Mississippi State faced all the skepticism as it staked out its 7-0 record, heard all the "told-you-so" statements as it went 1-4 down the stretch, and now faces one last test before riding into the offseason. So what's it going to be, Western Division Bulldogs?
If there's one way to prove that this season's strong start was more than just a mirage, clinching Mississippi State's first win against a team that was ranked at the end of the regular season would be a good place to start. Northwestern currently stands at somewhere between No. 17 and No. 21, depending on which poll you use, and would serve as a useful feather in the cap of State as it tries along with Vanderbilt to join the SEC's power teams in the Top 25.
Northwestern also falls, for the most part, in the space between the kinds of teams Mississippi State defeated during the 2012 regular season and the kinds of teams to which Mississippi State lost. The SEC West's Big Three of Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all beat the Bulldogs, and no one is arguing Northwestern is as good as any of them. But the Wildcats are almost certainly better than any of the teams State beat this year, and likely better than the intrastate rival that took down Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Ironically, Northwestern comes into this game in much the same situation. Its most accomplished opponent is probably Vanderbilt, and the only other FBS team on its schedule to finish the regular season undefeated was Syracuse. The Wildcats get a bit more advantage in the polls because they don't have as many losses and they didn't go on the kind of ranking-killing slide that State did, but the resumes are strikingly similar.
The problematic aspect for Mississippi State when the game starts, though, is whether the Bulldogs can slow down the Northwestern rushing attack. The Wildcats churn out nearly 231 yards a game on the ground, and State ranks 11th in the SEC in stopping the run. Add that with a Northwestern defense that's likely good enough to keep the Bulldogs from scoring too much, and it looks like Mississippi State will have to wait until later in 2013 for a win over a ranked opponent.
Northwestern 23, Mississippi State 20