Northwestern, Mississippi State meet in Gator Bowl

Northwestern, Mississippi State meet in Gator Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Gator Bowl ended up with a less-than-marquee matchup thanks to the success of the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA sanctions surrounding two Big Ten programs.

The New Year's Day bowl in Jacksonville landed Northwestern and Mississippi State, two teams with little or no national prominence.

The Wildcats (9-3) and Bulldogs (8-4) accepted invitations Sunday, leaving the New Year's Day bowl game in Jacksonville faced with the challenge of selling tickets and generating a television audience.

Florida and Ohio State headlined the Gator Bowl last year, a matchup that featured Urban Meyer's former team against his future team.

This time, the bowl wasn't nearly as fortunate.

Sure, Northwestern is playing on New Year's Day for the third time in four years. But the Wildcats aren't known for filling stadiums or bringing buzz. The Gator Bowl would have been in much better shape had Big Ten powers Ohio State (12-0) and Penn State (8-4) been bowl eligible. And Wisconsin upsetting Nebraska in the Big Ten title game shuffled the bowl lineup, too.

``A lot of things changed last night,'' Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said.

Mississippi State is back in Jacksonville for the second time in three years. In 2010, coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs were one of the surprises of the SEC. This time, though, MSU limps in having lost four its last five games.

With Alabama (12-1) and Florida (11-1) getting berths in the Bowl Championship Series, that left the Gator with the No. 7 team from the powerful league instead of the sixth. And that's a significant drop-off considering the top six teams won at least 10 games and have some of the league's largest fan bases.

The best angle the Gator Bowl seemingly had going Sunday was the relationship between Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Mississippi State's Mullen.

They got to know each other pretty well while recruiting the Houston area nearly a decade ago and have stayed in contact since.

``It's going to fun,'' Fitzgerald said. ``You always love to compete, and when you get to compete against a friend, it kind of makes it that much more special. ... It's not about us. It's about the young me in our program.''

Fitzgerald and Mullen said they rarely talk about schematics even though both teams run spread offenses.

``I've called him on a lot of different occasions just about different questions and how to handle different situations, how you set up your schedule and all the things that go on, all the different issues you have to deal with on a daily basis as a head coach,'' Mullen said. ``Pat's somebody that has always been gracious enough to help me out and help us when we had questions or ideas.''

Don't expect Mullen to share any tips on playing well in Jacksonville, though.

The Bulldogs beat Michigan 52-14 in 2011, one of Mullen's more significant wins in his four seasons at Mississippi State.

``I think the challenge of playing a team we've never played before is a great experience for our guys,'' Mullen said. ``That lack of familiarity with the two teams makes it pretty special.''

Quick Links

Wizards drop to precarious position in close Eastern Conference playoff race

Wizards drop to precarious position in close Eastern Conference playoff race

As if they needed a reminder, the Wizards saw firsthand on Wednesday night just how much can change in a short period of time in the Eastern Conference playoff race where just two games separate the No. 3 and No. 6 teams.

That No. 6 team is now your Washington Wizards, who began the day in fourth place but lost their first game in four days on the same night both the Cavs and Sixers won theirs. 

The Wizards lost to the Spurs on Wednesday and managed only 90 points, their fewest since Jan. 22. It was a lackluster performance in a game the Wizards needed to treat with urgency. 


The Spurs sure did.

"We've gotta have a better mentality coming into games," guard Bradley Beal said. "The Spurs were fighting for playoff seeding just like we were."

The Wizards have now lost six of their last 10, yet all those games have come against teams currently holding playoff spots. Considering John Wall reamins out with a left knee injury, it's hard to fault them too much when they are staying afloat just fine in the big picture.

The problem is that the closer they get to the end of the season, the more these losses are magnified. They amount to missed opportunities, some bigger than others.

That was not lost on Beal, who considered the alternative. If the Wizards had beaten the Spurs, they would be sitting in fourth, two spots higher, and just a game-and-a-half out of third.

"Every time we have a chance to move up, we take two steps back," Beal lamented.


The Wizards are in a high stakes part of the standings where plenty is in the balance. They are fighting for home court advantage, something they would get in the third or fourth spots. And who they match up with will be paramount.

By falling to sixth, the Wizards are currently in line to play the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though the Pacers and Sixers are also good teams, they don't have LeBron James. Avoiding him and the Cavs would be ideal for the Wizards.

Beal has even bigger worries than that. He noted after the loss in San Antonio that they could fall even further if they aren't careful. They are now just a game-and-a-half up on the seventh-place Heat. 

"We've gotta realize what's at stake, man. The way we're going, we could keep dropping and mess around and be eighth. We've gotta do whatever it takes to win," he said.

The Wizards should be fine, if the previous two months are any indication. But Wednesday night was another example of how precarious things are for them this season in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference.


NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Quick Links

Capitals Faceoff Podcast: How does Brooks Orpik really impact the Caps?

NBC Sports Washington

Capitals Faceoff Podcast: How does Brooks Orpik really impact the Caps?

No player on the Caps gets more scrutiny than defenseman Brooks Orpik. While the analytics aren't kind when he's on the ice, we got to see what the Caps looked like without him when he was scratched against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday and...well, his loss was noticeable.

JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir discuss what Orpik's true impact on the Capitals really is both on and off the ice on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast. Plus, they also talk about John Carlson's monster season and Barry Trotz's new strategy for the goalies.

Listen to the latest episode in the player below or here on the Capitals Faceoff Podcast page.