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Gameday 2011 Music City Bowl edition : Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State - The bowl game is finally here.



Matt Stevens


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Wake Forest (6-6) vs. Mississippi State (6-6), 5:40 p.m., Site: LP Field; TV: ESPN 




Current Line: MSU by 6.5 




Since we're hours away from kickoff let's count down the early subplots of today's contest before The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog arrives to LP Field 




Mississippi State can win its fifth straight bowl game in its first appearance at the Music City Bowl 




- All MSU head coach Dan Mullen has stressed this season since this New Year's Day victory in Jacksonville was getting to back-to-back bowl games. Check. 


Now that the goal for why the 2011 campaign was so critical has been met, what's next when the actual game on the field against Wake Forest (6-6) needs a final result tonight (5:40 p.m., ESPN). Essentially the message is if you an MSU player with some eligibility left after this season and you want mat drills and hill running to feel not as bad - win tonight in Nashville. If you're a senior, go out a champion. 


"Always finishing the season with a win is huge for you," Mullen said. "There's a good nine months (from tonight) where we don't play football. All we've talked about all week is winning another championship. If we could finish it off with a win, it could be a spectacular bowl trip." 


In a very familiar area for MSU alumni, the crowd at LP Field tonight is expected to be dominated with maroon and white fans that Grobe joked today will all have their "musical instrument" in hand for only the school's 15th bowl appearance and fourth since 2000 


"Mississippi State has been to back-to-back bowls in the 1990s," Mullen said. "I know Coach (Jackie) Sherrill was successful in the late 90s and 2000s taking the program to bowl games and did a great job so hopefully we can continue that tradition." 


The one issue that hasn't come up for Wake Forest even after taking a 41-7 pounding to Vanderbilt in their regular season finale at home is another opportunity at a Southeastern Conference opponent to test themselves against the perceived best league in college football.  


"We haven't brought up the ACC-SEC thing at all," Mullen said. "Dan's team like ours has played a brutal schedule and because of that is a reason neither of has gotten the attention they deserve. Hopefully our guys are focused on ACC-SEC but on playing a quality opponent." 




Wake Forest brings a high-octane passing attack to Music City 




- Wake Forest, who is playing in its first bowl game since 2008 but fifth postseason game under Grobe, is going to rely on a passing attack that has lit up Atlantic Coast Conference defenses for 255.6 yards per game through the air. Sophomore quarterback Tanner Price is third in the conference with 233 yards per game and this contest is likely the final game for junior wide receiver Chris Givens, who leads the ACC with 106.3 yards per game on the outside.  


The issue for MSU in coverage is three different Demon Deacons receivers average more than four catches per contest and their multiple offense will spread defenders out on man-to-man island assignments in any given situation. 


"They've got about four guys that can make plays on the outside and then you mix in their underrated run game and they're an explosive offense," MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. "We've got a challenge trying to figure out that sophomore quarterback." 


Price is to be just another overlooked prospect from Westlake High School in Texas to prove the critics wrong.  


Just days after Westlake High alum and current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees set the single-season passing record in the National Football League, Price will try to throw over, around and past the Mississippi State defense. 


"The bottom line is if Tanner plays well, we have a chance to win every time," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "If he doesn't, then we lose. We're such a throwing team that's it's that simple." 


Price, like Brees who was offered just one scholarship out of high school, chose Wake Forest two years ago over Stanford, Northwestern Rice and Tulsa after putting up 2,302 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior season while leading his team to the Texas state finals. 


Essentially, Price's college decision was about academic reputation which led him to the nationally-renowned Wake Forest equipped with less-than up-to-date facilities and the smallest stadium capacity of any Bowl Championship school. 


Mullen even admitted last week that preparing for his first left-handed starting quarterback has forced adjustments in the angles the Bulldogs front seven will rush the passer. 


"The biggest thing that it does is lets you know where his launch points are located and where they scramble," MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. "He can throw it everywhere and make every throw." 




Can MSU quarterback replicate his 2011 Gator Bowl performance on the big stage again one final time in his last game in a Bulldogs uniform? 




- In order to accomplish that same vibe as they had leaving a National Football League stadium last year, MSU (6-6) will need to rely on the dual-threat capability of senior quarterback Chris Relf.  


Mississippi State's only healthy active quarterback on the roster this week had 311 total yards and four touchdowns on his way to being the Gator Bowl most valuable player. 


