Confident Cats feel fully prepared

In previous bowl losses, Northwestern has entered as a heavy underdog; not given a chance to win the game. Coach Pat Fitzgerald believes the underdog label became a costly distraction for his team. The Wildcats recognize their even playing field against their Gator Bowl foe, Mississippi State, and are highly confident entering the game.

Just one day before Northwestern fights for its elusive bowl victory, Pat Fitzgerald's greatest concern isn't with his Gator Bowl game plan or personnel. Instead, it's with the team's bus driver.

"Right now, my thought process is: let's make sure we get the guys there on time," a sternly-toned Fitzgerald said. "We're ready to go; I have no concerns. This team is as well prepared as any of the teams that I've had in bowl season."

Northwestern is making a program-record fifth consecutive bowl appearance. For the first time, the Wildcats are the favorite to win.

In the previous four games, NU has entered as a heavy underdog, facing much stiffer competition. Its best chance to win came against Texas Tech in the 2011 TicketCity Bowl, but that contest was played without starting quarterback Dan Persa, sidelined with a torn Achilles.

Different from past bowl games, the Wildcats won't be overmatched against Mississippi State. Fitzgerald feels that helped his team prepare better.

"I think that's been a bit of a distraction," said Fitzgerald of the previous mountainous matchups. "I think our guys have been really focused on the task at hand. Hopefully, we'll play well."

Northwestern understands it's on an even playing field in the Gator Bowl; now, it must execute.

"It's just another football team," said senior linebacker David Nwabuisi. "They're going to come out and play their hardest and we're going to come out and play our hardest."

During each December, leading up to the bowl game, Northwestern runs business-like practices and spares time for some fun, too. A focused atmosphere is fostered by the coaching staff as the team prepares in Evanston. However, that has been lost when the team departs to its destination.

Through Northwestern's record run of postseason berths, the program has seen its expectations increase, where winning is a regularity. As a result, the Wildcats carry a different mindset than in the past. They are confident, and rightfully so.

"There's a different little swagger about this team," senior guard Brian Mulroe said. "I think we have a little bit of momentum, too. But we've been preparing like crazy this bowl season. We've had a little fun, too. We've just been together—that's the key."

Northwestern carries confidence and momentum into Jacksonville, where it finds a fair matchup against its Gator Bowl foe. Provided the bus driver does his job and get the Wildcats to EverBank Field, the Wildcats have a chance to earn a victory.

"We haven't ended seasons the way we've wanted to in the past," Mulroe said. "This season, we have. Let's just keep the ball rolling; hopefully get that win."

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats. He resides on Chicago's north side.
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