Sunday's football: RedHawks fly high into St. Petersburg Bowl

Associated Press

St. Petersburg, Fla. — So much for the notion that the St. Petersburg Bowl is just another lower-tier postseason matchup featuring teams with mediocre records and little to accomplish, even by winning.

Mississippi State and Miami (Ohio) are happy to be in Florida, and not just because the temperature climbed into the low 80s on Christmas Day.

Much of the past week has been filled with fun in the sun, and on the beach; however, the Bulldogs and RedHawks are taking the game seriously, too.

It’s been a largely disappointing season for Mississippi State, which is making its seventh consecutive bowl appearance under coach Dan Mullen. The Bulldogs were selected to play, despite their losing record, because of their NCAA Academic Progress Rate.

Finishing with a 35-point rout of archrival Mississippi wouldn’t have been the worst way to end the season for Mullen and his players. However, Monday’s game against Miami, which has won six straight to rebound from a 0-6 start, provides an opportunity to feel even better about themselves moving forward.

“I think bowl games are one of the great experiences for players,” Mullen said. “The message for our guys was, we didn’t have our best season but because of our academics and how we have taken care of things in the classroom, they got rewarded with a bowl game.”

And yes, winning does matter, even if the Bulldogs would still wind up with a losing record.

“I don’t want to be miserable for nine months. We do not play again until September,” Mullen said. “You want to finish on a win. … That can really energize you heading into offseason work.”

Miami is the first team in NCAA history to overcome a 0-6 start to finish the regular season 6-6. The RedHawks surged to a share of the Mid-American East Division title, received their first bowl berth since 2010, and is relishing the attention that comes with facing an opponent from the vaunted Southeastern Conference in St. Petersburg.

Part of coach Chuck Martin’s reaction to learning Miami was headed to a bowl in Florida for the first time in 41 years was: “Well, we really did win the lottery.”

Upsetting Mississippi State not only would be something few could have imagined when the RedHawks were 0-6, but also prove invaluable in recruiting and boosting the program’s profile.

“Our kids are super excited for the challenge. … We’re super excited to play a SEC school,” Martin said. “It’s cool.”

Relatable journeys

There were times this season that Vanderbilt and North Carolina State looked like bad teams.

But November arrived and both programs improved, leading to some upset wins and bowl eligibility. Now the Commodores and the Wolfpack meet in the Independence Bowl.

Vanderbilt appeared headed for a lost season in the Southeastern Conference until back-to-back upsets over Mississippi and Tennessee clinched bowl eligibility. The Commodores are in the postseason for the first time since 2013.

“That’s part of the journey, getting young men to go from where they are to where they want to be,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “So, for us, it was about the steady process of doing the right things. It clicked.”

The Commodores’ biggest improvement during the season’s final few weeks was on offense. They scored a combined 83 points in the victories over Mississippi and Tennessee, consistently hitting on big plays.

“We stuck to the process. We grew,” quarterback Kyle Shurmur said. “It was great to put a complete game together toward the end. Those big plays, those flashes, became more consistent. That was the biggest thing.”

North Carolina State can relate to Vanderbilt’s story. The Wolfpack started with a 4-1 record, but close losses to Clemson, Boston College and Florida State derailed any hopes of a big season.

It looked like N.C. State might not make the postseason after a loss to Miami on Nov. 19, but the Wolfpack bounced back with a surprising 28-21 win over North Carolina. N.C. State is led by a dominant defensive line that includes junior Bradley Chubb, who leads the nation with 21 tackles for a loss.