MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Rice and Mississippi State both have plenty at stake Tuesday in the Liberty Bowl.
Rice (10-3) has a chance to clinch the first 11-win season in school history. Mississippi State (6-6) wants to produce its fourth straight winning season.
“Our guys know how important this is, to go win this game,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “We don’t play again now until Aug. 30. You have eight full months until we get to play again. ... You want to have that positive feeling going into the offseason.”
Rice’s Liberty Bowl berth caps a remarkable rise for a school better known for its academic prowess. Rice now is returning to the site where the program began its turnaround.
After a 14-10 loss to Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium last year dropped the Owls’ record to 1-5, cornerback Phillip Gaines gave an emotional speech. Rice has won 16 of 20 games since.
“Something had to be said,” Gaines said. “We had to realize that we can’t keep doing the same stuff every week and expect a different result. I just challenged everybody to kind of man up and take responsibility of our team. That’s what we did.”
The Owls beat Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA championship game last month for their first outright league title of any sort since winning the Southwest Conference crown in 1957. Rice has a chance to win bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever.
Mississippi State has staged its own resurgence.
Before this current string of winning seasons, Mississippi State had finished below .500 eight times in a nine-year stretch. The Bulldogs closed the regular season with overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss. They’re now trying to maintain that momentum.
“It would be huge and give us a lot of motivation going into next year, just to keep the winning streak going,” Mississippi State cornerback Taveze Calhoun said.
Mississippi State has withstood a rash of injuries and a brutal schedule. All of Mississippi State’s losses came against teams currently in the Top 25: No. 13 Oklahoma State, No. 2 Auburn, No. 14 LSU, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 20 Texas A&M and No. 3 Alabama.
Rice also overcame adversity.
Rice exceeded four wins in just one of David Bailiff’s first five seasons as coach. The seniors on Rice’s roster endured consecutive 4-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011. Rice linebacker Michael Kutzler recalls the program being “kind of a house divided” his first couple of seasons before the Owls developed team chemistry.
Gaines’ teammates say his speech was the catalyst.
“I’ll never forget it,” Rice safety Paul Porras said. “I wish I had it on tape.”
Here are five things to watch when Mississippi State faces Rice in the Liberty Bowl:
PRESCOTT’S MOMENT: After splitting time with Tyler Russell during the regular season, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott will have the job to himself Tuesday while Russell recovers from a torn labrum. Prescott’s had his own health issues with a nerve injury in his non-throwing arm, but he’s feeling better now. “At this time of year, when you’ve been playing for five straight months now, he’s as 100 percent as you’re going to get,” Mullen said.
RICE ON THE RUN: Rice leads Conference USA and ranks 16th among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 240.2 yards rushing per game. Charles Ross has rushed for 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns. Rice showed it could run against an SEC opponent by rushing for 306 yards in a season-opening 52-31 loss to Texas A&M.
MISSISSIPPI STATE’S TAKEAWAYS: Mississippi State has produced 13 takeaways in its last four games after forcing just one turnover in the three games before that stretch. The Bulldogs will try to continue its recent ball-hawking ways without injured cornerback Nickoe Whitley, who has 15 career interceptions.
RICE KICKER’S RANGE: Rice has reason to feel confident if this game comes down to a long field-goal attempt. Rice’s Chris Boswell is 13 -of-22 in his career on field-goal attempts from at least 50 yards out. No other FBS kicker has more than five career field goals of that length.
PARTISAN CROWD: When Mississippi State last played in this game in 2007, a Liberty Bowl record crowd of 63,816 watched the Bulldogs defeat UCF 10-3. Memphis is a three-hour drive from Mississippi State’s Starkville campus. “I expect it to feel like it’s Starkville on Saturday night,” Mississippi State safety Kendrick Market said.