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Despite projections, MSU remained confident it would go to Gator Bowl


Matthew Stevens



STARKVILLE --¬†Mississippi State Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin wasn't fazed by the projections, speculation, or rumors that had the school's football team going somewhere other than Jacksonville, Fla. 


Despite all of the projections that MSU wouldn't go to the Sunshine State for the second time in three years, Stricklin was certain he and the Bulldogs would spend their New Year's Day in Jacksonville at the 2013 Gator Bowl. 


"I've been comfortable for probably more than a week," Stricklin said Sunday in phone interview with The Dispatch. "Publicly I just wasn't saying anything." 


Following MSU's 41-24 loss to the University of Mississippi on Nov. 24, many news organization, including CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated, changed their bowl projections and dropped MSU (8-4) from the Gator Bowl to the Music City Bowl or the BBVA Compass Bowl. Stricklin said bowl committee sources told him to ignore the prognostications. 


"One of the things that any bowl game looks at is creating economic impact for our city," Gator Bowl Chairman Stephen Tremel said in 2010. "What that really boils down to is (if) the fans of that team will travel." 


While many wondered where MSU would wind up, school officials reviewed schedules and procedure packets from the Gator Bowl committee in the likelihood the Bulldogs would be selected. The anticipation became a reality Sunday evening when MSU accepted an invitation to play Northwestern University in the 2013 Gator Bowl at EverBank Field on New Year's Day. 


Brock Dulaney, MSU's coordinator of video and computing services, confirmed before the Egg Bowl in Oxford that MSU had swapped film with Northwestern in anticipation of a Gator Bowl matchup. 


"If you did know to start watching each other's film, you knew more than I did and you knew more than the directors knew because everything changed last night," Gator Bowl President Rick Catlett said Sunday to the head coaches on the media teleconference. "With Northern Illinois getting into the top 16 and qualifying for a BCS bowl game, everything changed." 


MSU coach Dan Mullen and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald confirmed during the Gator Bowl media teleconference they have swapped film. 


"I know our young graduate assistants in the office have been grinding away at that to try and get it broken down," Mullen said. "A lot of that isn't just getting ready to play them, but the respect we have for their team and how they are as coaches on both sides of the ball." 


After Northern Illinois University qualified for a Bowl Championship Series bowl game, which turned out to be a spot against Florida State University in the Discover Orange Bowl, and the University of Wisconsin (7-5) won the Big Ten Championship to ensure a Rose Bowl berth, speculation increased about how the other bowls would be reshuffled. 


"People kept asking me if we were headed to the Gator Bowl, and I'd always say, 'I'd be really surprised if we don't end up in Jacksonville,' " Stricklin said. "Everybody kept projecting other things, and I would touch base with the people I was close to and they would say, 'Nah, you're still set.' I never heard any different from anybody from the Gator Bowl or the Southeastern Conference office." 


Since the University of Alabama and University of Florida were guaranteed to be the SEC's representatives in the BCS, the only reshuffling that could've occurred would have involved Texas A&M University and LSU. When the AT&T Cotton Bowl selected Texas A&M, that left LSU to fall to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. 


The speculation regarding the Gator Bowl may have involved a matchup against Wisconsin, a projected opponent for MSU in Jacksonville. But Wisconsin secured a berth in the Rose Bowl on Saturday with its victory against the University of Nebraska, which left the Gator Bowl committee to pick Northwestern. 


"Not on the SEC side of things," Stricklin said when asked if the upsets in the title game made him concerned about a return trip to the Music City Bowl. "As long as we had two teams in the BCS, nothing going on there would affect us." 


MSU and Vanderbilt University were believed to be the SEC teams Gator Bowl officials considered. But bowl officials likely wanted to avoid a rematch from the regular season when Northwestern defeated Vanderbilt 23-13 on Sept. 8 in Evanston, Ill. The Outback Bowl selected the University of Michigan over Northwestern despite the fact the Wolverines finished the regular season 8-4. 


University of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said during the Outback Bowl teleconference he was pleased to get a chance to face an opponent with more football tradition. 


"If you beat Northwestern or you get beat by Northwestern, you don't achieve as much as you do against Michigan," Spurrier said. 


Fitzgerald, who tried to end all debate about how well fans of his program would travel, said in the Gator Bowl teleconference that Northwestern has 18,000 alumni in the state of Florida. Fitzgerald, a former Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year with the Wildcats, said he was satisfied his team was set to play in its fourth New Year's Day bowl game in the past five years.



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