Michigan (7-5, 3-5) returns to a bowl for the first time since the conclusion of the 2007 season and will play in the Progressive Gator Bowl, one of the Big Ten's newest bowl partners. The Wolverines were the last Big Ten team to take part in what has commonly been called the Gator Bowl, defeating Mississippi in 1991. Michigan will take on Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) of the SEC on Saturday, Jan. 1, at 1:30 p.m. ET in Jacksonville, Fla. Head coach Rich Rodriguez will take part in the sixth bowl game of his career and his first at the helm of the Wolverines. The school will participate in its 40th bowl contest, which ranks second among conference teams behind only Ohio State, and is tied with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten lead with 19 bowl wins. Michigan was victorious in its last postseason outing, defeating Florida in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. The Big Ten has posted a 1-4 mark in the Gator Bowl, including a 1-1 record for the Wolverines.
The Bulldogs will be making their first appearance in a New Year's Day bowl since the 1999 Cotton Bowl, and it will be Mississippi State's first trip to a bowl game in Florida since the 1941 Southeastern Conference Championship team traveled to the Orange Bowl. Mississippi State's Gator Bowl berth is the first for a Southeastern Conference member since 1994, and will mark the first time in MSU history the Bulldogs will play a Big Ten foe in a postseason game. MSU has only played three Big Ten opponents in school history, with the last contest coming against Illinois in 1980.
Michigan ranked first in the Big Ten this season in rushing (251.1) and total yards (500.9), second in passing (249.8) and third in scoring (34.3). The total yards figure was sixth nationally, thanks in large... check that, very large part to first-team All-American quarterback Denard Robinson. Michigan's record-setting signal caller became the first player in NCAA history to rush and pass for 1,500 yards or more. He set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,643 yards) and became the first player in NCAA history to rush and pass for 200 in a game twice in a season. Robinson was 155-of-250 for 2,316 yards and 16 touchdowns with a passing efficiency of 152.94. He rushed 245 times for 1,643 yards and 14 touchdowns. He is the nation's fourth-leading rusher and ranks 20th in passing efficiency. Helping create the majority of those holes was first-team All-Big Ten center David Molk, who also provided quite the pass protection so standouts like Roy Roundtree could get open. Roundtree is the league's third-leading receiver with career highs in every major receiving category, collecting 63 receptions for 882 yards and six touchdowns.
The Bulldogs' defense ranked third in the SEC in scoring (20.3) and against the rush (121.7), eighth in total defense (358.1) and ninth in defending the pass (236.4). While MSU will look to stop Robinson both on the ground and in the air, the Bulldogs might be relieved when the Wolverines actually get inside the red zone. Michigan struggled somewhat this year in red zone offense, ranking just ninth with an 82.7 (43-of-52) scoring clip. MSU was fourth in the SEC in defending offenses inside its 20-yard line, allowing the opposition to score 77.8 (28-of-36) percent of the time. The Bulldogs are led by pass rushers Pernell McPhee (DE) and Chris White (LB). McPhee finished the regular season with 9.5 tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, four pass breakups and a team-leading 12 quarterback hurries, while White ranked fourth in the SEC in tackles (105) and tackles for loss (15.5), and eighth in the league with six sacks. K.J. Wright completed his regular season ninth in the conference with 7.8 tackles per game, while teammate Charles Mitchell was 14th at 7.2 stops each time out.
On offense, Mississippi State ranked second in the SEC in rushing (215.8), sixth in total offense (394.3), and 10th in passing (178.6) and scoring (27.1). The Bulldogs' ground game is ranked 16th nationally and anchored in the trenches by All-SEC standout Derek Sherrod, who has started 34 straight games at left tackle. Vick Ballard finished eighth in the conference with 81.1 rushing yards per outing. QB Chris Relf did not have quite the passing numbers you would imagine an SEC quarterback having, primarily because the focus was put on the run game this season. But Relf was also part of that run game, averaging 56.9 yards on the ground each time out. Relf averaged just 125.7 yards in the air and completed 111-of-197 passes (56.3 percent) for 1,508 yards and 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Chad Bumphis was ninth-best in the conference when it came to receptions per game (3.7) and he closed out the regular season hauling in 44 passes for 634 yards and five touchdowns.
Defensively, Michigan struggled in the Big Ten this year, ranking 10th in rushing (187.7) and scoring (33.8), and 11th in passing (260.2) and total yards (447.9). The Wolverines also had a conference-low minus-9 turnover margin, touting just 11 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. They were much stronger in the red zone, however, rating fourth best in the Big Ten with a scoring rate of 84.3 percent by allowing opponent scoring on 43-of-51 trips. But the question will be how will the Wolverines contain a dual-threat QB in Relf and the run game of Ballard. In the regular season finale, Michigan allowed Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor 249 total yards, while letting Dan Herron take off for 175 yards on the ground. Leading the way for the Wolverines are All-Big Ten members Mike Martin and Jonas Mouton. Martin collected 36 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks during an injury-riddled season, while Mouton led the conference in tackles with an average of 10.1 stops per contest, posting a career-high 111 tackles this season. Honorable Mention safety Jordan Kovacs was second in the league with 9.3 hits each time out, followed by J.T. Floyd in 11th at 7.3.
NOTE: CollegeFootballPoll.com's Congrove Computer Rankings (a.k.a. CCR Top 120) give Michigan a 5.89-point edge. It is 9-3 in forecasting the winner of Michigan games this season and 8-3 against the spread. It is also 9-3 straight up with Mississippi State, 5-6 against the spread. (Such information is tracked for the sole purpose of recording the computer's accuracy in picking games and ranking teams. It is not intended for gambling purposes).