007 with record ticket sales and crowds. And while conference records or tiebreaks don't factor into bowl status…the winner of the Battle for the Golden Egg carries momentum and emotion into the post-season that produces ticket sales to a desirable destination.

One other factor in State's perceived favor is timing. This is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Liberty Bowl, then played in Philadelphia, won by Mississippi State over North Carolina State on a legendarily-frozen field. Such things matter in bowl promotions.

This said, Nashville will be picking seventh, last in the second-tier rotation; and will take either the team Jacksonville doesn't or grab the Rebels with their central Tennessee fan base. Birmingham naturally would rather not bring Ole Miss back a second-straight January and will make that clear to the SEC Office right there in town. So they presumably will push for Mississippi State too, though Vanderbilt would be a sensible selection by that program's own state preferences. An eight-win team in Shreveport would be a windfall for that bowl indeed.

What would simplify things for almost everyone would be Michigan State beating Ohio State to open up a BCS title game slot for the SEC champion. That would ease the logjam on the second- and third-tier league bowl games, and make Memphis' wish come true. As it is, bowl officials have indicated they, along with Jacksonville and Nashville, must stand firm for what their best deals are based again on dates, days, destination, and momentum.

So for Mississippi State it is a weekend of wait-and-see. Not for Mullen; he is working on 2014 and beyond right now. "This time of year for us is crazy," Mullen told MSU broadcast analyst Matt Wyatt on the statewide ‘Head to Head' show this week. "There's 15 days you can go out and recruit in December, and we have to utilize every single one of them."

But the coach will be ready for the good Sunday evening word all the same. Because wherever his team is sent, these Bulldogs will be making history. Especially those seniors who are the first class of Dogs ever to participate in four bowl games. There are three—offensive guard Gabe Jackson, running back LaDarius Perkins, and linebacker Deontae Skinner—who can not just be the first State players ever to make four bowl trips but actually play in all the games.

Mullen said bowl practices will begin next Friday, at the end of fall semester examinations. Around their academic duties the Bulldogs have four designated weight-training days, though two are excused. Senior safety Nickoe Whitley had surgery Monday to for the ACL injury suffered in early September but played-on all season. Fortunately so for State, as it was Whitley who saved the Arkansas game in regulation with a strip-and-recovery; then made the game-sealing defensive play with his overtime strip of the Ole Miss quarterback recovered in the end zone.

Senior quarterback Tyler Russell was to have shoulder surgery today to repair damage done by two separations suffered in the Alabama and Arkansas games. Both Dogs are having their issues attended to in hopes they are ready in time for spring pro days.

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