December 30, 2013 7:11:26 PM
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Even with two more wins leading into the 2013 Gator Bowl last New Year's Day, Mississippi State's football team wasn't in as good a mood as they are now. The Bulldogs were skidding into the final month of the 2012 season with four losses in its last five games. The Bulldogs attitude and lack of momentum translated into a 34-20 loss to Northwestern signifying the first postseason game loss for MSU coach Dan Mullen since 2007 Capital One Bowl as a assistant at Florida.
The Bulldogs (6-6) have arrived in Memphis for its fourth straight bowl game with the complete opposite momentum after back-to-back overtime wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss. MSU continues to ride those overwhelmingly good vibes as they started practices back up two weeks ago. The MSU coaches have said all week in media conference they can see a difference in the attitude concerning its matchup in the 2013 AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Conference USA champion Rice (3 p.m., ESPN).
"Our guys understand the change in mindset you have to have in bowl games because there's two objectives: one is to win a football game and the other is to have as much fun as possible," Mullen said. "It certainly helps finishing off the season with wins the way we did."
Coaches always use the cliche that the 15 extra practices in preparation for the bowl game help set up the success for the following season but Mullen has been touting that the result of today's game against Rice (10-3) could jumpstart a 2014 campaign as well.
"Our guys know how important this is, to go win this game," Mullen said in his media conference Monday. "We don't play again now until Aug. 30. You have eight full months until we get to play again. ... you want to have that positive feeling going into the offseason."
Last season questions were plentiful about the quarterback position before and after the game especially after Tyler Russell threw four interceptions in the loss against Northwestern.
When the game kicks off today, there's no question Prescott is the quarterback of the MSU offense and in the eyes of Rice head coach David Bailiff, he is the emotional leader of the entire team.
"I was watching the Egg Bowl game as a football fan on Thanksgiving and you could see but specifically hear that stadium completely change the minute that young man stepped off the sideline," Bailiff said. "Dak Prescott is somebody that we have to be aware of on every snap of this football game. That's just obvious and our kids realize who he can change a game."
Prescott engineered a fourth quarter comeback for the ages in the 17-10 overtime victory over Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5 in Southeastern Conference) that culminated with a dramatic three-yard plunge on his classic draw play on fourth down.
Mullen said Prescott is completely healthy after suffering a nerve injury to this throwing arm in the final month of the season but has been full active in practices at Rhodes College in Memphis.
"At this time of year, when you've been playing for five straight months now, he's as 100 percent as you're going to get," Mullen said.
If Mullen is able to get the win today, he'll match the school record for bowl victories with three and match the first time for four straight winning seasons at MSU for the first time since 1997-2000 when Jackie Sherrill led them to 30 wins in that stretch. Sherrill has been seen at some of the bowl events including the Gala dinner Sunday evening where he gave a speech to both programs in the ballroom.
MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin said he and the rest of the MSU administration are more than satisfied with the progression of the football program when you look at the injury concerns and youthful roster throughout the season.
"Dan and I sit down after the February signing period but we are in constant communication over where the program is going and what is happening on a week by week basis," Stricklin said. "I don't think you can look at our season and see just 6-6. I understand two straight wins can make it easier to say this but there's no question we have the leadership going forward to give us the best opportunity to have a special season in 2014."
Bailiff said after reviewing the film of each of MSU's 13 regular season games, he would go one step further in evaluating the work leading into MSU's six wins. All of Mississippi State's losses came against teams currently in the Top 25: No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Auburn, No. 14 LSU, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 3 Alabama.
"I think you could have a serious case that Dan Mullen might have executed the best coaching job in all of college football this season," Bailiff said. "When you look at how many of their losses was a play here or there, the injuries and the circumstances surrounding their football team, they survived it all."
Rice beat Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA championship game last month for their first outright league title of any sort since winning the Southwest Conference crown in 1957. Rice has a chance to win bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever. A victory for the Owls would mean the first 11-win season in the history of the program and signal that the rebuilding job of Bailiff and his staff was concluded with 19 fifth-year players with a victory over a SEC program.
"We understand that with Mississippi State's size and length at pretty much every spot on the field that we're going to have to play our best football to have a chance at winning," Bailiff said.
After a 14-10 loss to Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last year dropped the Owls' record to 1-5, cornerback Phillip Gaines gave an emotional speech. Rice has won 16 of 20 games since.
"Something had to be said," Gaines said. "We had to realize that we can't keep doing the same stuff every week and expect a different result. I just challenged everybody to kind of man up and take responsibility of our team. That's what we did."
Mullen said he expects today's game to be a home field advantage for the Bulldogs as MSU easily sold out its ticket allotment in the first two weeks after the bowl announcement. When MSU last played in this game in 2007, a Liberty Bowl record crowd of 63,816 watched the Bulldogs defeat Central Florida 10-3.
"I expect it to feel like it's Starkville on Saturday night," Mississippi State safety Kendrick Market said.
With Memphis being just a three-hour drive from Mississippi State's Starkville campus, Rice's coaching staff is expecting to hear cowbells from a majority of fans after pumping in the volume of that sound from a phone application. Cowbells will be allowed into the Liberty Bowl stadium as fans are asked to ring in compliance with the Southeastern Conference legislation.
"Our fans have always come through for us before and we expect a lot of traffic coming across the state line to this game and celebrating the new year with a victory," Mullen said. "Football teams have a shelf life of one season so it's certainly the last time they'll get to see this particular MSU team."
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