"Congratulations to you and all the Bulldogs on a great season," Bowl director Steve Ehrhart said Sunday evening on a phone connection from Memphis. "We've been following you all year long, you had a great victory at the end of the year, and on behalf of the Liberty Bowl Association we'd like to invite you and the Bulldogs to play in the 55th annual Liberty Bowl Classic. And, bring those cowbells!"
Coach Dan Mullen is counting on a lot of cowbells, rung by a host of Mississippi State fans as they return to a familiar venue. "We're happy to be a part of it," said Mullen, "and we're certainly going to do all we can to put on a great show for everybody up in Memphis."
His Bulldogs head to the nearby bowl destination with a measure of late-season momentum in their favor. They needed to win the last two regular-season games to qualify for post-season, and did…each victory coming in overtimes. State outlasted both Arkansas 24-17 and Ole Miss 17-10 in the extra periods.
Rice earned their berth in Memphis with a rout of Marshall in the CUSA title game, played on the Owls' field. The Liberty Bowl was free to formally name the league champion at that point, awaiting only for the SEC and BCS dust to settle after Saturday's climactic contests. The SEC will send ten teams into post-season play this year, though with two of them seemingly headed for BCS bowls this leaves the Advocare V100 Bowl in Shreveport without a SEC entrant.
Following the Egg Bowl victory, athletic director Scott Stricklin announced ticket pre-orders would be accepted. Before confirmation of the Liberty Bowl was made over 4,500 tickets had been requested for that very game. Now the Bowl will also begin selling ducats to MSU fans as well. The initial allotment for State is 16,000 with as many more as needed available later.
Mullen is encouraging fans to ‘shop locally' though.
"I know we're excited to be there. For our fan base, talking about the cowbells, I hope we treat it like a home game, right in our back yard. We had the opportunity last time we were at the Liberty Bowl to set the attendance record, I want us to break that record this year, and buy your tickets through Mississippi State, set the ticket record as well for sales through the University for a bowl game."
This will be Mississippi State's fourth appearance in a Liberty Bowl. And this year's trip just happens to come 50 seasons after the first, when the 1963 Bulldogs played in the ‘old' event held in Philadelphia. They won that one too, beating North Carolina State 16-12. Not long after that game the bowl moved to Memphis, where Bulldog teams have participated in 1991 (losing 38-15 to Air Force) and 2007 (beating Central Florida 10-3).
The '91 game drew 61,497 which was the bowl record at the time. On the next trip State's turnout increased with a 63,816 attendance. For that matter Bulldog fans have gotten used to making trips to this stadium, and seeing wins. State is 15-3 against University of Memphis on that field since 1974. In fact the '91 Liberty Bowl game loss to Air Force is the only Bulldog setback at that stadium in a quarter-century now.
Even before receiving their assignment these Bulldogs had written a page in program annals, by earning bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season. That surpassed the three-year mark set in 1998-2000, and matched by Mullen's 2010-12 teams. In fact, with four bowl appearances in his five MSU seasons Mullen trails only the six bowls played in 13 years under Jackie Sherrill. And Mullen with two wins has already matched Sherrill's two victories, in '99 and '00.
No other MSU head coach ever took more than two teams bowling. State is 9-7 in bowl games, having had its five-win streak earned from 1999 through 2011 snapped last New Years Day.
These Dogs cut it as close as possible, with a 4-6 record going into those two climactic contests. All worked out well, of course. ""We were able to win our games at the end of the season and make this happen," Mullen said.
"But everyone was really excited. I think 6-6 this year, obviously we always want to be better. But when you look at what our team has done and the quality of the teams we played, our players know they're not far off. And to finish the season the way they did, and have a chance to go play another conference champion at the end of the year and have a winning record is pretty special."
With fall final exams taking up most of this week, Mullen has said bowl camp would begin this Friday. While the on-field coaches had recruiting work to do last week, operations assistant John Clark and staff were able to organize a practice schedule for both campus and Memphis, around a Christmas break. Practices begin after semester grades are reported, and eligibility of varsity Bulldogs established for the post-season.
"We'll start practice next Friday, just get everybody back on track after final exams. Then we'll practice straight-through for one week. We'll practice Saturday morning, Sunday evening, Monday mid-day, Tuesday I think in the morning. Those four days will be open to the public. Then we'll do our regular game-week Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and have everybody head home for Christmas."
The bowl's Team Welcome party is 6:00 at AutoZone Park on Friday the 27th.
These programs have met before, way back in 1975 and in Houston. State won the game 28-14 but later had to forfeit as part of NCAA sanctions on the 1975-76 teams. State and Rice had one common opponent this season. The Owls opened their season at Texas A&M losing 52-31; while in November the Bulldogs played to a 51-41 loss at College Station. Rice has the NCAA's 16th-leading rushing offense but is just 101st in passing offense, and 52nd in points scored.
Not only will a handful of veterans now become the first ‘class' of Bulldogs to be involved with four-straight bowling teams; there are three seniors who can be the first State players ever to participate in four classics. Offensive guard Gabe Jackson, running back LaDarius Perkins, and linebacker Deontae Skinner all played in the Gator(s) and Music City bowls; and Jackson started all three.