Coburn Gillies, Assistant Sports Editor
The Miami University football team (6-6) is looking to wrap up the 2016 campaign with a victory over Mississippi State University in its first bowl appearance since 2010. This time, the RedHawks will make the trip to St. Petersburg, FL to play in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Returning to postseason play following a six-year hiatus, for any team, is an exciting time. Throw in the opportunity to matchup with a team from the vaunted Southeastern Conference, and the ante is upped even more.
"I'm excited about the bowl we're going to, to be honest. I had time to digest and get over the initial shock of playing an SEC team, which, obviously, that's the first thing you see," head coach Chuck Martin said.
This will be MU's ninth bowl appearance in program history as the 'Hawks look to improve upon their 5-3 mark in postseason play.
Mississippi State (5-7) hails from the West Division of the SEC, where it finished in sixth place. The Bulldogs are bowl eligible despite their losing record because of a lack of eligible teams and their high NCAA Academic Progress Rate.
This will be MU's first matchup against an SEC opponent since falling short on the road, 17-6, against the University of Missouri in 2011.
"I know a lot of people on their roster, I know the players they have. Obviously they played their best football in the last game of the year against Mississippi. They're a very talented team," Martin said. "So we know there's a daunting task ahead of us. We told the kids that."
In past bowl play, the RedHawks have had no problem dealing with the SEC, as they boast a perfect 3-0 record against the conference that produced last season's national champion.
Coach Martin was expecting the date of their bowl game to be in the December 17 and December 22 range. Much to Coach Martin's delight, MU managed to avoid a trip to a bowl that fell on any of those dates.
"We get to finals. You know, we're going to have to have a little bit of bowl practice during finals. We're not going to be leaving in the middle of finals week, which we may have had to do, or really practice, it would almost be game week of finals week."
On the offensive end, redshirt junior quarterback Gus Ragland has been outstanding in his six starts. The Cincinnati Moeller graduate ignited MU's current six-game win streak, throwing for 1274 yards, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the process.
Defensively, Chuck Martin's Mid-American Conference leading squad will be led by the dynamic defensive back duo of redshirt junior Heath Harding and sophomore De'Andre Montgomery. Harding was selected to the All-MAC first team defense following a 65-tackle and four-interception season. Montgomery was named to the All-MAC third team defense after a campaign in which he also picked off four passes and made 61 tackles.
Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs' offensive efforts will be spearheaded by sophomore quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Trying to fill the shoes of Dak Prescott, who left MSU last season is now a Rookie of the Year and MVP candidate for the Dallas Cowboys, the dual-threat signal caller has completed 54 percent of his passes for 2287 yards and 21 touchdowns.
"Explosive athletes at every single position on the field. Just the speed of the game will be something that we certainly couldn't replicate in practice, and it will take a little bit of getting used to," Martin said. "Obviously huge dual-threat quarterback. Their quarterback rushed for over 1,000 yards."
On the defensive end, the Bulldogs will be supported by Richie Brown. The senior linebacker has 93 tackles, four for a loss, and 1.5 sacks this season.
"We'll be challenged at every position, on every play," Martin said.
Miami is riding a six-game win streak entering the matchup. MSU is coming off of a 55-20 victory over in-state rivals Ole Miss.
While the prospect of playing an SEC team is daunting, Martin and the 'Hawks aren't too upset with the bowl location.
"Obviously, St. Pete. The venue there, being in St. Petersburg in December doesn't seem like a bad idea to pretty much anyone; and just the excitement of playing an SEC team," Martin said.
The ninth edition of the St. Petersburg Bowl will take place on Dec. 26 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL. Kickoff is scheduled for 11:00 a.m.