Your average fan might think that Northwestern would be overmatched against an 8-4 team from the heavyweight SEC West in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, especially in what has been a down year for the Big Ten.
But upon closer inspection, Mississippi State, Northwestern's opponent on New Year's Day, is a pretty good matchup for the 9-3 Wildcats.
The Bulldogs own a 4-4 record in the SEC, universally recognized as the toughest football conference in America. However, those four wins came against SEC bottom-feeders Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Those schools together finished an abominable 3-29 in conference, and, in a closely related development, all four of them fired their coaches after the season.
Mississippi State was flying high in October, when it was 7-0 and ranked 11th in the country. Head coach Dan Mullen's Bulldogs beat four fluffy non-conference foes (Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee), as well as Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky, by a combined 257-101 to reach that mark.
That's when the cowbells stopped ringing in Starkville.
The Bulldogs went into then-No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 27 and got drummed, 38-7, precipitating a slide that saw them lose four of their last five contests. They lost to Texas A&M (38-13) and LSU (37-17) before beating reeling Arkansas (45-14). The low point was undoubtedly the season-ending Egg Bowl, where the Bulldogs dropped a 41-24 decision to archrival Mississippi, which came into the game at 5-6 and needing a win to become bowl-eligible.
The Bulldogs beat two teams with winning records, and those were FCS Jackson State and Middle Tennessee, which hails from the Sun Belt conference. They failed to beat a BCS conferecen team that finished above .500 and not a single bowl team.
So, on paper at least, Northwestern's resume is a little stronger than Mississippi State's. The 9-3 Wildcats beat two BCS-conference teams that finished above .500 -- 7-5 Syracuse and 8-4 Vanderbilt (ironically, an SEC member) -- and four bowl teams -- those two, plus 6-6 Michigan State and Minnesota.
Looking at Mississippi State's statistics, there is one major category where the Bulldogs really stand out: turnover margin, where they are tied for fifth in the nation at 1.42 per game. They collected 30 turnovers (14 fumbles, 16 interceptions) and gave up just 13 (7, 6).
The Bulldogs may not be able to take advantage of that strength, however, because Northwestern is not too far behind the Bulldogs when it comes to ball security. The Wildcats are tied for 10th with a margin of 1.08 (gaining 25, losing 12).
Another strong area for the Bulldogs is net punting, where they rank 17th in the country (39.5 yards per punt). That figures once again to be neutralized by Northwestern, which ranks third nationally in punt returns (17.3 yards per return).
Offensively, Bulldogs' quarterback Tyler Russell (219-366, 2,791 yds, 22 TDs, 6 INTs) will likely move the ball through the air against Northwestern, as many teams have this season. MSU ranks 50th in passing yards with 248.8 yards per game, while Northwestern is just 98th in pass defense, allowing 262.6.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Northwestern's dynamic duo of Kain Colter and Venric Mark figures to be able to leverage their read-option game against the Bulldogs. The Wildcats rank 16th in rushing offense with 230.9 yards per game, while MSU is 70th against the run, allowing 166.
The bottom line is that these are two teams, fairly evenly matched. No wonder the early line has Mississippi State favored by just two points.