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Not many are giving Rice a shot in this game, and that's what usually happens when you pit the C-USA and SEC against each other. Despite barely making a bowl game, Mississippi State comes in as -7 point favorites at betonline in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
It's hard to get a read on the Bulldogs because while they are 6-6, all of their losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 20. Then again, their wins aren't all that great either. They had to close the season with two overtime wins to make a bowl game, beating Arkansas and Ole Miss. Earlier in the year, they mustered wins over Bowling Green and Kentucky by less than a touchdown.
Rice is coming off its first outright conference title since 1957 and will be playing to win here. The Owls came up big in the C-USA title game, beating Marshall 41-24. At 10-3, all of their losses came against bowl schools. In their first game of the season, the Owls lost at Texas A&M 52-31. The Bulldogs lost to the Aggies 51-41.
The Owls will come out and run the ball as much as possible, the same strategy they've used all season. Running back Charles Ross has been a stud reaching 100 yards in seven of his 11 games this year to go with 14 touchdowns. He's joined by QB Taylor McHargue, who has 466 rushing yards and five rushing TDs to his name. McHargue isn't a huge threat in the passing game, but the good news is that he hasn't thrown an interception in seven of his last eight games. To win this one, they can't turn it over. McHargue will look to his favorite target Jordan Taylor (846 yards, eight TDs) often if Rice gets down early.
The Bulldogs don't have as great of running game, but they run a similar offense led by Dak Prescott, who should be healthy for this game after missing time at the end of the season. Prescott leads the team in rushing with 751 yards and 11 TDs and is the main problem for Rice's defense. Prescott has thrown well in a couple games this year, but he has just seven passing TDs and seven INTs on the year. Outside of Prescott, carries will be split between LaDarius Perkins and Josh Robinson, as both ran for at least 400 yards, although only a combined five touchdowns.
Both of these defenses have shown their muscle throughout the year, but at times have also fallen apart. The Bulldogs have been strong, holding opponents to 17 points or less in three straight games. The Owls are coming off a game in which they held Marshall and Rakeem Cato, one of the highest scoring offenses in the nation, to just 24 points.
The fact that Mississippi State doesn't really have the mold of a team that blows opponents out, gives a slight edge to Rice. While they are a C-USA team, they should not be taken lightly.
The Owls are 7-1 ATS in their last eight non-conference games. The Bulldogs have covered in four straight and are 1-4 ATS in their last five neutral site games.
This game has the distinction of being the game with the largest difference in schedule strength between two bowl teams. Now, the 2nd largest gap was the game between Maryland and Marshall. Maryland had the much stronger schedule, but it didn't make a bit of a difference in that one as they lost the game straight up. But here, that schedule strength difference is about 3 TD's!
The SEC is 26-1 against Conference USA from 2010 until now with an average score of 41-14. Miss St won 5 of those games and by that same average score although Miss State has also lost 6 games to Conference USA teams and that's only going back to 2003 having lost to Houston, Tulane and UAB. They won the 2007 Liberty Bow against UCF, 10-6.
My concern with Miss State here would be their offense. They have a yards per point number in road games of almost 21 which is horrendous and the worst of all bowl teams. You simply don't want to be laying a TD or more with a team that can't move the ball consistently. You can't compare the schedule of these two. They are night and day. But in Rice did play well in losing to Houston by 5 and knocked off another successful bowl team in Marshall and they also have to be absolutely thrilled, and pumped to be playing in this game. They have nothing to lose while Miss State simply can't be thrilled about this spot and they have the pressure of holding up the SEC's reputation against a nobody conference.
It's just an opinion, but taking a TD with Rice might work here. Rice +7
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