Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Basics: Michigan (7-5) vs. Mississippi State (7-5), 1 p.m. EST, Jan. 1
Why You Should Watch: For starters, outside of the national championship game, you're not going to see two better-coached run games than you're going to get from Dan Mullen and Rich Rodriguez. Both are masters of finding rushing yards out of the spread, with Mullen relying on the option behind Tebow Lite QB Chris Relf and Rodriguez -- after employing a similar style back in his Pat White-Steve Slaton glory days in Morgantown -- using a wide variety of screens, draws, and play-action passes to open lanes for the explosive Denard Robinson.
Speaking of, Robinson's season-on-the-whole didn't live up to his brief spell as the early-season Heisman frontrunner, as a parade of bumps and bruises (not to mention the teeth of a Big Ten schedule) robbed him of some of his blinding speed and much of his throwing accuracy down the stretch. But he remains the only quarterback in NCAA history to top 1,500 rushing yards and 2,000 passing yards in the same season, and after the time off it's worth tuning in to see if he can restore some of that early-year magic.
But of course, neither of those storylines hold a candle to those hovering over Rodriguez, who could very well be coaching his final game as the Wolverines' head coach. Win or lose, fired or retained, the day promises to be a highly emotional one for both Rodriguez and his players.
Keys to Victory for Mississippi State: Defensively, the Bulldogs have to like the matchup presented by the Wolverines. State comes in with the nation's 19th-rated rushing defense, one powered by rugged defensive end Pernell McPhee and senior linebacker Chris White, a surprise All-SEC selection after a breakout season that saw him lead the Bulldogs in both tackles-for-loss (15.5) and sacks (6). Combine them with coordinator Manny Diaz's hyper-aggressive schemes and solid, no-nonsense defenders like tackle Josh Boyd and fellow senior LB K.J. Wright, and it's not likely you'll see Robinson run wild. The Wolverines are going to have to throw to win the game, and though their big-play passing game ranked 13th in the country in yards-per-attempt, much of that success came after the establishment of a running game the Bulldogs may deny.
Of course, with a young secondary that only ranked 90th against the pass and was frequently exposed by Diaz's love of the blitz, the Bulldogs may give up a handful of big plays through the air anyway. And the matchup on offense isn't quite as kind: for all of Mullen's trickery in the rushing game, Relf's skill at operating the option, and the emergence of tailback Vick Ballard (who rushed for 80 yards or more in six of the Bulldogs' last seven), Relf's scattershot downfield arm and an often-butterfingered receiving corps left MSU mired at 92nd in the country with only 177 yards a game. The Bulldogs don't look equipped to attack the Wolverine defense at its weakest point, the bottom-of-the-barrel secondary.
If Relf is on target and the Bulldog defense reduces Robinson and Co. to one airborne dimension, State will roll to an easy victory. But if Relf can't punish the Michigan secondary and Robinson finds enough running lanes to keep the MSU pass defense off-balance and vulnerable, it could be a long afternoon.
Keys to Victory for Michigan: As good as the State defense has been against the run, there have been times when the Wolverine running game (which finished the season 11th in the FBS in yardage and sixth in yards-per-carry at 5.67 a pop) has been good enough to run on anyone. While Robinson's legs and Rodriguez's schemes make it go, a veteran offensive line led by All-Big Ten center David Molk deserves plenty of credit, too, and should be heady and well-prepared enough to hand Diaz's unusual looks. With Robinson at 100 percent and Rodriguez having the extra time to study, expect the Wolverines to make some hay on the ground. If Robinson can make just enough throws to exploit the vulnerable MSU defensive backs, Michigan could put a bushel of points up on the board.
They'll need them, of course. The Wolverines finished a miserable 107th in the country in total defense, and there's little doubt that an offense as well-coached as Mullen's is going to put some drives together and score some points against a unit this weak. But the Wolverines can at least avoid the occasional meltdown that's marked their past two seasons if their run defense, buoyed by the full health of dynamic nose tackle Mike Martin and rise of mid-year starting middle linebacker Kenny Demens, can slow down the State running game and take some pressure off their woeful set of defensive backs.
If State executes offensively, the Wolverines don't appear to have the defensive talent necessary to keep up. But that's hardly guaranteed; State threw up a few clunkers this year, escaping UAB 29-24, getting pasted by LSU 29-7, etc. If they aren't sharp, Robinson alone gives Michigan enough firepower to make them pay ... particularly with as much as their coach has riding on the outcome.
The Gator Bowl is like: Cinderella, pre-slipper. It's easy to look at the two well-dressed stepsister Big Ten vs. SEC New Year's Day bowls and overlook the newcomer, and if Robinson can't get on track and the Wolverine defense doesn't play over its head, the Gaotr might just deserve to skip the ball entirely. But if Michigan plays with emotion, both offenses execute, and the Wolverines get enough stops to make it a game, this bowl could be the fairest Big Ten-SEC matchup of them all.