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Rice (10-3, 7-1) — The Owls are back and this time they’re intent on taking out a member of the West and not just keeping it respectable. SEC fans may remember Rice’s heroic first-half against the Johnny Manziel-less Aggies in a nationally-televised season opener at Texas A&M in August. Rice exposed a defense playing without a handful of suspended starters to the tune of 509 total yards and 31 points before Manziel accounted for three scores after intermission. The Owls went on to win 10 of their next 12 games.
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THE SKINNY: Rice is coming off its first outright conference championship since 1957 after beating Marshall in the Conference USA title game, bludgeoning the Thundering Herd with a bruising ground game. The Bulldogs have recently shown a resiliency we weren’t sure they had during a three-game skid to open November, picking themselves off the canvas at 4-6 with consecutive overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss. Coaches often ask their team how will its season be defined during bowl practice and for MSU, a winning streak softens what some say was an otherwise underachieving campaign.
KEY PLAYER: Bulldozer Charles Ross, Rice’s 6-foot-1, 235-pound tailback, has rushed for a career-high 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior despite missing consecutive games early in the season. Mississippi State’s physical front seven is a different animal for Ross who is used to running between the tackles against smaller, less-talented C-USA defenders. Certainly a winnable game for the Bulldogs, limiting Ross from picking up yards in chunks is necessary to avoid Rice’s play-action success. MSU has held each of its last three SEC opponents — including then-unbeaten Alabama — under 400 total yards and the Owls don’t have that caliber of personnel on offense.
WHAT TO WATCH: Putting Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue in its crosshairs, one of the SEC’s most underrated defenses gets a chance to dominate a balanced offense in the postseason. McHargue is a fifth-year senior who has improved with age, increasing his touchdown total every season since 2010. However, he has been sacked a career-high 29 times this season — a problem up front Miss. St. looks to exploit. Rice’s only loss since October was a setback at North Texas on Halloween, a two-interception outing from McHargue. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the Owls’ 10 wins this season. In three losses? McHargue’s been average with four scores and five picks.
FINAL SAY: Dan Mullen saved face in the rivalry finale against Ole Miss after quarterback Dak Prescott turned in a charismatic fourth quarter and overtime to derail the Rebels. All six of the Bulldogs’ losses this season came against programs currently ranked in the BCS Top 25 including second-ranked Auburn. A 7-6 finish wouldn’t meet expectations this fall, but it would ensure MSU of a fourth straight winning season and with most of the top playmakers returning in 2014, summon hope in Starkville. A bowl loss to Rice however would scale back some of the trendy ‘West darkhorse’ talk around the SEC for next year.
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