Rice (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (6-6)
Dec. 31, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN)
• Reason to watch: Winners of the Conference USA championship, Rice had one of the finest seasons in program history under head coach David Bailiff, who was honored as the 2013 C-USA Coach of the Year. The Owls won 10 games and are making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1960 and '61. Their offense features a multipronged ground attack that produced a rushing touchdown in 12 of their 13 games this season.
One of the former doormats of college football, Rice ended a 45-year bowl drought in 2006. The Owls were the only FBS team from Texas besides Baylor to finish with double-digit wins in 2013. They're not just an offensive threat, too. Defensive back Phillip Gaines should be one of the top defensive backs picked in next year's NFL Draft. With eight wins in the last nine games, Rice is an unlikely underdog to a team that barely achieved bowl eligibility.
Mississippi State raced off to a 7-0 start in 2012 and played in a New Year's Day game in January. This year, coach Dan Mullen's Bulldogs won three games against inferior competition (Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green) and eked out two consecutive overtime victories (over Kentucky and Ole Miss) at the end of the regular season to salvage a six-win season.
Once one of the hottest coaching commodities in the nation, Mullen was linked to a possible firing at the end of the year before Mississippi State got to six wins with a victory in the Egg Bowl over Ole Miss. The Bulldogs feature a dual-threat QB in Dak Prescott, who led the team in both passing and rushing and should keep the Owls' defense off-balance.
• Keep an eye on: The Rice rushing attack. The star of the Owls' backfield is senior Charles Ross, who led C-USA in rushing and was named first-team all-conference. Ross established career highs in single-game rushing yards three times this season, highlighted by a 215-yard, five touchdown performance against Louisiana Tech. While he receives the majority of the' carries, Rice had four other backs who carried the ball at least 60 times this season. Quarterback Taylor McHargue finished the season with five rushing touchdowns and can be dangerous in the open field when the Owls choose to use Ross as a decoy. C-USA title game MVP Luke Turner was seldom used in 2013 but ran for 49 yards and threw for two touchdowns (yes, threw) against Marshall. While Ross is the focus of the Rice offense, Bailiff likes to show off multiple threats.
• Did you know: The Owls have a 4-foot-9, 135-pound running back on the roster named Jayson Carter. Carter's only carry this season came against UTEP, and his future doesn't lie in football. The son of a former Cal defensive back, Carter was his high school's valedictorian and is pursuing a degree in computer science at Rice, one of the nation's finest math and science institutions.
• Final analysis: Despite the seven-point line, the Liberty Bowl offers an intriguing matchup between two of the most divergent conferences in FBS football. The SEC is a longtime powerhouse while C-USA has been eviscerated by realignment. This is the Owls' opportunity to improve the conference to 3-2 in postseason competition. Ross, who could get a look in the NFL next season, will ride into the sunset with a win in Memphis.
• The pick: Rice 28, Mississippi State 24