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Northwestern vs. Mississippi State: Gator Bowl Breakdown

No. 21 Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi St. (8-4)Jan. 1, Noon ET (ESPN2)

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? Reason to watch: Northwestern is desperate to avoid making history. The Wildcats will play in a bowl game for the fifth straight season; however, if they lose, they'll set a new record for consecutive bowl losses (10). Their last win came in the 1949 Rose Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald's team tied for the program's most victories since 1995 this season, and it probably should have won more games: It blew double-digit second-half leads in all three of its losses (at Penn State, Nebraska, at Michigan). Northwestern excelled at running the ball (No. 14 nationally) and stopping the run (No. 18). Meanwhile, Dan Mullen's Bulldogs started 7-0 but lost four of their final five games -- all blowouts -- including three to current top-10 teams (Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU). Mississippi State boasts the Thorpe Award winner, cornerback Johnthan Banks, and quarterback Tyler Russell (2,791 yards, 22 touchdowns, six interceptions), who should rediscover his early-season success against Northwestern's porous secondary.

? Keep an eye on: The Wildcats' all-purpose dynamo, junior Venric Mark. The speedy running back has eight 100-yard rushing games, two punt return touchdowns and a 19.7-yard kick return average this season. The nation's 11th-ranked all-purpose runner also averages 170.7 yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry. Northwestern could be hesitant to let quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian test Banks and cornerback Darius Slay, so it could rely heavily on the option game led by Colter (68.3 rushing yards per game) and Mark.

? Did you know: Many teams strive for offensive balance, but Mississippi State has achieved it. The Bulldogs threw 395 passes and rushed the ball 391 times in 2012.

? Final analysis: Both defenses are vulnerable, but Northwestern has more offensive firepower. Russell will have a big day through the air, but the rushing tandem of Colter and Mark will help the Wildcats finally end their postseason drought in a back-and-forth thriller.

? The pick: Northwestern 44, Mississippi State 41

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