Gator Bowl Primer: Northwestern vs. Mississippi State

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Northwestern (9-3 overall, 5-3 Big Ten)

Northwestern is coming off one of the most successful seasons in years, falling a few games short of Big Ten title contention but still in a position to record the program's first 10-win season since 1995. Of course, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. are also trying to capture that elusive bowl win -- Northwestern has not won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, but that factoid is likely not new information for most. Northwestern's offense, led by running back Venric Mark and a quarterback rotation of Kain Kolter and Trevor Siemeian, ranked No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring (31.5) and No. 4 in rushing offense, averaging over 230 yards per game. The Wildcats saw a big boost on the defensive side of the ball from 2011 to 2012, with a Top 25 defense that allowed just 122.8 yards per game on the ground. The unit's strength is arguably in the defensive line, led by junior Tyler Scott and senior Quinetin Williams.

At their best: After a disappointing one-point loss to Nebraska and an overtime defeat at Michigan, Northwestern finally broke through in a close game and won 23-20 against Michigan State on a goal line stand. The Big Ten's leading rusher, Le'Von Bell was held from the end zone the entire game and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly fell on a fumbled snap at the goal line to seal the win.

At their worst: The aforementioned losses to Michigan and Nebraska. Both games were winnable for Northwestern, and a few different bounces could have put Northwestern in contention for the Big Ten title.

Headliner: Venric Mark was previously a special teams threat for Northwestern, but in 2012 he made the move to first-string running back. The result was 1,310 all-purpose rushing yards and Northwestern's first 1,000 yard rusher since 2006.

Mississippi State (8-4 overall, 4-4 SEC)

While Northwestern is trying to record their first bowl win in 60+ years, Mississippi State is prepared to extend the nation's longest bowl win streak to six. The Tyler Russell-led Mississippi State passing attack has broken MSU single season records for passing yards, completion percentage, and touchdowns. Chad Bumphis has also been a part of this, seeing the most productive year of his prolific career in Starkville. Defensively they are led by LB Cameron Lawrence. Lawrence recorded double digit tackles in each of the last 5 weeks and ranks 3rd in the SEC with 111 tackles. He is nine tackles away from becoming the first MSU player since 1989 to have to back-to-back seasons with 120-plus tackles.

At their best: Mississippi state absolutely annihilated a very talented Middle Tennessee State at the peak of their 7-0 start, holding the Blue Raiders from the end zone and totaling 446 yards in a 45-3 win.

At their worst: The pit of the Bulldogs' slide ended in a 41-24 loss to Mississippi in the Egg Bowl. Mississippi State enters the bowl game having lost four of their final five games after starting the season 7-0.

Headliner: All-American cornerback Jonathan Banks was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner in December, becoming the first player in Mississippi State history to carry that honor.

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What: Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl

When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN

Weird: Mississippi State and Northwestern have a combined 247 years of football history, but the Gator Bowl will be the first time they have ever met. It is one of three meetings between the SEC and Big Ten on New Years' Day.

Line: Northwestern -1

Prediction: Northwestern had the advantage of keeping most Big Ten teams off guard during the regular season as they began to toy with the different combinations of Kain Coulter and Trevor Siemian, but Geoff Collins, Chris Wilson and the rest of the Bulldogs' defensive staff should be prepared for the Wildcats' multiple looks. But I think this game will be won or lost when Mississippi State has the ball, and the matchup of the Wildcats' pass rush against Russell/Prescott could end up deciding what I expect to be a close game down the stretch.

Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27

For all of the dates, times, ticket and viewing info for all 35 games; check out the Bowl Schedule page

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CBS Sports Writer

Chip Patterson has spent his young career covering college sports from the Old North State. He's been writing and talking about football and basketball for CBS Sports since 2010. You may have heard him... Full Bio

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