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.''

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

Do the Cubs have a World Series hangover?

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic joins CSN's Patrick Mooney to talk about the World Series hangover, how last year's playoff loss lingered in San Francisco, Johnny Cueto's quirks, the legend of Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija's ups and downs.

Plus Kelly Crull, Jeff Nelson and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ defensive struggles this year compared to an historic 2016 and how Ian Happ fits into the Cubs’ lineup in both the short and long term.

Listen to the latest episode below:

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.