By Brad Locke and Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
If everything “shakes out” as expected, Mississippi State has a very good chance at playing in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss could be headed to Birmingham.
The Bulldogs, who just wrapped up an 8-4 regular season, won’t know for sure until Sunday, but Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said on Tuesday that his choice is likely to come down to MSU and Vanderbilt (8-4).
Vanderbilt’s future destination will likely have an impact on Ole Miss (6-6). The Rebels are in line with the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham but could end up in the Music City Bowl.
South Carolina (10-2) could also be in the mix if it’s still available by the time the Gator picks, but it’s a candidate for some higher-tiered bowls.
“If it shakes out the way it should shake out, we’re going to be sitting here looking at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. That would be my guess,” Catlett said.
However, there are few sure things right now in regards to SEC teams and bowl games. The winner of Saturday’s SEC championship game between Alabama and Georgia will clinch a spot in the BCS title game, and Florida looks like a lock for the Sugar Bowl.
But beyond that, the bowl possibilities are numerous. Georgia, if it loses, could wind up in the Capital One Bowl – which gets the next pick of SEC teams after the Sugar – or could fall to the Outback or Chick-fil-A.
LSU could win up in the Capital One Bowl. If not, the Cotton Bowl will likely take either LSU or Texas A&M, and that choice could have a domino effect.
“It’s been a little bit more cut and dry in the last few years,” Catlett said. “The unusual part of this year is they have so many SEC teams playing at a high level. All year long you’ve had five and six teams in the BCS top 10 from the SEC.
“Then you had Mississippi State and a couple of other teams sitting there with eight wins looking like they could get to nine.”
MSU played in the Gator Bowl two years ago, defeating Michigan, 52-14. Catlett said his bowl had a good experience with State and wouldn’t mind having it back.
He also said MSU’s poor finish – it lost four of its last five games, including a 41-24 setback to rival Ole Miss – shouldn’t be too big a factor.
“Normally you’d be looking at the teams winning at the end of the season, but I love (to quote) Kirk Herbstreit: You have to take their body of work,” Catlett said.
The SEC has 9 bowl tie-ins, but two of them won’t be filled this season: The Liberty Bowl and the Independence Bowl. The Liberty shares a pick with the BBVA Compass Bowl, and the latter has priority this year.
Ole Miss looks to be the leading candidate for the Birmingham game.
“We certainly are very interested in Ole Miss being here,” BBVA Compass Bowl executive director Mark Meadows said. “I don’t know of any scenario where we would take another team in place of Ole Miss.”
But such scenarios do exist, Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said.
“Once the decision is made with the Gator, the Outback and the Chick-Fil-A with other teams, and we see what happens with Vanderbilt, if Vanderbilt goes somewhere else, then I think the Music City Bowl is definitely in play for Ole Miss. We’ll see what happens this weekend,” Bjork said.
Bjork expects Ole Miss to receive strong support wherever it goes.
The Rebels finished 3-5 in the SEC in Hugh Freeze’s first season after winning just one SEC game the last two seasons under former coach Houston Nutt.
“Our fans are hungry to continue to watch this team. We’ve played hard throughout the season,” Bjork said. “Our offense has been explosive, our defense has played hard. I think people will go wherever we play, whether that’s Birmingham, Memphis or Nashville or Alaska. I think people are going to support this team. We’re excited about wherever we’ll be going.”