Mississippi St.-Wake Forest Preview

Mississippi State and Wake Forest were bowl eligible by the
narrowest of margins, but both programs usually are at their best
once reaching postseason play.

Only one can emerge victorious Friday, when the Bulldogs and the
Demon Deacons put their stellar postseason track records on the
line in the Music City Bowl at Nashville, Tenn.

Wake Forest (6-6) had a fast start to the season, improving to
4-1 after a 35-30 win over then-No. 23 Florida State. The Deacons’
fortunes went south from there, though, dropping five of their
final six. They did nearly win at eventual ACC champion Clemson on
Nov. 12, losing 31-28 on a last-second field goal, but the regular
season concluded with their most humbling defeat – 41-7 at home to
SEC also-ran Vanderbilt.

Still, Wake gained bowl eligibility Nov. 19 by beating Maryland
31-10, and landed a bid to Nashville for its first postseason
appearance in three years.

“I thought that we played hard all year,” coach Jim Grobe said.
“We got good effort out of our guys, and we were leaking a little
bit of oil at the end of the season – we’d played so many good
teams in a row.

“… We didn’t bring much into the Vanderbilt game, but I
thought throughout the season, we got as much out of these guys as
we could.”

Grobe certainly got plenty out of sophomore quarterback Tanner
Price, who blossomed after an inconsistent freshman campaign. Price
completed 60.9 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and six
interceptions – none in the season’s last four games. His favorite
target was Chris Givens, a junior wideout who hauled in 74
receptions for 1,276 yards and nine scores.

“Tanner had only two or three games that I can think of where he
didn’t play his best football, and unfortunately, the times that he
didn’t play his best, most of the other guys didn’t play their
best,” Grobe said. “But that’s kind of how it goes when you have a
team that throws the ball as much as we do. You kind of hang it on
the quarterback, and the good news is that he played well in a lot
of games this year.

“He’s a young guy that’s going to get better and better, and
hopefully we get his best game in the Music City Bowl.”

The Demon Deacons frequently bring their best effort to the
postseason. They’re seeking their third consecutive bowl game
victory and sixth in seven postseason appearances since 1992. Their
most recent was a 29-19 win over Navy in the 2008 EagleBank
Bowl.

Continuing that bowl success may not be easy against Mississippi
State (6-6). The Bulldogs are going for their fifth straight bowl
victory, occurring over a 13-season span. They routed Michigan
52-14 in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day following last
season.

While this year’s Bulldogs didn’t approach the success of the
team that finished 9-4 in 2010, they did salvage a second straight
year of bowl eligibility after beating archrival Mississippi 31-3
on Nov. 26 to win their third consecutive Egg Bowl.

“I’m really proud of our guys – the way they battled; the way
they fought,” coach Dan Mullen said.

“They know how important it is for us and how important it is
for our fans – the people of the state of Mississippi.”

This marks the first consecutive bowl appearances for the
Bulldogs since they defeated Clemson in the 1999 Peach Bowl and
Texas A&M in the 2000 Independence Bowl.

Mississippi State’s biggest threat on offense is senior running
back Vick Ballard, who ran for 1,009 yards this season and has
scored 29 total touchdowns over the past two years. Ballard enjoyed
one of his finest performances in the Egg Bowl, running 23 times
for 144 yards and a score and also catching a TD pass from
quarterback Chris Relf.

The Bulldogs’ defense is anchored by lineman Fletcher Cox, a
junior who finished with 12 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks in
eight SEC games.

Mississippi State likes to start fast, having outscored the
opposition by a combined 70-9 in its last three victories.

This is the first meeting between the schools.