Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen has led his team to an 8-4 record and Gator Bowl berth in his second season. (MSU submitted photo)
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. â€“ For all the unfamiliarity that the city of Jacksonville may have provided the Mississippi State and Michigan fan bases the last several days, at least the two men on the sidelines feel a sense of comfort.
Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen and Michiganâ€™s Rich Rodriguez have both had success in the local area winning football games in a neutral-site setting.
Mullen, who came to State after serving four years as the University of Florida's offensive coordinator, spent plenty of time in Jacksonville and at the site of today's game, EverBank Field, during his time with the Gators thanks to UF's annual rivalry game against Georgia.
In his Friday press conference, Mullen indicated his previous experience does have a few advantages.
"Being here, as a coach, we're very fortunate," said Mullen. "When I coached up here before, we stayed at the Sawgrass (Marriott, the team's current hotel), so as a coach you know the whole layout of where things are."
Mullen hasn't only coached in Florida's largest city, he's also won there, going 3-1 in his previous four trips.
The Gators handled Georgia 14-10 in 2005 and 21-14 in 2006. Florida dominated the 2008 game in blowout fashion, 49-10.
While experiencing success in the rivalry currently called the Florida vs. Georgia Football Classic, Mullen says his previous wins don't give his MSU team much of an edge today.
"I don't think it's a huge advantage for me except just being very comfortable with my surroundings," said Mullen. "Nothing is a first time for me coming here. From the hotel, to the stadium, to all those things. There's some familiarity and comfort for me in just game day operation."
Rodriguez has a 1-2 record in past Gator Bowl matchups after winning the 2007 contest against Georgia Tech.
The Michigan head coach was a special teams player at West Virginia when the Mountaineers took on a powerful Bobby Bowden-coached Florida State team in the 1982 bowl game.
â€śI was on the kickoff team and only had a few plays,â€ť said Rodriguez. â€śI remember it was raining and it was a muddy field and a fell into a puddle and got really wet.â€ť
After a week of Gator Bowl activities and practice on the campus of the University of North Florida, Mullen's MSU squad got their first glimpse of EverBank Field Friday afternoon.
"It's just a great venue," said Mullen. "I think when our guys get in there and see the locker room, it'll be a great deal."
In Mullen's eyes, it's just another honor for a team going to just the 14th bowl game in school history.
"It's a great experience for a lot of young men who have worked hard this year and not got to experience any of these things before," said Mullen. "We got to go to the beach and I'm sure it's the first time some of these kids have seen the ocean.
"All the great activities, all the great hospitality they've provided us this week have been a tremendous experience."
Tate Forcier ruled ineligible
for 2011 Gator Bowl
Rodriguez knows his quarterback play at Michigan normally rests with one player â€“ Denard Robinson but now itâ€™s much more desperate.
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UM officials announced Thursday evening that Wolverines backup quarterback Tate Forcier has been ruled ineligible for todayâ€™s 2011 Gator Bowl contest (12:30 p.m., ESPN2) for not meeting what theyâ€™re calling university standards.
Rodriguez said in his Friday media conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel that once he learned of the news he sent the sophomore quarterback on a plane back to Ann Arbor.
â€śI would rather not get into all the details because I'd rather focus on the guys here and that will play in the stadium tomorrow,â€ť Rodriguez said. â€śHis status with the school as a student is first and foremost and that is not determined at this point."
Forcier told the Detroit Free Press Monday after a Wolverines practice at Jacksonville University that he has struggled academically and it is being widely reported that his suspension is related to class work.
"I've never been the greatest student," Forcier told the newspaper. "I was always the kid who was street smart but not that smart classroom-wise."
Forcier appeared in eight games this season for the Wolverines, completing 54 of 84 passes for 597 yards, throwing four touchdowns and four interceptions. Last year, he started all 12 games in his first season in Ann Arbor.
In the event of an injury to Robinson, the Wolverines (7-5) will have to turn to freshman Devin Gardner to take the snaps of the Wolverines spread offense.
Gardner, a 6-foot-4 signal caller, was hoping to apply for a medical redshirt after sitting out with a lower-back injury in the middle of the season. Robinson has missed time in nearly every game of his record-breaking season with an assortment of injuries. Due to this history, Rodriguez may try to protect Robinson on his designed runs by having him go out of bounds and slide more often today against the Mississippi State defense.
â€śIf I did, I would never tell you," Rodriguez said. "We're going to have to run the ball to win the game and Denard knows that. He's getting more and more experience and our quarterback has to play his game. Our plan is Denard to take every snap and I'm sure he would tell you the same thing."
The counter to that gameplan of using Robinson the whole game will be the aggressive blitz scheme of Bulldogs defensive coordinator Manny Diaz that accounted for 26 sacks by 13 different players.
â€śWhen youâ€™re playing Denard Robinson, thereâ€™s a premium on hitting him, grabbing him, wrapping him up and surrounding him with 11 different guys on the field at one time,â€ť Mullen said.