Normally, a coach who takes Mississippi State to a New Year's Day bowl would be getting all the pre-game media attention. But that's not the case for Saturday's Gator Bowl.
Instead, all the talk has been centered on Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez and his job status. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon has refused to say whether Rodriguez, who is finishing up his third season, will return next season. Instead, he says he will make the decision within a week after the bowl game.
Rodriguez's buyout drops from $4 million to $2.5 million after Jan. 1.
Rodriguez professes not to be bothered by all the fuss. "The best time for us as coaches is when we're around our players, at practice, in meetings," he told the Detroit News earlier this week. "... This is a great time."
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, meanwhile, received a contract extension Thursday morning. The school announced that the new deal is worth $10.6 million over four seasons.
Mullen has guided the Bulldogs (8-4) to the Gator Bowl in his second season as coach. It's just the Bulldogs' eighth bowl appearance in the past 28 seasons.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Michigan rush offense vs. Mississippi State rush defense: QB Denard Robinson makes the Wolverines go. He is fourth nationally in rushing, averaging 136.9 yards per game; he has 14 rushing TDs. He has nine 100-yard games this season. TBs Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw have combined for 971 yards and 14 scores. Mississippi State has allowed just 11 rushing TDs; the Bulldogs kept Auburn from scoring any rushing TDs, though Auburn did run for 190, the most the Bulldogs allowed this season. LBs Chris White and K.J. Wright are big and physical, but are they fast enough to deal with Robinson? Edge: Michigan.
WHEN: Jan. 1, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: EverBank Field, Jacksonville.
TV: ESPN2 (Mike Patrick will do play-by-play, with Craig James as the analyst).
THE LINE: Mississippi State by 4.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Michigan 3-5, Mississippi State 3-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Michigan T-15th, Mississippi State T-29th.
BCS RANKINGS: Michigan unranked, Mississippi State 21st.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big East.
COACHES: Michigan- Rich Rodriguez (2-3 in bowls); Mississippi State- Dan Mullen (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: This is one of three Big Ten-SEC matchups of the day, and it matches an upstart SEC program against a Big Ten kingpin that has struggled mightily of late. Is this the last game for Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez? Wolverines A.D. Dave Brandon isn't saying.
KEY STATS: Mississippi State is 16th nationally in rush offense at 216.8 yards per game. Michigan is 94th in rush defense, surrendering 187.7 yards per game.
Michigan pass offense vs. Mississippi State pass defense: Robinson has become a solid passer; he has thrown 16 TD passes and 10 picks, and has six 200-yard games this season. The Wolverines have a good group of receivers, headed by Ray Roundtree. Mississippi State's pass defense has been adequate, nothing more. Sophomore CB Corey Broomfield and freshman FS Nickoe Whitley are the guys to watch. Mississippi State has 26 sacks, but it's tough to get to Robinson. Edge: Michigan.
Mississippi State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense: The Bulldogs have a big, physical line led by T Derek Sherrod, and that group can push people around. TB Vick Ballard, a JC transfer, has rushed for 17 TDs, and backup Ladarius Perkins has good speed. QB Chris Relf is the second-leading rusher. He's a punishing runner but doesn't have breakaway ability. The Bulldogs average 216.8 rushing yards per game and are No. 2 in the SEC - behind only Auburn - in rushing offense. Michigan's run defense has been bad. The Wolverines have allowed 30 TDs and have surrendered multiple TD runs in eight games. There's a lack of size up front, which is going to hurt against Mississippi State's physical offensive line. Edge: Mississippi State.
Mississippi State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense: Mississippi State is not a good passing team; that's good news for Michigan, whose pass defense has been awful (260.3 passing yards per game). Mississippi State has thrown for 150 or fewer yards in eight games. Relf remains raw as a passer, though he does have some speedy receivers to work with. The best is Chad Bumphis. Six of Michigan's top eight defensive backs are freshmen, and their inexperience has hurt. Edge: Even.
Michigan special teams vs. Mississippi State special teams: Michigan's kickers have been a disaster area; the Wolverines are 4-of-13 on field-goal attempts and are just 3-of-12 from beyond 30 yards. They also have missed two PATs. P Will Hagerup is a good one, though, averaging 43.6 yards per boot; he has had one blocked. Michigan's return teams have been surprisingly ordinary, considering the solid skill-position talent available. In addition, the coverage units have been mediocre. Mississippi State also has used two kickers. Sean Brauchle has the stronger leg, but Derek DePasquale has been more accurate. Still, they are just a combined 12-of-18, with two blocked. P Heath Hutchins averages 41.3 per boot. Perkins is an OK kick returner and Bumphis a solid punt returner. The punt coverage has been excellent, the kickoff coverage mediocre. Edge: Mississippi State.
Michigan coaches vs. Mississippi State coaches: Rich Rodriguez's status remains a mystery. His spread-option offense definitely works in the Big Ten, but the defenses in his tenure have been awful. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has a good track record, but his unit certainly has been a huge problem this season. Dan Mullen has Mississippi State in a bowl in his second season at the school. Offense is his specialty, but he does not have a quarterback who can throw the ball effectively. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has done a nice job in his first season; he is an aggressive coach and the Bulldogs have responded to his sometimes-unorthodox blitz schemes. Edge: Michigan.
X-factor: Will Rodriguez return or not? Most of the pre-game talk surrounding this game has focused on that question. Can his players put aside that distraction?
Michigan will win if: The Wolverines have committed 27 turnovers and have a minus-9 turnover margin; Mississippi State is at plus-6 in that category. Michigan can live with one or two turnovers in this one, but that's it. That puts the onus on Robinson to take care of the ball while also turning in his usual stellar performance on the ground.
Mississippi State will win if: The Bulldogs want to rely heavily on their offensive line; all five starters are 300-pounders and they mash people. If the Bulldogs run effectively - and given Michigan's pitiful run defense, there's no reason to think they can't - they can control the clock and keep Robinson off the field. A few big plays in the passing game early would be a huge boost.
Olin Buchanan: Mississippi State 28, Michigan 24
Tom Dienhart: Mississippi State 29, Michigan 28
David Fox: Mississippi State 35, Michigan 28
Mike Huguenin: Mississippi State 31, Michigan 27
Steve Megargee: Mississippi State 31, Michigan 28
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.