By The Associated Press
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Storied Michigan and surprising Mississippi State are back in a bowl game after brief absences.
On New Year’s Day, too.
The Gator Bowl, beginning a four-year contract that pits teams from the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference, selected the Wolverines (7-5) and the 21st-ranked Bulldogs (8-4) for its Jan. 1 game. The bowl went with the winningest program in college football history and a team that enjoyed one of the biggest turnarounds in college football this season.
It’s a matchup bowl officials hope will draw fans and television ratings, and possibly lure a title sponsor.
Michigan is back in a bowl game after consecutive losing seasons under coach Rich Rodriguez.
“We are excited about the opportunity to play a very good Mississippi State team in the Gator Bowl,” Rodriguez said. “They run a first-class operation and our players will really enjoy the experience. I’ve always enjoyed my previous experiences at the Gator Bowl.”
Mississippi State, meanwhile, is returning to a bowl for the first time in three years and first under second-year coach Dan Mullen.
“To get to play in a big-time game and play the winningest program in college football, Michigan, is special,” Mullen said. “To get a premier matchup makes this a special, special football game. We couldn’t be happier.”
Michigan’s last bowl game was the 2008 Capital One Bowl in Orlando. The Wolverines beat Florida in longtime coach Lloyd Carr’s final game.
Rodriguez took over days after the game and endured some growing pains with his new program. The Wolverines went 3-9 in 2008, then 3-9 last season.
With Denard Robinson at quarterback, Michigan won its first five games this season before losing three in a row and falling out the Big Ten race. The Wolverines lost five of seven down the stretch, but Gator Bowl officials felt like they would sell tickets and boost TV ratings.
Mullen replaced Sylvester Croom after the 2008 season and went 5-7 in his first year. The Bulldogs seemingly turned the corner this season, beating everyone on the schedule outside SEC powers Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas. Mullen got a signature win at Florida, his former coaching stop, and nearly knocked off Auburn.
Now, Mullen has the Bulldogs in a New Year’s Day bowl for the first time since 1998. He will face Robinson, a guy he recruited when he took over in Starkville, Miss.
“They have a very explosive offense,” Mullen said. “We’ve watched them play some this year. Explosive. Denard Robinson is one of the most explosive players in the country. He got worn down a little as the season went on, but we’re going to get 100 percent of him. Rich Rodriguez is a great coach. Should be pretty exciting.”
Read more in the Monday NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.