WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Wake Forest has something to prove to the Southeastern Conference.
The Demon Deacons are eager for another chance at the SEC in the Music City Bowl against Mississippi State after Vanderbilt routed them by 34 in the regular season finale.
"It kind of is another shot, because Vanderbilt came up and they beat up on us pretty bad," running back Brandon Pendergrass said Thursday. "We felt like we, although they're a great team and played very well and beat up on us, that we didn't play to our full potential, and we know that coming into this bowl game, we're going to have to prepare very hard."
Coach Jim Grobe says Wake Forest (6-6) was "leaking oil pretty good at the end of the year" after a 5-2 start deteriorated with losses in four of its last five games — including a 41-7 thumping at the hands of the Commodores.
"We were fried on a couple fronts, honestly," Grobe said. "Mentally, just this season took its toll on us. We had five wins for a long, long time and then went through a really tough stretch. ... By the end of the season, we were just worn out."
That stumbling finish appeared to have the Demon Deacons postmarked for the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. But Virginia Tech's selection to the Sugar Bowl bumped most of the other Atlantic Coast Conference teams up a spot in the league's bowl pecking order.
That set up a matchup against the Bulldogs (6-6) on Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn. — and another crack at a team from the mighty SEC.
"We really didn't think we were actually going to get this bowl game because of ... our performance versus Vanderbilt," linebacker Kyle Wilber said. "We were all really disappointed in ourselves, and we all thought we were going back to the Military Bowl or the Independence. But at the end of the day, we had a successful season, we became bowl eligible, and that's what we wanted to do, and now we want to go showcase what we really have."
All the Bulldogs' losses came to SEC teams that finished in the top 25 of the BCS rankings, from No. 1 LSU to No. 25 Auburn.
So the Demon Deacons — the only team to produce a 100-yard rusher against Florida State this season — will have to find a way to run the ball against a Mississippi State defense that gives up fewer than 20 points per game.
The defense will have to come up with a plan to slow coach Dan Mullen's version of the spread offense.
And everyone involved at Wake Forest will have to figure out a way to handle all those cowbells.
The clangy noisemakers — a symbol of pride within Mississippi State and its football program — will be permitted inside LP Field and fans may ring them during dead-ball situations but not during play, said Scott Ramsay, president of the Music City Bowl. He said that's the same policy used at the Gator Bowl last year when Mississippi State routed Michigan.
Receiver Chris Givens — a native of Jackson, Miss. — is the Wake Forest player most familiar with those cowbells, having attended plenty of Mississippi State games as a kid.
"You really can't tune them out, because it's something you've never heard at a football game before," Givens said.
Pendergrass can't wait to hear them for himself — if only to find out if the roar from the Demon Deacons' trademark motorcycle can drown out that clanging.
"That'll just be great, just the atmosphere, being able to play an opponent from the SEC and them bringing an SEC atmosphere in, and us bringing an ACC atmosphere in," Pendergrass said. "Being in Nashville and being in an NFL stadium, that's a football player's dream."