NC State-Mississippi St. Preview
Non-conference scheduling played a major role in Mississippi State and North Carolina State qualifying for a bowl game.
Dak Prescott's dynamic play at quarterback was also vital for the Bulldogs.
Prescott enters his final game looking to lead Mississippi State in a rare matchup with the Wolfpack at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Wednesday.
Both Mississippi State (8-4) and North Carolina State (7-5) finished with winning records thanks in large part to going unbeaten in four non-conference games.
The Bulldogs outscored Southern Miss, Troy, Louisiana Tech and Northwestern State of the FCS by an average of 30.0 points, with the closest matchup decided by 24. Those games helped make up for losing all four SEC meetings with ranked opponents while scoring 17.3 points per game.
The Wolfpack's favorable scheduling outside of the ACC came under heavy scrutiny. They eased to victories by an average margin of 34.3 points against the FCS' Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion, South Alabama and Troy.
"I think a lot of people wanted to see us play a 'Power Five' team in those first four (games)," coach Dave Doeren said. "I haven't thought about the difficulty of it. I look at it as a challenge.
"Winning's important, period. I think as a coach, why do you coach, you coach to be victorious. You don't coach to lose. This game won't define us one way or the other. ... (Winning) will give us a better taste in our mouth going forward."
First they'll have to disrupt Prescott, a preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy.
The senior finished the season among the best quarterbacks in the SEC, completing 66.9 percent of his passes for 3,413 yards with 25 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also made things happen with his feet, leading the team with 541 rushing yards and 10 scores while averaging 3.7 yards per carry.
Prescott's ability to dominate a game was on display in a 51-50 win at Arkansas on Nov. 21. The senior put the Bulldogs ahead for good with a 14-yard TD pass to Fred Ross with 3:05 remaining - his career-high fifth touchdown pass of the game - and finished with a personal-best 508 yards on 38-of-50 passing while racing for two more scores.
Prescott was much more subdued in the season finale a week later, completing 31 of 42 passes for 245 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while adding a rushing TD in a 38-27 loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
"Prescott makes a lot of throws with people around him, (and) he's good with pressure in his face," Doeren said. "He can move to his right and his left and he's got a couple of receivers who are all-SEC players in Ross and (De'Runnya) Wilson. ... We definitely are playing an offense capable of scoring a lot of points."
Although the Wolfpack's defense has 12 interceptions and 31 sacks, the unit has surrendered an average of 395.9 total yards - 191.3 rushing - while going 3-5 in league play following the soft non-conference schedule.
N.C. State was ravaged for 553 yards, including 374 on the ground, in a 45-34 loss to then-No. 11 North Carolina on Nov. 28.
Like Mississippi State, the N.C. State offense is led by a mobile quarterback heading into the final game of his collegiate career. Jacoby Brissett, who transferred from Florida after 2012, has 19 touchdowns compared to four picks while connecting on 61.3 percent of his passes for 2,448 yards. He's also scampered for 303 yards and five TDs on 113 carries.
His legs tried to make up for his arm against the Tar Heels. Brissett completed 17 of 37 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while rushing for a season-high 128 yards and two scores on 20 attempts.
Jaylen Samuels is Brissett's top target. The sophomore tight end led the team with 64 receptions, 599 yards and 14 combined touchdowns.
The Bulldogs defense hasn't been very formidable while splitting the last four games, giving up an average of 414.8 yards, including 191.5 rushing.
Coach Dan Mullen is hoping the practices between the final two games will lead to improvement.
"You want to peak playing your best football at the end of the year," Mullen said. "There are a couple of keys to that: one we have to execute at a high level with the time off. Two, we've got to be healthy and fresh."
Mullen will have assistant head coach Tony Hughes by his side for the last time after Hughes was hired by Jackson State of the FCS to become its head coach.
"He's done a great job with this program, he's been with me since the beginning here," said Mullen, who was hired in December 2008. "And he's as responsible as I am or all the players are for the success that Mississippi State's had as part of what we've done."
N.C. State has won three of the five all-time meetings with Mississippi State, including the most recent in the 1995 Peach Bowl. A victory this time could silence the Wolfpack's scheduling critics.
"At the end of the day, the SEC is the SEC," defensive end Mike Rose said. "They're considered the premier conference, so a win against one of their better teams would be good for us."