JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Just getting to a bowl game no longer matters to Northwestern.
The 21st-ranked Wildcats want to win one and end a decades-long losing streak.
Northwestern (9-3) hasn't won a bowl since it beat California in the 1949 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats have dropped nine in a row since, matching the longest streak in NCAA history.
They get a chance to stop that skid when they face Mississippi State (8-4) in the Gator Bowl on Tuesday.
"It's the next step in where we want to go as a program," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The consistent success we've had in the program of being in the postseason for five successive seasons is something we're proud of. Winning a bowl game is the next step."
Northwestern has come close the last four years, losing 30-23 in overtime against Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, falling 38-35 to Auburn in overtime in the 2010 Outback Bowl, dropping a 45-38 decision to Texas Tech in the 2011 Ticket City Bowl and then losing 33-22 to Texas A&M in last season's Meineke Care Car Bowl.
But as Fitzgerald and his players were quick to point out, close means little.
"I feel like everyone on this team is motivated to be that first team to get that bowl win for the first time in a long, long time," quarterback Kain Colter said. "The seniors have done a good job in building the foundation that we have. We're on the rise right now and a lot of that is credited to them. If we could send them off the right way and add another part to their legacy and continue on to our legacy, that would be great."
Mississippi State dropped four of its final five games to end the regular season, but it has won five consecutive bowl games — the longest current streak in the country.
"We've had a lot of big wins this year and some tough losses this year," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "Our guys want to go out there and finish it off the right way and send our seniors out winning a bowl championship."
The Bulldogs haven't lost a bowl game since the 1999 Peach Bowl. They rebounded the next year to beat Texas A&M in the Independence Bowl and since have postseason wins against Central Florida (2007 Liberty Bowl), Michigan (2011 Gator Bowl) and Wake Forest (2011 Music City Bowl).
Mississippi State's last trip to Jacksonville ended with a 52-14 romp over the Wolverines. The Bulldogs scored 42 unanswered points while dominating the final three quarters.
The lopsided affair added to a recent run of Southeastern Conference success against Big Ten opponents on New Year's Day.
The SEC is 8-2 against the Big Ten over the last four years, with wins coming in the Gator, Outback and Capital One bowls.
"Playing in the Southeastern Conference, a lot of people see it as one of the elite conferences," MSU linebacker Cam Lawrence said. "But I get excited to play a new school. It's always fun to have a new experience and a new opponent and a new challenge. ... It's a bowl game and anything could happen."
Maybe Northwestern can even win one.
Fitzgerald's team probably should have won more games this season. The Wildcats blew double-digit leads in the second half against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan.
But all those heartbreakers can be erased, or at least diminished, with a bowl victory.
"We want to erase that losing streak," backup quarterback Trevor Siemian said. "This is a new team with different players. We probably stopped thinking about the bowl game last year a day after that game. We'd really like to get the win for the seniors, end the losing streak and get a 10-win season.
"Definitely a lot of goals to be playing for. It's right there in front of us. It's an awesome opportunity and we want to make the most of it."
Gator Bowl Preview Capsule
The Associated Press
No. 21 Northwestern (9-3) vs. Mississippi State (8-4), 11 a.m. CST (ESPN2)
Line: Northwestern by 1
Series Record: First meeting
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Bowl streaks. Northwestern has lost an NCAA-record-tying nine consecutive bowl games, including four in the last four years. The Wildcats' last bowl win came in the 1949 Rose Bowl, a 20-14 victory over Cal. Mississippi State has won its last five bowl games dating to 1999. It's the longest streak in the nation. The Bulldogs' streak includes a 52-14 romp over Michigan two years ago in the Gator Bowl.
Northwestern's offensive line vs. Mississippi State's defensive front. The Southeastern Conference is known for having speedy D-ends, and Mississippi State has two in Denico Autry and Preston Smith. The Wildcats need to contain them, especially in passing situations.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Northwestern: Versatile junior Venric Mark has done a little of everything this season. He has 1,310 yards rushing, 101 yards receiving, 355 yards on kickoff returns and 282 yards on punt returns. He has eight 100-yard rushing games and 14 total touchdowns — 11 on the ground, one receiving and two on punt returns. He averages 170.7 all-purpose yards a game.
Mississippi State: Chad Bumphis has 55 receptions for 904 yards and 12 touchdowns, and was at his best in November. He caught 24 passes for 414 yards and eight scores in the final month of the regular season. He could be in line for a big day against the Wildcats' porous secondary.
FACTS & FIGURES
Northwestern is 0-4 in the Sunshine State, losing in the 2010 Outback Bowl, in the 2007 Citrus Bowl and in games at Miami (1968) and at Florida (1966). ... If the game is close, Northwestern could have an advantage with place-kicker Jeff Budzien. The junior has made 17 of 18 field goals this season. ... Mississippi State lost four its final five games. ... MSU senior CB Johnthan Banks won the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's best defensive back. ... MSU CB Darius Slay hails from nearby Brunswick, Ga., and when he returned home for Christmas, he was able to give dozens of tickets to family and friends. That's because teammates offered him their unused tickets. "My teammates showed me much love there," Slay said. "I'm going to have my own fan base."