Music City Bowl preview: Mississippi State vs. Wake Forest

The Sports Xchange
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Music City Bowl

Date: Dec. 30

TV: 6:40 p.m. ET, ESPN

LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.

Surface: Grass

OVERVIEW

Wake Forest and Mississippi State are taking the same approach to the Music City Bowl.

A victory at LP Field in Nashville means a winning record and paints a silver lining on what has been a somewhat disappointing season. Lose and you have nine months to think about finishing with a losing 6-7 record.

Wake Forest nose-dived down the stretch. The Demon Deacons, playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2008, are thrilled with the destination after losing four of their final five regular-season games.

"It's a good thing we have that next game," senior linebacker Kyle Wilber said after the regular-season finale, a blowout loss to Vanderbilt. "After this, I wouldn't be surprised if anybody would want us."

But the Demon Deacons, with five Atlantic Coast Conference victories, couldn't be bucked out of the bowl pecking order by North .arolina (which played in the Music City Bowl last year).

Wake Forest will have one more chance to get it right and finish with a winning record for the first time since 2008.

"We're going to get refreshed physically and mentally," quarterback Tanner Price said.

The offense will need to re-establish the type of efficiency that allowed it to upend North Carolina State and Florida State. For the most part, the offense set the tone for the Demon Deacons this season, with receiver Chris Givens earning the reputation as one of the biggest threats in the ACC.

"Nobody expects us to be where we are right now," Price said of the Demon Deacons, who doubled their win total from 2010. "We're definitely good enough to be a bowl team."

The defense made strides from a year ago, but there continue to be glitches with that unit finding a way to get off the field.

The Demon Deacons haven't defeated a team with a winning record since topping Florida State on Oct. 8. And if they do win the bowl game, that won't fit that category because it would send Mississippi State to a losing mark.

Five of Wake Forest's losses have come against teams that will play in bowls.

"We didn't close the regular season the way we wanted to," coach Jim Grobe said. "This is a football team we've got a lot of mileage out of."

Mississippi State is 9-6 in bowl games, including its 52-14 win over Michigan in last year's Gator Bowl. This is Mississippi State's second straight appearance, the first time since 1999-2000 that the Bulldogs have gone to bowl games in back-to-back years.

EDGE

When Wake Forest runs: Senior RB Brandon Pendergrass has emerged as the top threat out of the backfield with a strong second half to the season. The Demon Deacons rank just 96th in rushing offense with an average of 118.9 yards per game and will be going up against a solid Mississippi State run defense.

Edge To: Mississippi State

When Wake Forest passes: Sophomore lefty QB Tanner Price struggled down the stretch and will be tested by a Mississippi State pass defense that ranks No. 23 in the nation and allows just 194.9 yards per game. WR Chris Givens, who has set a school record for receiving yards in a season, is a deep threat who is 10th in the nation in receiving yards (106.3 ypg).

Edge To: Wake Forest

When Mississippi State runs: Senior RB Vick Ballard isn't the flashy type, but can barrel ahead with the best of them and is averaging 84 yards per game. He should do well against an undersized Wake Forest defensive front. But the real danger belongs to senior QB Chris Relf. He's tall and thick and when presented with the chance to run can confound the opposing defense.

Edge To: Mississippi State

When Mississippi State passes: Who will play quarterback for State? Well, that's anyone's guess. Coach Dan Mullen will probably re-arrange his race during bowl practices and give a good, healthy time for competition. Sophomore QB Tyler Russell is the best passing option of the three. And junior WR Chad Bumphis is the top big-play threat, even though there haven't been many.

Edge To: Wake Forest

Special Teams: Wake Forest has a solid kicker in Jimmy Newman but has struggled in the return game. Mississippi State has the edge at punter in Baker Swedenburg (41.88 avg.) and has one of the nation's top punt returners in Jonathan Banks (10.38 avg.).

Edge To: Mississippi State

Coaching: Third-year Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was a key member on Urban Meyer's staffs at Utah and Florida but has yet to turns things around in Starkville. Wake Forest's Jim Grobe is well respected in the profession and has taken a team picked to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division to a bowl game.

Edge To: Wake Forest

Intangibles: Both teams want to end their season with a winning record so they both have a lot to play for.

Edge To: Even

WHO WINS

Mississippi State has the edge on the ground which could be a big factor depending on the weather. The Bulldogs also have the confidence of dismantling Michigan, 52-14, last year in the Gator Bowl.

Mississippi State 21-16

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Wake Forest

QB Tanner Price hit at a rapid pace during the first half of the season, but his production has waned for the past month. His statistics have indicated that the big-play strikes that made him such a threat have waned. He is averaging over 231 yards per game in total offense.

WR Chris Givens is having one of the best seasons in school history as a receiver, picking up the pace from his first year in 2009 after a sophomore slump a year ago. There's a chance he could depart for the NFL after the bowl game.

CB Merrill Noel is the closest thing that the Demon Deacons have to a lock-down cornerback. His emergence gives the team something it hasn't had and his preference to play physical adds another element to the defense.

Mississippi State

RB Vick Ballard didn't have the kind of superstar season he had hoped for and in many games was far from even a factor. Yet he quietly racked up the kind of yards that, after a huge performance in the season finale, put him at 1,009 yards for the season and garnered him second team all-SEC honors.

QB Chris Relf is seventh in school history with 36 touchdowns responsible for.

DT Fletcher Cox has toyed with questions about whether he might leave after this, his junior year, for the NFL Draft. Cox was the team's only first team all-SEC pick after recording 12.5 tackles for loss.

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