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Last Minute Gameday Study Guide: Northwestern vs. Mississippi State -- Our Complete Gator Bowl Coverage

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

Today marks the end of Northwestern’s season, and it very well could mark the end of something more. A Gator Bowl matchup with Mississippi State gives the Wildcats their best chance at a bowl victory in the Pat Fitzgerald era. Vegas is convinced – the betting line has shifted from pegging the Wildcats as two-point underdogs to one-point favorites – and the matchups on the field reflect a team that owns a better resume, greater diversity on offense and an underrated defense. Strange as it seems, Northwestern enters its bowl matchup with advantages on both sides of the ball.

If there’s one area of weakness, it’s the overall physicality on the defensive line. The old mantra about the SEC’s brand “big boy football” is cliché and trite; it is also, in part, true. The Bulldogs do offer plenty of heft in the trenches – so much so that Northwestern will be tested along that crucial battle line in more ways than ever before this season. There’s also Mississippi State’s proven track record in bowl games. I won’t pretend like you haven’t heard this before, but it bears noting one more time: the Bulldogs have won five consecutive bowl games, the longest active streak in the country. Chalk it up to luck, or forgiving competition, or favorable circumstance – there’s something to be said for knowing how to win these games, how to handle the long layoff, how to carry regular season momentum (or generate it over the month-long rest period) into a specialized fixture.

What I’m getting at is this: Northwestern is the better team. The question is whether it can buck historical trends – a 64-year drought, along with Mississippi State’s recent success – to overcome a good but not great opponent. I’ve doubted the Wildcats in several spots this season, typically based off a reticence to fully buy into their prospects as a 9-to-10 win team. And how could you blame me? I just couldn’t set aside the dismal fourth quarter game management, and the super green pass defense, or the confounding quarterback shuffling, or Venric Mark’s mystifying indestructibility (no matter how hard he went down, Mark just kept getting back up. It was truly remarkable). Slowly, gradually, everything started coming together. Towards the end of the season, even after the Nebraska and Michigan losses, I was convinced. I underestimated this team, and now I’m willing to fully admit as much. This matchup, unlike recent bowl contests, sets up excellent for a streak-snapping, monkey-shredding, 64-years-in-the-making triumph. The Wildcats are favorites (one point, but still) because they should be.

There’s little doubt Northwestern is capable of leaving Jacksonville having shed years of built-up disappointments. Whether it can will come down to execution and focus. We’ve dissected the matchups and personnel from every angle imaginable, and below you’ll see our final gameday study guide. It has been a pleasure bringing you, the readers, weekly analysis and coverage. Stay tuned for post-game reaction.

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For Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Gator Bowl isn’t about beating back the SEC monster, or changing perceptions or snapping historical trends. It’s about winning.

Our own Kevin Trahan put on his photographer hat the day before kickoff to bring you a closer look into the fans, activities and festivities that make the Gator Bowl special.

Another InsideNU staff writer, Jonah Rosenblum, decided to ditch an air-heavy gameplan and go with a ground attack for his trip to Jacksonville. He's making his way across the country, and probably singing country music along the way. He's also logging some insightful thoughts about Northwestern's keys to victory at each pit stop.

One of the most common gripes about the bowl system is that there are simply too many games. Which might be true, but do you really want to deprive players of $500 goodie bags and “bowl swag”? No. Unfortunately for Gator Bowl participants, their assortment of gifts paled in comparison to most other Big Ten bowl destinations.

We’re constantly flooded with talk of Alabama and LSU’s SEC West dominance. Mississippi State doesn’t generate the same level PR buzz, and it’s not hard to figure out why: LSU and Alabama are consistently on top of the national rankings and competing for BCS bowls. So I figured I’d pen a personal introduction to the Bulldogs’ best player, NFL-bound cornerback Johnthan Banks.

The foremost media authority on Mississippi State football, Clarion-Ledger beat writer Brandon Marcello, gave us a window into his Bulldog-tinted perspective on the Gator Bowl matchup.

There is a fascination with Northwestern’s 64-year bowl-drought. Let’s save the historical grandstanding and focus on getting to 10 wins (I’m not totally innocent here, either), this season.

If there’s one area the Wildcats made major strides this season, it’s the defensive line. Brian Arnfelt and co. are locked in for the postseason.

With so many different matchups to watch, you can’t possibly focus on all of them. We’ve highlighted three that should have more influence on the final outcome than the others.

The game can be broken down into three phases: offense, defense and special teams. Northwestern is the betting line favorite, but is it explicitly stronger than Mississippi State in each phases ?

The verbal assaults on the Big Ten this season were loud and wide-ranging. I’m not expecting the laments to recede during bowl season, unless the land of Legends and Leaders pulls off a few upsets. Northwestern’s probably got the best shot of bringing one home for league pride. Do any other Big Ten teams stand a chance in their respective bowl pairings? Kevin and I debate.

We have reached the final version of the Northwestern media picks panel. See how your predicted score and outcome clashes with various NU writers and bloggers.

Pat Fitzgerald stands on the brink of clinching his 50th win. This graphic goes through them all.

Everybody loves stats, and everybody loves football. We married the two concepts to put together this little statistical preview of how Northwestern stacks up against Mississippi State on both sides of the ball.