Mississippi State and Wake Forest were bowl eligible by the narrowest of margins, but both programs usually are at their best once reaching postseason play.
Only one can emerge victorious Friday, when the Bulldogs and the Demon Deacons put their stellar postseason track records on the line in the Music City Bowl at Nashville, Tenn.
Wake Forest (6-6) had a fast start to the season, improving to 4-1 after a 35-30 win over then-No. 23 Florida State. The Deacons' fortunes went south from there, though, dropping five of their final six. They did nearly win at eventual ACC champion Clemson on Nov. 12, losing 31-28 on a last-second field goal, but the regular season concluded with their most humbling defeat -- 41-7 at home to SEC also-ran Vanderbilt.
Still, Wake gained bowl eligibility Nov. 19 by beating Maryland 31-10, and landed a bid to Nashville for its first postseason appearance in three years.
"I thought that we played hard all year," coach Jim Grobe said. "We got good effort out of our guys, and we were leaking a little bit of oil at the end of the season -- we'd played so many good teams in a row.
"... We didn't bring much into the Vanderbilt game, but I thought throughout the season, we got as much out of these guys as we could."
Grobe certainly got plenty out of sophomore quarterback Tanner Price, who blossomed after an inconsistent freshman campaign. Price completed 60.9 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions -- none in the season's last four games. His favorite target was Chris Givens, a junior wideout who hauled in 74 receptions for 1,276 yards and nine scores.
"Tanner had only two or three games that I can think of where he didn't play his best football, and unfortunately, the times that he didn't play his best, most of the other guys didn't play their best," Grobe said. "But that's kind of how it goes when you have a team that throws the ball as much as we do. You kind of hang it on the quarterback, and the good news is that he played well in a lot of games this year.
"He's a young guy that's going to get better and better, and hopefully we get his best game in the Music City Bowl."
The Demon Deacons frequently bring their best effort to the postseason. They're seeking their third consecutive bowl game victory and sixth in seven postseason appearances since 1992. Their most recent was a 29-19 win over Navy in the 2008 EagleBank Bowl.
Continuing that bowl success may not be easy against Mississippi State (6-6). The Bulldogs are going for their fifth straight bowl victory, occurring over a 13-season span. They routed Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day following last season.
While this year's Bulldogs didn't approach the success of the team that finished 9-4 in 2010, they did salvage a second straight year of bowl eligibility after beating archrival Mississippi 31-3 on Nov. 26 to win their third consecutive Egg Bowl.
"I'm really proud of our guys -- the way they battled; the way they fought," coach Dan Mullen said.
"They know how important it is for us and how important it is for our fans -- the people of the state of Mississippi."
This marks the first consecutive bowl appearances for the Bulldogs since they defeated Clemson in the 1999 Peach Bowl and Texas A&M in the 2000 Independence Bowl.
Mississippi State's biggest threat on offense is senior running back Vick Ballard, who ran for 1,009 yards this season and has scored 29 total touchdowns over the past two years. Ballard enjoyed one of his finest performances in the Egg Bowl, running 23 times for 144 yards and a score and also catching a TD pass from quarterback Chris Relf.
The Bulldogs' defense is anchored by lineman Fletcher Cox, a junior who finished with 12 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks in eight SEC games.
Mississippi State likes to start fast, having outscored the opposition by a combined 70-9 in its last three victories.
This is the first meeting between the schools.
The Bulldogs had higher expectations than usual before the season, but did enough to slip into the postseason. Mississippi State has won its past four bowl games and are 7-6 in bowl games. Wake Forest had an up-and-down season, but should be revved up to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2008.