Making an Autozone Liberty Bowl free pick between Rice and Mississippi State is a tough call between an upstart from a mid-level conference, and a punching bag from the SEC. Despite the Rice Owls running their way to a Conference-USA title, along with a staggering 10-3 SU and 8-5 ATS record, they’re moderate underdogs against Mississippi State this Tuesday. Can Rice contain quarterback Dak Prescott and finish their 2013 campaign with yet another upset in a big game?
Rice is coming off a supremely entertaining 41-24 victory over Marshall, where they piled up 487 total yards of offence thanks in large part to running back Charles Ross. That upset victory gave Rice their first conference title in school history, and this has certainly become a program worth following. They had a great run against the spread up until the end of the year where the oddsmakers caved in on them. The Owls went 4-1 SU and 2-3 ATS in their last 5 games of the season.
My Autozone Liberty Bowl free pick has waffled between these two schools for the entire post season. Ross piled up 1,252 yards and 15 touchdowns while Jordan Taylor became one of the more intriguing receiving talents in the country with Taylor McHargue at quarterback. Rice was a well balanced team that leaned more so on the rush than anything else, averaging 240.2 yards per game on the ground (15th in the country). Going up against a Mississippi State defense that has allowed 151.1 yards on the ground should be a major challenge.
But the real difference maker for the Bulldogs will be Dak Prescott, a 6-foot-2, 230 pound beast of a quarterback who tallied 1,657 passing yards, another 751 yards on the ground and 20 total touchdowns against just 7 interceptions. He had big games against Auburn, South Carolina and willed his team to a 17-10 overtime win in the season finale against rival Mississippi.
The Bulldogs also went 7-5 ATS on the year, which proves that they were a pretty strong team in general. I mean, they play in the SEC and have honed their skills against some of the best schools in the country. Their defense is built around some fierce interior lineman and a strong secondary led by Nickoe Whitley, who had 5 picks on the year.
Rice is a tempting underdog play considering the momentum they carried down the stretch, but the Bulldogs really pulled up their socks towards the end of the year as well with a relatively strong 2-2 SU and 4-0 ATS record which included covers against Texas A&M and Alabama.
Conference USA and Rice could continue to rise up in the eyes of college football fans throughout the next few seasons, but they’re in matchup hell against these Bulldogs. That’s why my Autozone Liberty Bowl free pick is leaning towards the team from the stronger conference. I can’t trust a C-USA team against a hard nosed grinder from the SEC.