December 7, 2010 9:49:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State football team''s spot in the 2011 Gator Bowl is viewed as a major success for a university that hasn''t played in a New Year''s Day bowl game since 1999.
Though the Bulldogs seemed an obvious choice once the Gator Bowl''s selection committee visited the school, the lack of selection protection for teams with higher records than other eligible teams in the Southeastern Conference left open the possibility of a team with fewer wins slipping past MSU.
The Bulldogs (8-4) had been touted for a spot in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but the Outback Bowl''s decision to select seven-win Florida shook up the picks of the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Gator Bowl -- the former having the first bite between South Carolina, MSU, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia.
There was a possibility MSU could have slipped to the Music City Bowl, where Tennessee was selected to face North Carolina.
When the Chick-fil-A Bowl selected South Carolina, the Gator Bowl committee''s decision was simple, Gator Bowl President/CEO Rick Catlett said Monday in a press conference at MSU.
How the Gator Bowl committee reached its decision took months of scouting and economic planning toward the end of the season.
Catlett got a feel for each SEC and Big Ten school by visiting each institution''s athletics director in the spring.
The fact that MSU was ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the final eight weeks of the season and it''s reputation for traveling well to bowl games worked in its favor. Additional campaigning from MSU Athletics Director Scott Stricklin, whom Catlett said worked very hard to convince the Gator Bowl board to pick MSU, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive was pivotal in the days leading to Selection Sunday.
How much influence Slive had in that decision, which Catlett said took an estimated 20 minutes, came to light in a Florida Times-Union report that suggested Slive had an active role in MSU landing in Jacksonville for a New Year''s Day Bowl.
"We had a very pointed and transparent conversation with the commissioner (last week) and he gave us his perspective that Mississippi State was deserving of a New Year''s Day bowl," Gator Bowl Committee Chairman Stephen Tremel told the Times-Union. "So do we. When we informed him of our decision (Sunday), he let us know that of the three bowl games he could have attended New Year''s Day (the Outback, Capital One and Gator Bowls) he would come to Jacksonville and be at our game from start to finish."
On Monday, Catlett addressed the report and said Slive''s work was "educating" not only the Gator Bowl, but the Chick-fil-A and Outback Bowl on the benefits of the eligible SEC teams rather than directly influencing the selection staff''s decision.
"While he''s not going to tell you who oughta play where, he''s kind of gonna walk you through the seasons they had and ratings so we have the information to make the decisions," Catlett said of Slive. "It was portrayed in one publication that maybe he twisted our arm a little bit, but I can promise you there was no twisting of any arm. It was more of an educational process between the three bowls."
Catlett re-iterated the Gator Bowl''s excitement about the MSU-Michigan matchup, citing MSU''s strong fan base and Michigan''s national following. Catlett received his first cowbell at MSU''s 17-14 loss to Auburn at Davis Wade Stadium. He was overwhelmed by the crowd and MSU''s play against Cam Newton, who was named Monday one of four finalists for the Heisman Trophy, which is given to college football''s top player.
"Texas A&M likes to talk about the 12th man, but clearly, that crowd that night had a difference," Catlett said. "It''s the only time this year I''ve seen Cam Newton get ruffled. That''s a very important piece of it."
White, Sherrod make first-team All-SEC
MSU linebacker Chris White and left tackle Derek Sherrod have earned all-league honors from the Associated Press.
Both players were voted to the AP First Team and were the only Bulldogs selected to the first and second teams. First-year MSU running back Vick Ballard made honorable mention. Senior linebacker K.J. Wright was a surprising omission following a stellar season.
White''s All-SEC selection comes a week after he earned the Cellular South Conerly Trophy as the best collegiate player in the state of Mississippi.
White and Sherrod are All-America candidates.
Hopes of securing a ticket for the 2011 Gator Bowl ended Monday when the Gator Bowl announced the 77,000-seat EverBank Field was close to booked.
As of 9 a.m. Monday, Catlett said roughly 400 tickets remained for the game, and he expected the bowl committee to announce a sellout later in the day.
MSU has a total allotment of 16,500 tickets, with 1,000 being reserved for students in a lottery to be held at 6:30 tonight at Humphrey Coliseum.
The Gator Bowl will allow MSU fans to bring and ring cowbells on New Year''s Day.
Catlett started Monday''s press conference by saying MSU fans would be able to ring cowbells whenever they wanted during the game. Later, Catlett recanted on that statement by saying, "We would prefer them to do it the way they learned to do it this year and not do it during plays. But we are gonna allow them to bring their cowbells."
The Gator Bowl has no plans to enforce cowbell usage.
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