This year’s Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl will give us an intriguing ACC-SEC battle between the Louisville Cardinals and Mississippi State Bulldogs. The fun gets started at 4:00 EST on Monday, December 30 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Fans can catch all of the action on ESPN.
Oddsmakers list the Bulldogs as 4-point favorites with an over/under of 62.5 points. Be sure to check out all of this year’s college football bowl odds.
In his first season with the Cardinals, head coach Scott Satterfield surpassed all expectations. Heading into the season, just getting to a bowl game would have seemed like a wonderful overachievement. However, Louisville ended up finishing second behind Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. Marquee wins against Wake Forest and Virginia highlighting a great bounce-back season that saw the Cards finish 7-5 and 5-3 in ACC play after last year’s 2-10 disaster under Bobby Petrino.
It turned out to be just a one-year hiatus from bowl season for Louisville after the Cards went bowling eight straight years from 2010 to 2017. Louisville went 4-4 in bowl games during that span, including a win over Texas A&M in the 2015 Music City Bowl.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State barely sneaked into a bowl game in Joe Moorhead’s second season in Starkville. The Bulldogs suffered a four-game losing streak in the middle of the season and lost six of eight games at one point. However, MSU won three of their final four games, including a slim 1-point win in the Egg Bowl over rival Ole Miss to become bowl eligible the final week of the season.
This will be State’s 10th straight season that ends in a bowl game, a streak started by Dan Mullen in 2010. The Bulldogs are 6-3 in bowls during that time, including a win in the 2011 Music City Bowl. However, Moorhead and MSU fell short against Iowa in last year’s bowl game and need a win against Louisville to avoid just the program’s second losing season in the past decade.
It’s also worth noting that these two teams met two years ago in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Of course, both teams had different head coaches at the time and were in very different places than they are today. For what it’s worth, Mississippi State edged Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals 31-27 in a compelling, back-and-forth game.
Both of these teams are far from perfect, which should lead to an entertaining game, as was the case two years ago when the Cards and Bulldogs crossed paths. Oddly enough, both teams conceded more points this season than they scored. To me, that favors the underdog and the points, so I’ll lean toward Louisville to at least beat the spread in a close game.
The most surprising part about Satterfield’s swift turnaround in Louisville is how quickly he was able to fix the offense. The Cardinals were a disaster offensively last season, but Satterfield was able to install a run-heavy offense that got better as the season went along. Freshman running back Javian Hawkins turned in a star effort this season, racking up over 1,400 yards and gaining nearly six yards per carry. Part of what makes him dangerous is that opposing defenses also have to account for quarterback Micale Cunningham, who is also a dangerous runner, especially when the Cards get close to the goal line.
The UL offense becomes even more lethal when Cunningham is able to throw the ball effectively. While he had some ups and downs in that department, Cunningham finished the year competing over 60% of his passes with 20 touchdowns. Keep in mind that he didn’t begin the season as the starter, so he ended up with decent numbers. Sophomore Tutu Atwell is a huge part of the passing game. He has blazing speed and is incredibly difficult to tackle in space. He had at least 110 receiving yards in four of his last five games, so he’s come on strong late in the year. When teams focus too much on the run, Atwell’s speed can hurt them over the top.
Mississippi State can’t afford to get drawn into a shootout against Louisville. The Bulldogs will be happy to play the game in the trenches with running back Kylin Hill, who rushed for over 1,300 yards this year. In fact, State was among the top-20 teams nationally in rushing yards. However, the passing game was an issue all year. Freshman Garrett Shrader was the starting quarterback late in the year after a season-long QB quandary with grad transfer Tommy Stevens. Shrader helps the Bulldogs in the running game, but he’s not yet a reliable passer.
Admittedly, Mississippi State is better than Louisville defensively. But the Bulldogs did struggle to stop quality offenses teams this year. I don’t think MSU is good enough on that side of the ball to force a low-scoring game that’s played in the 10s or 20s. I think this game turns into a shootout, giving the edge to Louisville, who has more balance and explosiveness on offense. If Mississippi State survives, it won’t be by a wide margin, so I’ll lean toward the Cardinals and the points in this game.