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Bulldogs set sights on Gator Bowl


David Miller



STARKVILLE -- For the first time since 1999, the Mississippi State Bulldogs will play in a New Year''s Day bowl game.  


Sunday, the No. 21 Bulldogs learned they''d spend the first day of 2011 playing the Michigan Wolverines in the Gator Bowl.  


The game will kick off at 12:30 p.m. and will be nationally-televised by ESPN2. 


Mississippi State returns to bowl play for the first time since 2007 when it beat Central Florida 10-3 in the Liberty Bowl. The Bulldogs will play in their 14th bowl game overall.  


MSU head coach Dan Mullen was thrilled to land in the Gator Bowl, where they''ll play the winningest program in college football history with 884.  


The Wolverines (7-5) finished seventh in the Big Ten this season and will return to bowl play for the first time since beating Florida in the 2008 Capital One Bowl.  


"I think we'' re one of only three ranked teams to be playing in that time slot on television during that time of the day," Mullen said Sunday. "To get a premier matchup of a nationally ranked team and college football''s all-time winningest team is a special, special football game. Obviously the premier game early on in New Year''s day, I feel." 


Sunday''s news capped a busy day of campaigning on social network site Twitter from MSU fans and athletics director Scott Stricklin, the latter of which noted MSU''s resurgence since Mullen took over last season. 


News of the Outback Bowl selecting seven-win team Florida shook up the bowl selection pecking order for games with SEC tie-ins, as bowl projections favored MSU to play the loser of the ACC title game in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Fans used the tag "MSU4ATL" in their tweets, hoping for a shorter trip to Atlanta to play Florida State, who''ll face SEC East champion South Carolina. 


Stricklin reiterated MSU''s excitement of playing in a New Year''s Day bowl as one of 10 bowl-eligible teams from the SEC.  


"It doesn''t matter where we go -- we were gonna end up in a great bowl," Stricklin said. "We''re just happy it''s with the Gator Bowl and in Jacksonville. When you live in the south and you''re a part of the Southeastern Conference, a New Year''s Day bowl game is a pretty cool deal." 


Bulldogs fans were allotted 15,000 tickets for the Gator Bowl and had orders for 16,000 by Sunday night. That show of support, along with MSU''s success of selling-out 10 straight games and riding a national ranking for seven consecutive weeks made it an easy choice for Gator Bowl officials, Gator Bowl chairman Stephen Tremel said.  


"What it really boils down to is knowing the fans of that particular team will come and travel, stay in our hotels in eat in our restaurants," Tremel said of the selection process. "Talking to Scott his weekend and understanding how many tickets they''ve already sold with the anticipation of coming to this game really made our decision easy." 


As for cowbells inside EverBank Field? 


"As far as I know the answer is yes," Tremel said. "We''re looking for more cowbells." 


Stricklin said Gator Bowl officials got a taste of the excitement of MSU athletics in February while attending the men''s basketball team''s win over Alabama. Former MSU center Jarvis Varnado broke the NCAA career record for blocked shots. 


MSU''s football season picked up where it left off in 2009, earning notable wins against Georgia and Florida but gaining just as much respect as a top-notch team with close losses to Auburn and Arkansas.  


And for the second straight season, MSU set an annual attendance record. 


"They were well aware and paid close attention to the support we''d gotten all year," Stricklin said. "I think you could turn on ESPN and watch one of our home games this year and see the energy and atmosphere and how much the fans had bought into what Dan and the players were doing." 


Mullen''s impact on the program has seen his name circulate in at least two searches to fill head coach vacancies, the most reported coming from five-time national champion Miami (Fla.).  


Mullen, along with former NFL head coach and current Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden, had been named a candidate according to reports from south Florida news outlets. When Gruden opted to stay in the broadcast booth after having brief talks with Miami, Mullen became the frontrunner.  


But as of Sunday, Mullen said he hadn''t met with officials from any other school nor did he plan on entertaining offers. Instead, he expressed his desire to remain at Mississippi State and hammer-out a new contract extension. As a formality, Mullen signed a contract extension in February which pushed his deal to four years, the maximum allowed under state law. Mullen is expected to sign an improved deal soon, which should see his annual salary rise from the estimated $1.2 million he currently makes.  


"Right now we''re working on what we hope can be a deal that will suit everybody and get our program going in the right direction -- the direction it''s going right now for us -- in the long term," Mullen said. "There''s a lot of great things that I think we can get done here at Mississippi State that I want to accomplish here at Mississippi State. And I plan on being the head coach here for a long time." 


MSU''s matchup with Michigan is its first-ever. 


The Wolverines employ a version of the spread offense in which Mullen is very familiar. He noted spending offseasons picking Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez''s brain when he he coached the duo of Pat White and Steve Slaton at West Virginia.  


"(Rodriguez) is an innovator in college football in some of the things in the spread offense he''s done," Mullen said. "Been studying him for years." 


While Mullen is in line for a raise, Rodriguez has drawn criticism for two lackluster seasons in his three years in Ann Arbor. His offense finally caught traction this season through quarterback Denard Robinson, who is the first NCAA player to pass for over 2,000 yards and run for 1,500. Michigan''s defense, however, has been a crutch. The Wolverines rank 102nd nationally in points against and have given up 24 points or more in seven of 12 games.  


Still, Robinson, a Heisman Trophy candidate, set the single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,643.  


While serving as an assistant coach at Florida, Mullen recruited Robinson out of Deerfield Beach, Fla. He calls Robinson "the most dynamic player" MSU will have faced this season. 


"Got to see him play live and in person in high school," Mullen said of Robinson. "Had him at camp in high school. So I knew he was fast and explosive. He certainly hasn''t taken a step backward." 


MSU will hold a news conference today and will return to practice on Friday. Mullen said the team will open some of its practices open to the public. 


"I think the bowl game also gives you an opportunity for these guys to develop further," Mullen said. "They''ve been through the season and know how to prepare for games. Now we have the opportunity to go out and get some practices and really clean up our fundamentals again and play our best football of the year on January first." 


Mississippi State lost to Texas 38-11 in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1999, in Dallas. Ricky Williams rushed for 203 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Longhorns.



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