Rice-Mississippi St. Preview
After winning its first outright conference title in 56 years, Rice will try for an unprecedented feat in what could prove to be an unfriendly Liberty Bowl.
The Owls will seek a school-best 11th win when they face a Mississippi State team that will likely have a sizable and noisy crowd on its side on New Year's Eve in Memphis.
Rice (10-3) heads into its first Liberty Bowl having won nine of 10 after capturing the Conference USA title with a 41-24 victory over Marshall on Dec. 7. The Owls have earned 10 victories twice in their history, with one of those seasons taking place under current coach David Bailiff in 2008.
"To have an opportunity to go win an 11th ballgame for the first time in the history of the school and to win a Liberty Bowl championship, that's everything that was on the goals they set," Bailiff said. "All our goals are still intact. It's been an amazing run for us."
Rice, though, could face a significant disadvantage as it tries for that history-making victory. That's because Mississippi State will be playing around 165 miles away from its campus, with their fans bringing their innumerable cowbells - noisemakers that drew a $25,000 fine from the SEC earlier this month but are allowed in Memphis.
The Bulldogs brought in virtually all of a record crowd of 63,816 in their most recent appearance in the Liberty Bowl, a 10-3 win over Central Florida on in 2007.
"I think we have a good plan for the cowbells," Bailiff said. "We've got the CDs of the cowbells going off (at practice). We're looking forward to it."
Mississippi State barely made it to any bowl after losing six of its first 10 games, but the Bulldogs (6-6) won their final two, including a 17-10 overtime victory over rival Mississippi on Nov. 28. Their reward was a school-record fourth consecutive postseason appearance.
"Our seniors have done something no one here has ever done, and that's play in four straight bowls. That's special," coach Dan Mullen said.
An improving defense aided Mississippi State down the stretch. The Bulldogs allowed an average of 15.7 points in their final three games after giving up 37.2 per contest in their previous five.
They held Sugar Bowl-bound and formerly top-ranked Alabama to its lowest point total of the season in a 20-7 loss Nov. 16. They also forced a combined 14 turnovers in their last four games after registering 10 in their first eight.
Mississippi State had a program-best five-game bowl win streak snapped with a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.
Avoiding a second bowl defeat in the calendar year could be difficult if it can't slow Rice's rushing attack. The Owls rank 16th nationally with 240.2 yards per game on the ground. With 1,252 yards, senior Charles Ross is the program's first player to top 1,000 in seven seasons and is its most prolific rusher since Trevor Cobb had 1,386 in 1992.
Mississippi State ranked 46th nationally in rushing defense (151.1 ypg allowed).
The Bulldogs' leading rusher is sophomore quarterback Dak Prescott. He was 11th in the SEC with 751 yards and finished just ahead of former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel for second among the conference's quarterbacks.
By contrast, he was eighth in passing yards per game among qualifying players with 165.7, and he was dealing with a nerve injury in his non-throwing arm late in the season. Prescott was forced to sit out two games before returning for the win over Ole Miss.
If for some reason Prescott can't go, freshman Damian Williams is likely the team's only other option. Tyler Russell's career is over for the Bulldogs after he needed surgery to fix a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Mississippi State won 28-14 in its only other meeting with Rice on Oct. 11, 1975, in Houston, but later forfeited that victory because of NCAA violations.
Rice is making its first back-to-back postseason appearances since 1960-61 after beating Air Force 33-14 in last year's Armed Forces Bowl.
Mississippi State is 2-1 in its three trips to Liberty Bowls, the first of which took place in the game's original home of Philadelphia in 1963. The lone loss came against Air Force in 1991.