Mississippi State vs. Northwestern, 2013 Gator Bowl preview: Your guess is as good as mine.

Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE

There might not be a more difficult game to figure out than the Gator Bowl between Mississippi State and Northwestern, two maddening, unpredictable and rather entertaining squads. Noon ET, ESPN2.

5 Players To Watch

Chi Chi Ariguzo (OLB, Northwestern, So.). Ariguzo is both the best Chi Chi in the country and the leader of a pretty exciting Northwestern front seven. Ariguzo (10.5 tackles, for loss, three sacks, six passes defensed, four fumble recoveries), weakside linebacker David Nwabuisi (7.5 tackles for loss, eight passes defensed) and ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams (combined: 16.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles) are all intriguing players, though the interior of the defense can be pushed around a bit. Mississippi State's is a tough offense to read -- the Bulldogs throw a lot on standard downs and run a lot on passing downs -- but the Wildcats are active enough to take advantage of mistakes and force MSU into second- and third-and-long.

Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay (CBs, Mississippi State, Sr.). Mississippi State has had an interesting season. The Bulldogs went 8-4 despite residence in the SEC West, which suggests general quality. But they faced only three Top 50 opponents according to F/+, and they lost by an average score of 38-12. They took advantage of a pillow-soft non-conference schedule, romped over SEC West lightweights Auburn and Arkansas, and played only Kentucky and Tennessee from the SEC East. That's how you reach 8-4 while ranking just 59th in F/+, two spots ahead of UConn and seven spots below Ball State. That said...

...Banks and Slay make for one of the best cornerback duos in the country. They are elite, and they should dominate whichever of Northwestern's corps of efficient, limited receivers (Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones, Demetrius Fields, and Christian Jones were all targeted at least 41 times, they all managed a catch rate of at least 60 percent, and only one -- Jones -- averaged better than 7.0 yards per target) they are lined up against on a given play. MSU doesn't have much of a pass rush, but Banks and Slay will still put pressure on Northwestern to succeed on the ground, because the pass probably won't be a very feasible option.

Chad Bumphis (WR, Mississippi State, Sr.). Heading into 2012, Mississippi State's receiving corps featured quite a few interesting, interchangeable and rather inefficient receivers, from Bumphis, to Chad Smith, to Arceto Clark. But Bumphis emerged from the pack this season, catching 55 of 80 passes for 904 yards (a lovely 11.3 yards per target) and 12 touchdowns. The rest of the corps is as mediocre as expected, but Bumphis gives quarterback Tyler Russell (2,791 yards, 60 percent completion rate, 22 touchdowns, six interceptions) a homerun hitter. And if you have to fear the passing game, the running back trio of LaDarius Perkins, Josh Robinson and Nick Griffin will eat you up.

Kain Colter (QB, Northwestern, Jr.). For a good portion of the season, Northwestern has attempted a bit of a delicate balance. Use Colter at quarterback for standard downs and most run-or-pass situations, but switch to Trevor Siemian when you need to complete a pass. With Siemian behind center, Colter could line up in the utility-man role, serving as a threat to run the ball or run routes. He was targeted with seven passes against Penn State, attempted 22 carries versus Michigan, and attempted 22 passes versus Boston College. He is as unique a player as there is in the college game, but as the season has progressed, he has spent more and more time simply playing quarterback.

After averaging 20 passes per game in the season's first eight games, Siemian attempted more than seven in a game just once in the final four games. A combination of Colter and an improving defense left Northwestern in fewer must-pass situations; that is, in theory, a very good thing, especially considering how well Colter passed down the stretch. Against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois (against whom Northwestern went 3-1, losing only to Michigan in overtime in Ann Arbor), Colter completed 36 of 54 passes for 359 yards, six touchdowns and one pick while still rushing for 390 yards. The more Colter is behind center, the better Northwestern is probably doing.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Who the hell knows what will happen? Both Northwestern's offense and defense have looked pretty good and pretty bad in 2012; both MSU's offense and defense, meanwhile, have looked both great and terrible. MSU started 7-0 (against mostly cake) and finished 1-4, while Northwestern started 5-0, lost three of five, and finished with two wins. As you'll see below, the F/+ numbers like Northwestern quite a bit more than MSU, but the variance here is high, and I honestly cannot figure out how to get a read on this one. Uncertainty is exciting, right?

2. Because one of these years, Northwestern might actually win a bowl game. It is becoming one of the more incredible, and less likely, streaks in college football. You've probably heard all about it. The last time Northwestern won a bowl game, it was January 1, 1949. Someone named Robert Voigts was Northwestern's coach. Jon Voight was 10 years old. Something called The Red Shoes was the top grossing film in the country. Dinah Shore, Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee were the hottest names in music. Your parents quite possibly were not even born yet.

It was a long time ago, in other words. Now, it's not like Northwestern has lost 50 straight bowl games or anything, of course. In fact, the Wildcats didn't attend a single one between 1949 and 1995. But they lost both of the bowls they attended under Gary Barnett, all three under Randy Walker, and now four in four years with Pat Fitzgerald. They blew a late lead in the Alamo Bowl versus Missouri in 2008, they surged to force overtime in the 2010 Outback Bowl, only to lose to Auburn, via fumblerooski no less, in overtime.

They have lost nine bowls in a row. Surely that streak can't reach 10, right? Or maybe 11? At some point, they have to win one, right? Right?

3. Kain Colter could gain 100 passing, rushing or receiving yards. Granted, his pass-catching opportunities have been limited this year, as compared to 2011, but Colter is still a unique, diverse threat, and in a, "Screw it, it's a bowl game," atmosphere, NU could get funky in how it utilizes him. Or not. But let's hope for funk.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Can Northwestern run? As mentioned above, Northwestern's receivers will be outmanned a bit by MSU's corners, which means that a team that is run-heavy anyway, will really need to rely on the run to move the ball. Colter and running backs Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy, who have combined for 2,544 non-sack rushing yards (1,310 from Mark) and 26 touchdowns, could quite easily be up for the challenge. But if they aren't, there might not be much of a Plan B.

2. The Tyler Russell magic act. On standard downs, MSU's offense holds a bit of an advantage over Northwestern; the Bulldogs rank 44th in Standard Downs S&P+, while the Wildcats' defense ranks just 62nd. However, a decent advantage turns into an enormous one when MSU falls behind schedule. MSU improves to 21st, while NU regresses all the way to 95th. You never want to fall into second- or third-and-long situations, but on paper, MSU should be able to catch up if it happens to fall behind schedule sometimes. If NU can close drives and get off the field, the Wildcats' running game could eventually wear down MSU's front seven. If.

3. Big returns, and other matters related to field position. It is boring, but field position matters a lot, and both Northwestern and Mississippi State are generally solid at leveraging the field in their favor. MSU ranks 21st in Field Position Advantage, while NU ranks 24th. MSU has one of the best punt coverage teams in the country, with Baker Swedenburg punting really high, unreturnable balls, while in Venric Mark, Northwestern has one of the most exciting return men in the country; Mark has taken two of 14 returns back for touchdowns. Both teams are good at the field position battle, but if one can derive an advantage here, it will go a long way toward determining the game's victor.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Northwestern -- yes, Northwestern -- by 16.4.
Bill's Pick: MSU by 3. The gut says Northwestern, the brain says to never bet against a streak. But I'll be honest: up to about a 21-point win one way or the other wouldn't be too surprising.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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