JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Gator Bowl ended up with a less-than-marquee matchup thanks to the success of the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA sanctions surrounding two Big Ten programs.
The New Year's Day bowl in Jacksonville landed Northwestern and Mississippi State, two teams with little or no national prominence.
The Wildcats (9-3) and Bulldogs (8-4) accepted invitations Sunday, leaving the New Year's Day bowl game in Jacksonville faced with the challenge of selling tickets and generating a television audience.
Florida and Ohio State headlined the Gator Bowl last year, a matchup that featured Urban Meyer's former team against his future team.
This time, the bowl wasn't nearly as fortunate.
Sure, Northwestern is playing on New Year's Day for the third time in four years. But the Wildcats aren't known for filling stadiums or bringing buzz. The Gator Bowl would have been in much better shape had Big Ten powers Ohio State (12-0) and Penn State (8-4) been bowl eligible. And Wisconsin upsetting Nebraska in the Big Ten title game shuffled the bowl lineup, too.
"A lot of things changed last night," Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said.
Mississippi State is back in Jacksonville for the second time in three years. In 2010, coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs were one of the surprises of the SEC. This time, though, MSU limps in having lost four its last five games.
With Alabama (12-1) and Florida (11-1) getting berths in the Bowl Championship Series, that left the Gator with the No. 7 team from the powerful league instead of the sixth. And that's a significant drop-off considering the top six teams won at least 10 games and have some of the league's largest fan bases.
The best angle the Gator Bowl seemingly had going Sunday was the relationship between Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Mississippi State's Mullen.
They got to know each other pretty well while recruiting the Houston area nearly a decade ago and have stayed in contact since.
"It's going to fun," Fitzgerald said. "You always love to compete, and when you get to compete against a friend, it kind of makes it that much more special. ... It's not about us. It's about the young me in our program."
Fitzgerald and Mullen said they rarely talk about schematics even though both teams run spread offenses.
"I've called him on a lot of different occasions just about different questions and how to handle different situations, how you set up your schedule and all the things that go on, all the different issues you have to deal with on a daily basis as a head coach," Mullen said. "Pat's somebody that has always been gracious enough to help me out and help us when we had questions or ideas."
Don't expect Mullen to share any tips on playing well in Jacksonville, though.
The Bulldogs beat Michigan 52-14 in 2011, one of Mullen's more significant wins in his four seasons at Mississippi State.
"I think the challenge of playing a team we've never played before is a great experience for our guys," Mullen said. "That lack of familiarity with the two teams makes it pretty special."
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