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Mississippi State Bulldogs Preview

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The Tigers and Bulldogs are eerily similar on paper and in depth. Here’s how Missouri pulls out another road victory

Arkansas v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Mike Leach teams take a while to get going. Yes, they beat LSU but (almost) everyone does that in 2020. Part of that is the install: Leach famously throws it every down and runs a super simple offense based on being really, really good at a few things and bludgeoning you with speed and repetition. The other part is that he only takes over terrible teams in remote corners of the college football universe. My point: if you have to play Mike Leach, Year 1 is a good time to do it.

Missouri, as a program, has had a great deal of success against Leach, to boot. Granted, all of these matchups were Leach vs. Pinkel but here’s Missouri’s record against the Dread Pirate:

  • 2002: Texas Tech 52 - Missouri 38
  • 2003: Missouri 62 - Texas Tech 31
  • 2006: Missouri 38 - Texas Tech 21
  • 2007: Missouri 41 - Texas Tech 10

Every single one of those Tech teams ranked higher in SP+ than Missouri, especially that ‘07 squad that was 9th in the country (Missouri was 12th). Obviously Pinkel isn’t here anymore and Leach’s Mississippi State team is not what we would expect but this is an evenly matched game that could fall either way. Let’s take a look at the key stats:

Missouri’s Key Stats vs. Mississippi State’s Offense

Mississippi State v Kentucky
Will Rogers
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Disrupt the Passing Game

Mississippi State is not a good offense: the 91st best offense according to SP+ ranks 87th in generating successful plays and 118th in explosive plays. They’re okay at running the ball (50th) but never do it - on the season the Bulldogs have ran the ball 112 times for 449 yards. For comparison, Larry Rountree III, by himself, has 184 rushes for 851 yards. And while they basically throw it every play they absolutely stink at it: 85th in success rate, 118th in explosiveness, 88th in executing on passing downs. But Missouri is fielding an all-freshman cornerback platoon, and while the safeties do help in pass coverage, the Tigers are prone to getting picked apart. Teams have had success dropping 8 guys and making either K.J. Costello or Will Rogers find the open guy while Ryan Walters loves to run man coverage all day every day. Regardless of how it’s done, Missouri’s defense needs to keep Mississippi State’s completion percentage below 60%. The Bulldogs are 12th in the nation in completion percentage at 68.4% and if that gets disrupted they’ll have no answer to counter.

Mississippi State vs LSU
Osirus Mitchell
Photo by Chris Parent/Collegiate Images/ Getty Images

Erase the Big Plays

Mississippi State doesn’t score from the red zone. They’re 124th in converting touchdowns when they are in goal-to-go situations and, like Missouri, tend to flame out around the 30 and kick a field goal, averaging 3.5 points per scoring opportunity (112th). Now, when the Bulldogs score it’s from an explosive play generated from missed tackles or a missed play on the ball or a receiver flat out beating his man. They aren’t the most explosive team in the world but it’s how they get their points so it’s imperative that Missouri keep Mississippi State to fewer than 8 explosive plays on the day. And, if they do connect on a big play, just make sure it doesn’t go all the way.

Missouri’s Key Stats vs. Mississippi State’s Defense

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri
Larry Rountree III
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Feed Larry

I don’t mean to alarm you, but Mississippi State’s defense is pretty dang good. Not Georgia or Alabama lock-down good, but pretty good. 61st in the country, to be exact, while Missouri is currently sitting at 59th. They wipe out short, efficiency-based passing stuff reasonably well and do a great job of shutting down big gains in the ground game. On the flip side, they’ll give up short yardage gains on the ground and get torched on big passing plays. So the scheme is simple: let Larry eat for 20-25 carries, and punish the Bulldogs up front. We’ve all learned by now that Drinkwitz offenses rely on a thriving ground game and they should find that in Starkville. I’m looking for a running game success rate of over 45% at the end of the day to show that they were able to achieve ground dominance.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri
Connor Bazelak
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Stay Ahead of the Chains

The Bulldog defense has a tendency to give up big plays through the air but is one of the worst at doing so in obvious passing situations, good for 111th in the country. However, if you aren’t breaking a big play on them, they’re actually pretty good at getting offenses off the field on 3rd-down. It’ll be imperative for Bazelak to make smart, safe reads to take what the defense is giving him, ideally using a lot of Barrett Banister to find those holes and convert on 2nd-down. At the end of the day I’d like to see Missouri’s standard downs success rate at 50% or higher and stay away from what MSU’s defense does best.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri
Thiccer
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Finish your dang drives

Same as it’s been every game. Missouri averages 4.11 points per scoring opportunity - 72nd in the country - while State’s defense gives up 3.7 points per scoring opportunity - 27th in the country. I love getting our big beautiful Thiccer some frequent action, but Missouri is going to need to maximize their opportunities to stay ahead. I want to see the Tigers average at least 5 points per scoring opportunity at the end of the day.

Conclusion

This game is going to be tougher than a lot of us think. Mississippi State’s strength of schedule is 5th in the country, and while they don’t have a ton of wins to speak of, they’ve scared the hell out of plenty of teams. including Georgia two weeks ago. Missouri is a 1-point favorite in Vegas and a 0.6-point favorite in SP+’s eyes. I’ll say Missouri wins 28-24 but I think it’ll be uncomfortable for almost the entire thing.