ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — So much for the notion that the St. Petersburg Bowl is just another lower-tier postseason matchup featuring teams with mediocre records and little to accomplish, even by winning.
Mississippi State (5-7) and Miami of Ohio (6-6) are happy to be in Florida, and not just because the temperature climbed into the low 80s on Christmas Day.
Much of the past week has been filled with fun in the sun, and on the beach; however, the Bulldogs and RedHawks are taking the game seriously, too.
It’s been a largely disappointing season for Mississippi State, which is making its seventh consecutive bowl appearance under coach Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs were selected to play, despite their losing record, because of their NCAA Academic Progress Rate.
Finishing with a 35-point rout of archrival Mississippi wouldn’t have been the worst way to end the season for Mullen and his players. However today’s game against Miami, which has won six straight to rebound from a 0-6 start, provides an opportunity to feel even better about themselves moving forward.
“I think bowl games are one of the great experiences for players,” Mullen said. “The message for our guys was, we didn’t have our best season but because of our academics and how we have taken care of things in the classroom, they got rewarded with a bowl game.”
And yes, winning does matter, even if the Bulldogs would still wind up with a losing record.
“I don’t want to be miserable for nine months. We do not play again until September,” Mullen said. “You want to finish on a win. ... That can really energize you” heading into offseason work.
Miami is the first team in NCAA history to overcome a 0-6 start to finish the regular season 6-6. The RedHawks surged to a share of the Mid-American East Division title, received their first bowl berth since 2010, and is relishing the attention that comes with facing an opponent from the vaunted Southeastern Conference in St. Petersburg.
Part of coach Chuck Martin’s reaction to learning Miami was headed to a bowl in Florida for the first time in 41 years was: “Well, we really did win the lottery.”
Upsetting Mississippi State not only would be something few could have imagined when the RedHawks were 0-6, but also prove invaluable in recruiting and boosting the program’s profile.
“Our kids are super excited for the challenge. ... We’re super excited to play a SEC school,” Martin said. “It’s cool.”
Some things to know about Mississippi State and Miami:
GOOD VIBES: Mississippi State struggled through some ups and downs during its 5-7 season, but a 55-20 Egg Bowl victory over rival Ole Miss in the regular-season finale gave the program some positive mojo. The 35-point win was the largest margin of victory for the Bulldogs in the series since 1916.
QUITE A TURNAROUND: Miami has 11 seniors who arrived at the school in 2013. The RedHawks’ six-game winning streak has more than doubled the victory total for the class, which was 5-37 heading into a mid-October game against Kent State.
FABULOUS FITZ: Sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald exceeded most expectations this season, especially when it comes to running the football. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder set a single-game Mississippi State record with 258 yards rushing in the Egg Bowl. Fitzgerald leads the team with both 2,287 yards passing and 1,243 yards rushing.
REDHAWKS ATTACK: Miami’s offense is led by QB Gus Ragland, who in October returned from a knee injury that had sidelined him since last spring. The redshirt sophomore has thrown for 1,274 yards, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions, leading the RedHawks to a 6-0 record.
NO DEFENSE: The reason for Mississippi State’s losing record this season can be largely attributed to the defense. The Bulldogs gave up 33.1 points per game during the regular season, which ranked 13th out of 14 SEC teams. The defense was particularly bad against the passing game, giving up more than 283 yards per game, which was the worst in the SEC by nearly 30 yards.