by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Who should win the 2013 Gator Bowl? Well, the humans have conflicting answers. Mississippi State is a two-point favorite in Vegas, but Northwestern is ranked No. 20 in the polls, while the Bulldogs are unranked. We all have our biases — some will give MSU an edge solely because the Bulldogs play in the SEC, while some will pick NU because MSU "hasn't beaten anyone." There's no science to picking a team, which is why they play the game, as the old cliche goes. However, here are some stats that could decide the game, some that give an edge to one of the teams, and some where "something's gotta give." Or you could be in the Pat Fitzgerald school of thought that "stats are for losers," in which case you might want to disregard this article altogether.
Turnover Margin: Mississippi State 17, Northwestern 13
Northwestern excelled in its turnover margin this year, and while the Wildcats left too many potential turnovers on the table for Pat Fitzgerald's liking, they lost the ball only 12 times, compared to 25 takeaways. NU is only tied for 31st in the country in takeaways, but it is tied for sixth nationally in how little it gives the ball up. Mississippi State, meanwhile, is the opposite. The Bulldogs still only gave the ball up 14 times this year, but rank ninth in the country with 31 takeaways. Something has to give when both teams meet, but turnovers will be at a premium, it appears. Since both teams figure to be careful with the ball, one turnover could skew the game in one team's favor more than it would in the average game.
Northwestern rushing offense vs. Mississippi State rushing defense
Northwestern's rushing offense ranks at No. 14 in the country with nearly 231 yards per game. Mississippi State's run defense gives up 166 yards per game, putting the Bulldogs at No. 71 in the country. NU always tries to establish the run game, and the Wildcats have leaned heavily on the run throughout the season. Expect that to be the case once again in the Gator Bowl, as NU tries to exploit its most obvious advantage on offense. Pat Fitzgerald mentioned that the Wildcats are focused on playing fast, which points to the option and zone read-based offense that has become more methodical by the game. If NU is able to establish the run game early, Mississippi State will struggle to stay in the game.
Mississippi State passing offense vs. Northwestern passing defense
Mississippi State's passing offense isn't particularly impressive — it ranks No. 50 in the country with 248.8 yards per game — but it must use the passing game to help open up its running game, which only accounts for 140.67 yards per game. Northwestern's run defense has been one of the best in the nation this year, so the Wildcats figure to win the battle there if MSU can't throw the ball. However, NU has been susceptible to the pass this year, ranking No. 102 in the country for giving up 262.6 yards per game. The Bulldogs will likely come out throwing and exploit that advantage. If they force NU to think pass first, they may be able to open up the run game, as well, which will give them a clear advantage.
Scoring offense vs. Scoring defense
This won't have much of an effect on the game, but it's an interesting stat: NU and MSU have averaged nearly identical numbers in points scored and points given up. The Wildcats have scored and average of 31.5 points per game and given up an average of 22.8 points per game. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have scored an average of 30.3 points per game and given up an average of 22.4 points per game. This won't impact the game at all because individual matchups are far more important than averages throughout the season. However, it's not often you see games featuring teams that are so statistically similar in scoring production and defensive scoring production.