Mississippi State barely hung on to a .500 record this year to become bowl eligible for their second straight season, after a 9–4 2010 that was capped off with a 52–14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. 2011 was a disappointing season for the Bulldogs after starting the season ranked 20th in both the AP and USA Today polls. Miss State was 3-3 halfway through the campaign and did not reach their sixth win until a 31-3 victory over archrival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to end the regular season.
The biggest offensive threat is senior RB Vick Ballard, who ran for 1,009 yards this season and eight touchdowns while adding 18 receptions for 178 yards and a score. Against the Rebels, Ballard carried the ball 23 times for 144 yards and a touchdown while catching his only receiving TD this season. QB Chris Relf entered the campaign as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC after a productive 2010, but could not carry the momentum from his junior effort into this season and had to share snaps with sophomore Tyler Russell. Relf completed 59.6% of his passes for 1083 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions while Russell threw for 1034 yards, eight TDs and four picks with a completion percentage of 53.5%.
The Bulldogs’ defense is anchored by DL Fletcher Cox, who finished with 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Despite a respectable 18th in the nation in scoring, holding opponents to an average of 19.9 points per game and 23rd in passing allowing 194.9 yards per game, Mississippi State struggles against the run with an average of 161 yards per contest allowed on the ground.
Wake Forest returns to postseason action after a two year hiatus, but are making the trip to Nashville primarily based on winning four of their first five games; as the season progressed the Demon Deacons could only muster up two more wins to finish 6-6. One of Wake’s biggest victories came in one of those early games as the Deacons defeated then-number 23 Florida State 35-30 in Winston-Salem. In its only game against an SEC opponent this season, Wake Forest was defeated in a 41-7 blowout by Vanderbilt to end the regular season.
Head coach Jim Grobe will count on QB Tanner Price to continue to play sharp as he has all season. The sophomore threw for 2,803 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions, with three of the picks coming against North Carolina October 29th. Price has used two primary targets all year; Chris Givens who led the ACC with 1276 receiving yards and caught nine touchdowns, and Michael Campanaro whose 63 receptions were second behind Givens (74). Brandon Pendergrass emerged as the number one back this year after Josh Harris was limited with a hamstring injury he suffered against Florida State. Pendergrass rushed for 750 yards and eight touchdowns, while Harris was held to 432 yards and three scores.
Although the Wake Forest defense is not a powerhouse in the traditional sense of the word, they are consistently ranked 67-74 in all major defensive categories in the FBS. The Demon Deacons are 67th in scoring (27.8 ppg), 70th in rushing defense (162.92 ypg), 72nd in passing defense (236.2 ypg), and 74th in total defense (399.1 ypg). They also have three playmaking DBs in Cyhl Quarles, Josh Bush, and Merril Noel. Quarles was 11th in the conference with 96 total tackles, Bush was tied for fifth in the nation with six interceptions, and Noel was first in the FBS with 19 passes broken up and tied for the top spot in the country with 20 passes defended.
Dory LeBlanc, covers Gator sports for Gators First and BourbonMeyer.com. Not just a college sports enthusiast, Dory is also a fan of NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB. Born outside Philly, she moved to Tampa, and now resides in Illinois, giving her a broad perspective on the sporting world. You can follow Dory on twitter @DoryLeBlanc