Gator Bowl Pick
Northwestern will square off against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl on New Years Day, at Everbank Field in Jacksonville Fla. Mississippi State is currently a -1.5 favorite at 5 Dimes Sportsbook with a total of 52. Northwestern has flown under the radar all year, posting an 11-1 spread record while Miss State was .500 against the number at 6-6.
Mississippi State finished with an 8-4 overall record, yet not many people are impressed with them. For one, they don't have any really good wins. Their best win in the SEC is a toss up between Tennessee and Arkansas. Neither of those teams was very good. In fact, the Bulldogs did not beat anyone who's in a bowl game. After starting 7-0, hopes were high until the competition started to pick up. They got thoroughly beaten by Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in three straight weeks while their fourth loss was in their last game of the season at Ole Miss.
Playing in the Big 10, the Wildcats never got much respect mainly because it's what many are calling a down season for the conference. Unlike the Bulldogs, Northwestern actually had four wins against schools in bowl games (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Minnesota and Michigan State). That says a lot in itself, but what's depressing about their season is that they were very close to being undefeated. They led in all three of their losses late in the game: 12 point lead with six minutes remaining against Nebraska, 11 point lead with 10 minutes left against Penn State and in what ended up being an OT loss, they led by three points until Michigan hit a game-tying FG as time expired. That's how tough they've been to beat.
Northwestern's offense isn't amazing and their defense isn't outstanding, but they do enough on each side of the ball. Kain Colter is the starting quarterback, but if needed, he will get spelled for Trevor Siemian who is a better passer. While Siemian has 400 more passing yards than Colter, Colter actually has eight passing TDs to just six for Siemian. Colter may not excel through the air, but he can run just fine as seen with his 820 rushing yards and 12 TDs. Joining him in the backfield is running back Venric Mark who has exploded onto the scene this year with 1,310 yards and 11 TDs. Including kickoff and punt returns, Mark is nine in the nation in all-purpose yardage.
Mississippi State has had trouble stopping any kind of viable attack this year which means their offense will need to pick up the slack. Quarterback Tyler Russell sprained his ankle in their game back on Nov. 24, but he should be fine for the Gator Bowl. His numbers are very impressive when you look at them from the surface with 2,791 yards, 22 TDs and only six interceptions. Digging deeper, Russell only managed three touchdowns while throwing five interceptions in their four losses. Obviously, that can't happen in this game if they want to win. Running back LaDarius Perkins will also have to have a similar game from what we saw from him earlier in the season. He hasn't had 100 yards or a touchdown since they were undefeated.
One thing the Bulldogs have going for them is that they have won five straight bowl games. On the other end of the field, the Wildcats are currently on a 63-year postseason drought and are hoping to end that this year.
This could be the most evenly matched game of all the bowls. Their yards per point numbers are nearly identical, their schedule strength is identical, and even our model's score predictions come up with a tie when predicting this game, when using season to date or last 7 games worth of data. The one edge our model does show, is towards Northwestern, when using data only from the last 5 games. With those parameters, it shows Northwestern on top, 31-24.
It's hard to hang your hat on the models prediction using the last 5 games. Yes, Miss State dropped 4 of their last 5 games but in that stretch they faced Alabama, Texas AM and LSU, all right in a row. That's enough to take it's toll on any team. But just the same, we're going to side with Northwestern here. They performed better, when they stepped up in class all year long and as mentioned earlier, could very well have ended up undefeated this year. Northwestern appears to be the more balanced team and could very well be the more hungry team. Northwestern +2