"Our guys really appreciate getting to bowl games and understand the importance of being here and can separate all of the bowl activities from the importance of actually winning the game," Mullen said. 


MSU fans should except to see the Bulldogs run game, which averaged 168 yards per game, to be utilized early and often thanks to a significant size advantage of their offensive line and Wake Forest's undersized and youthful defensive front. 


"Dan Mullen's offenses are very similar to some of the teams that have given us problems this season because we're not a big football team," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. "I see them doing a great job running downhill an mixing in the option with the throw game. We're more concerned about what they're doing offensively instead of who they have doing them." 


Mullen mentioned sophomore quarterback Tyler Russell as a game-time decision Friday with a major sprain to the medial collateral ligament of his left knee earlier in bowl practice and it will be determined during the game if he is inserted into competition or if Relf gets every snap from behind center.  


"Tyler said he felt good (Thursday) and we'll wait to see how is to see if we rotate him," Mullen said.  




- Will Mississippi State's massive offensive line be able to figure out Wake Forest's speed-oriented 3-4 defensive scheme? 




MSU (6-6) struggled to figure out early the matchups in losses against Georgia and Alabama, teams that typical use a 3-4 formation on defense, but the philosophy of those schemes were drastically different as compared to their 2011 Music City Bowl opponent. 


"They're a much more active front because the 3-4 teams we've typically played just put three of the biggest people they can find and just stand still," Mullen said. "These guys are blitzing all over the place and coming from different directions." 


MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning described the Demon Deacons (6-6) as a typical base defense but with a sophomore nose guard Nikita Whitlock, who only weighs 260 pounds. Koenning said one of the keys that MSU fans will want to watch at home is Relf checking the secondary for keys on how the 3-4 defense will be distributed.  


"With an odd-man front, they can drop all eight in the back or rush a bunch and cover with just a man and you have to recognize that early," Koenning said. "This (defense) is very prevalent in our league. If you show up in our league on third down, this is what you see. The difference is they do it on first, second and third down." 


Whitlock leads Wake Forest as is sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles for loss and so MSU offensive line coach John Hevesy has instructed his players over the last two weeks to respect one thing - their gap. The man in front of them isn't what important and trying to chase players around is exactly what Wake Forest will be hoping for on Friday night.  


"It's as critical as breathing - I can't stress it any more than that," Hevesy said of his lineman not chasing defenders. "You can't get fooled. Someone is going to be there, just hang out and let them come to you." 




Let freedom ring: cowbells will be on display tonight in Nashville 




-Cowbells will ring for the first time in the history of the Music City Bowl. Before the Mississippi State football team's first visit to the game in school history, Music City Bowl officials that MSU fans will be allowed to bring cowbells into LP Field for the game. 


"We're going to allow them after (MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin) and I talked about it," Music City President Scott Ramsey said. "I think it's prudent to talk about when you're playing a neutral-site game. From my standpoint, you want to be equal from the SEC and ACC side of things, regardless of the issue." 


Ramsey said the Music City Bowl feels the uniqueness of the cowbell and its meaning to MSU and its fans will help create a great environment for the game against Wake Forest. 


"It's something we're certainly excited to have and be a memorable piece to our city that Mississippi State will leave behind," Ramsey said. 


Once the invitation was extended, MSU officials and the Music City bowl committee negotiated a policy that will follow the artificial noisemaker rule the Southeastern Conference adopted last year and renewed for the 2011 season. Under that policy, fans will allowed to ring the cowbell during pregame, halftime, between quarters, timeouts, after scoring plays, and during possession changes. 


Stricklin used his Twitter account, @stricklinmsu, to remind fans what is the proper procedure with the symbol. 


"We want to be respectful of the ACC opponent, and we want our fans to cooperate with that and ring only at certain times," Stricklin said. 


MSU fans have been allowed to bring a cowbell into a bowl game stadium in each of their 15 postseason appearances. 


Stricklin, a 1992 graduate of MSU, said Monday he hadn't heard official word from SEC officials about MSU fans' compliance with the rule this season. Last season, the school was fined $30,000 for violations in the first two home games. 


"We want our cowbells to be celebrated, but we don't want them to be seen as offensive or overbearing," Stricklin said. "Following the SEC guidelines at the Music City Bowl's request is very fair, and I know they'll comply just like they have the past two years." 




All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.



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