"This is a business trip," said cornerback Johnthan Banks, winner of the Thorpe Award, honoring the nation's top defensive back. "We haven't come here to party around. We came here to win a football game."
Banks has backed such a statement in the past. The senior has been part of two bowl victories for Mississippi State, including a Gator Bowl win in 2010.
Similar to Northwestern's winningest-ever senior class, the Bulldogs' group is looking to leave its mark on the program with another bowl triumph. Banks is focused on making that happen.
"I love to win and I hate to lose," Banks said. "If we lose it will be stuck with me for a long, long time. I'm looking forward to going out there, competing, and having fun."
Mississippi State arrived in Jacksonville on Wednesday, following weeks of preparations in Starkville. The last time the Bulldogs were hosted in the Gator Bowl, they faced the spread attack of Michigan's offense, but didn't see much competition against a depleted Wolverines team, trouncing it by a 52-14 margin.
On this New Year's Day contest, Northwestern provides a tough challenge, seeking its tenth victory of the campaign. Coach Dan Mullen has a vastly different roster than the one he took to Jacksonville in 2010, and he feels this team is better prepared.
"I think our focus has been better this week than it was two years ago—overall focus while we've been at practice," said Mullen. "But our coaches and seniors have understood that and done a great job of keeping that attention of our team. When it's time to work, we work."
The regular-season finale offered a similar challenge, but different results, for Northwestern and Mississippi State. Both teams faced their deflated arch rivals—NU hosting Illinois; MSU battling Ole Miss. While the Wildcats trounced the Fighting Illini, it was a different story for the Bulldogs, who were upset by the Rebels in the Egg Bowl game.
It has been 37 days since Mississippi State's stunning loss, and they turned the page to Northwestern immediately after the Gator Bowl matchup was set.
"I think our guys are pretty motivated to finish it off the right way," said Mullen. "We had a lot of big wins this year and some tough losses this year. I think our guys want to finish off the season the right way and send these seniors out winning a bowl championship."
The Bulldogs have their sights set on a third-consecutive bowl victory, and have remained workmanlike in preparing for the game.
"We wouldn't want to let our team come down here as a team and embarrass ourselves," Banks said.
On New Year's Day, only one of the two Gator Bowl participants will leave with an elusive victory.