Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz says he's expecting to see a "salty" Mississippi State defense in the Outback Bowl Hawk Central
The new year will be ringing in with a most familiar sensation for Iowa football fans: with the earliest kickoff among all college bowl games.
It's the Outback Bowl at noon on Jan. 1 (ESPN2), and Iowa knows this drill, with its sixth appearance in the game in the past decade and a half.
But fans' ears will be ringing with an unfamiliar sound, as Mississippi State provides the Southeastern Conference foil for Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes this time around.
Let's learn a little about the 18th-ranked Bulldogs, shall we?
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Location: Starkville, Mississippi
Mascot: Bully (but more on this later)
Coach: Joe Moorhead (1st season, 8-4; career: 46-17, five seasons)
2018 record: 8-4 overall, 4-4 Southeastern (4th, SEC West)
Best win: A 28-13 home triumph Oct. 27 over then-No. 16 Texas A&M. The game was a season-saver, as the Bulldogs are just 4-3 overall and 1-3 in league play at the time. The victory jump-started a 4-1 stretch to close the season.
Worst loss: Can I say "none?" This is hard. Mississippi State's four losses are to the teams ranked Nos. 1 (Alabama), 10 (Florida), 11 (LSU) and 14 (Kentucky) in the final College Football Playoff poll. I mean, my goodness. But we'll go with a 28-7 road setback to the Wildcats on Sept. 22, not only because that defeat was the most lopsided, but also because it was the conference opener, and nobody saw Mark Stoops' bunch going on a 9-3 run this fall.
Offensive team stats: Rushing, 226.1 yards per game (21st out of 129 FBS teams); passing, 175.6 ypg (111th); total, 402.0 ypg (66th); scoring, 29.1 points per game (64th).
Defensive team stats: Rushing, 104.3 ypg allowed (10th); passing 164.2 ypg (6th); total 268.4 ypg (3rd); scoring 12.0 ppg (1st).
MORE OUTBACK BOWL COVERAGE
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- 70 reasons why Jake Gervase is happy about heading to Tampa
- Tampa travel: If you haven't made the trip before, here's some help
- T.J. Hockenson will soon have a tough NFL Draft decision to make
Apologies to Gene Frenkle, but you don't always need more cowbell.
If you're the type of Hawkeyes fan who was driven over the edge by all the times "Rocky Top" was played when Tennessee blew out Iowa in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl, be warned.
Mississippi State's fan base will be bringing its own unique brand of auditory annoyance into Raymond James Stadium.
The Bulldogs have a decades-long tradition with the noisemaker that started in the 1930s, although nobody can pin down an exact time frame. The introduction coincides with the 'golden age' of Mississippi State football success prior to World War II (tangentially more on that later, too), but that's all.
The SEC tried (and failed) to silence the ringing cowbells by passing an anti-artificial noise polict in 1974. It worked so well for 36 years that the conference finally relented in 2010, as long as fans don't ring them during plays. (Good luck with that ...)
With this year's Outback Bowl being the Bulldogs' first Tampa trip, questions immediately arose about whether you'd be hearing them come New Year's Day. After all, Raymond James Stadium is crystal-clear about those contraptions.
So as not to interfere with guests’ event enjoyment, noisemakers or musical instruments are prohibited into the stadium. This includes air horns, artificial noisemakers, vuvuzelas, aerosol cans and whistles.
Alas, by Sunday night, the university had announced that the cowbells will be allowed en masse.
So it looks like your only prescription for this fever will be for Iowa to own both lines of scrimmage.
... And good luck with that.
It didn't even take a day to acknowledge that the Bulldogs are going to be trouble on the defensive front. They're 11th in the country, averaging three sacks per game. And definite first-two-days draft pick Montez Sweat leads the way with 11 on the season.
Don't sleep on defensive tackle Jeffery SImmons, either, as his team-best 14.5 tackles for loss is the biggest contributor to that top-10 rushing defense as well.
The early rhythm for Iowa will be key, because almost every one of Nate Stanley's subpar outings this year has directly coincided with a significant negative play or missed opportunity before we see the second quarter.
Iowa's defense is good. Mississippi State's offense is so-so. That doesn't mean the Hawkeyes are in the clear.
The Bulldogs' first-year head coach is one reason why.
If the name "Joe Moorhead" doesn't also ring cowbells for Iowa fans, it probably should. He was the offensive coordinator in the 2016-17 seasons for Penn State, which piled up 1,178 yards in two games against Phil Parker's defense.
Yeah, Iowa almost pulled off the huge upset in 2017. And yeah, the Bulldogs don't have anyone nearly as dynamic as Saquon Barkley. But quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is a 1,000-yard rusher, and Iowa looked pretty pedestrian against a similarly deliberate offense in Northwestern down the stretch.
Moorhead will not be surprised by most of the exotic looks Parker might try. This side of the ball will likely be decided by skill, and not scheme.
Something we can be clear on, however: The Bulldogs' program is no juggernaut.
Mississippi State is one of the 10 founding members of the SEC that is still in the 86-year-old conference. And yet, the school has just three double-digit-win seasons in that span (1940, 1999, 2014) and just one conference championship (1941).
In the modern era, the Bulldogs have only one appearance in the SEC championship game, a 1998 loss to Tee Martin and eventual national champion Tennessee.
And, as you might surmise, there is no national championship for Mississippi State in more than 100 seasons of football.
The Bulldogs technically have two mascots.
They're both bulldogs named — get this — Bully. Creative, yeah?
That name extends to both the living, breathing canine (of which we are at iteration XXI, named "Jak," and the human-posing-as-furry-animal version that accompanies particular events.
My favorite little tidbit about this version of the dog Bully is his formal name: "Cristil's Golden Prince," named in honor of longtime Mississippi State radio broadcaster Jack Cristil, who called games for the university for 58 years(!) (1953-2011).
Mississippi State will have its full roster available for the bowl game, despite a benches-clearing brawl in the regular-season finale.
The Bulldogs end most seasons with an in-state rivalry game called the "Egg Bowl" against Ole Miss. This year's edition was comfortably won by Mississippi State, 35-3 on the road.
But an incident at the end of the third quarter turned into a full-scale fight, where every player on both teams received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and multiple players were ejected.
The team feared possible suspensions levied by the SEC for the bowl game, but the conference essentially threw up its hands at the situation and will not be further punishing any players.
Instead, Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen must meet with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork sometime in the offseason to discuss "repeated incidents" in the Egg Bowl series.