Northwestern will battle Mississippi State in Gator Bowl

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Northwestern will battle Mississippi State in Gator Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- The Gator Bowl ended up with a less-than-marquee matchup thanks to the success of the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA sanctions surrounding two Big Ten programs.

The New Year's Day bowl in Jacksonville landed Northwestern and Mississippi State, two teams with little or no national prominence.

The Wildcats (9-3) and Bulldogs (8-4) accepted invitations Sunday, leaving the New Year's Day bowl game in Jacksonville faced with the challenge of selling tickets and generating a television audience.

Florida and Ohio State headlined the Gator Bowl last year, a matchup that featured Urban Meyer's former team against his future team.

This time, the bowl wasn't nearly as fortunate.

Sure, Northwestern is playing on New Year's Day for the third time in four years. But the Wildcats aren't known for filling stadiums or bringing buzz. The Gator Bowl would have been in much better shape had Big Ten powers Ohio State (12-0) and Penn State (8-4) been bowl eligible. And Wisconsin upsetting Nebraska in the Big Ten title game shuffled the bowl lineup, too.

''A lot of things changed last night,'' Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett said.

Mississippi State is back in Jacksonville for the second time in three years. In 2010, coach Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs were one of the surprises of the SEC. This time, though, MSU limps in having lost four its last five games.

With Alabama (12-1) and Florida (11-1) getting berths in the Bowl Championship Series, that left the Gator with the No. 7 team from the powerful league instead of the sixth. And that's a significant drop-off considering the top six teams won at least 10 games and have some of the league's largest fan bases.

The best angle the Gator Bowl seemingly had going Sunday was the relationship between Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and Mississippi State's Mullen.

They got to know each other pretty well while recruiting the Houston area nearly a decade ago and have stayed in contact since.

''It's going to fun,'' Fitzgerald said. ''You always love to compete, and when you get to compete against a friend, it kind of makes it that much more special. ... It's not about us. It's about the young me in our program.''

Fitzgerald and Mullen said they rarely talk about schematics even though both teams run spread offenses.

''I've called him on a lot of different occasions just about different questions and how to handle different situations, how you set up your schedule and all the things that go on, all the different issues you have to deal with on a daily basis as a head coach,'' Mullen said. ''Pat's somebody that has always been gracious enough to help me out and help us when we had questions or ideas.''

Don't expect Mullen to share any tips on playing well in Jacksonville, though.

The Bulldogs beat Michigan 52-14 in 2011, one of Mullen's more significant wins in his four seasons at Mississippi State.

''I think the challenge of playing a team we've never played before is a great experience for our guys,'' Mullen said. ''That lack of familiarity with the two teams makes it pretty special.''

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Fast Break Morning Update: Cubs visit White House; Blackhawks, Bulls in action tonight

Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from Monday:

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls host Mavericks in search of third straight win

Cubs meet President Obama in unforgettable, symbolic White House visit: ‘They said this day would never come’

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

The state of the Bulls after the first half of the season

Reports: Dolphins assistant Jeremiah Washburn to be Bears' new O-line coach

Does Cubs president Theo Epstein have a future in politics?

President Obama, with Cubs at White House: 'Among Sox fans, I'm the Cubs' No. 1 fan'

At Cubs' White House visit, President Obama touts Michelle Obama's Cubs fandom, shouts out Jose Cardenal

Fire trade for midfielder Dax McCarty

The state of the Bulls after the first half of the season

The state of the Bulls after the first half of the season

Who are the Bulls? The team that beat Cleveland and Toronto or lost to Dallas, Minnesota and Milwaukee?

That's the question Bulls fans are currently asking and the one Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill posed in the video above.

The Bulls have had impressive wins and shocking losses, but neither of those should be surprising at this point. The Bulls are, as Goodwill put it, consistently inconsistent.

The first half of the season has proven that Dwyane Wade still has some memorable moments left to give and Jimmy Butler continues to approach superstardom. On the downside, the drama surrounding Rajon Rondo has meant the 'three alphas' that were hyped up in the preseason haven't been the dynamic trio some Bulls fans had hoped.

Coach Fred Hoiberg doesn't have the shooters his system needs, but can he still rally the troops and get something out of Rondo?

Watch the video to see Goodwill's look back on the Bulls' first half and what could be ahead.