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Music City Bowl Preview: Mississippi State Tries to Get Something Out of 2011

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, 6:40 p.m. ET, ESPN

Not everyone was as bullish as your humble correspondent on Mississippi State when 2011 opened. My projection of Mississippi State as the third-best team in the SEC West and the biggest potential challenger to Alabama and LSU's control of the division was a bit off. The preseason consensus and Year2 both went with the Western Division Bulldogs as the fourth-place team, though I'm not sure that anyone saw Mississippi State needing a narrow win at UAB to cobble together a .500 season and make it to the Music City Bowl.

But here they are. The Dogs were middling on offense compared to the rest of the SEC and suffered more on defense without Manny Diaz than some expected. And while the scoring number wasn't quite so bad -- only Arkansas and Auburn scored more than 24 points on State -- nobody in the SEC gave up many points this year.

And the individual games weren't much better. UAB led Mississippi State with a little more than five and a half minutes to go in the third quarter. A six-point win over Louisiana Tech required overtime. The only blowouts against FBS teams were at a Memphis team that might be the worst in college football and in the Egg Bowl against an Ole Miss that had quit. Chris Relf, who had looked like a new quarterback at the end of the last season, turned out to still be the old and erratic signal-caller we had gotten used to.

Wake Forest, by those measures, appears to have a slightly better resume. But not by much. The Deacons do have wins against some legitimate teams on the docket -- N.C. State and Florida State both come to mind -- though all of them were earlier in the season. And they still ended the year on a huge down note, getting annihilated at home by resurgent Vanderbilt. That was part of 2-5 run that took Wake Forest from fringe-y ACC contender to its usual status as a punchline.

The game will serve as an interesting contrast: Can a team that has a suspect running defense slow down State's ground-heavy attack? Can State's defense, which has done okay against the pass nationally if not in comparison to the rest of the SEC, contain a Wake Forest offense that leans more heavily toward the pass among its average offensive weapons? Who can answer that yes will probably win the game, and leave the season with something to consider an accomplishment after a lost year.

Mississippi State 21, Wake Forest 14