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MISSISSIPPI STATE AT MISSOURI PREVIEW: It's November. Time to turn the season around.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The S&P+ projections, which you have to admit have been pretty accurate in their Mizzou pessimism of late, say Mississippi State has about a 76% chance of winning tonight, by an average of about 12 points. So I guess head into this preview knowing that's the baseline.

But by now, we know how the 'likely' result plays out: Mizzou's offense generates minimal opportunities and finishes none in the end zone, the defense has just one or two loose possessions, and that makes the difference in the game. We've seen the rerun a few times now.

So as I walk through the frequently discouraging stats below, let's talk about the positives and best-case scenarios. It's been a while since we encountered the best case -- even South Carolina was only a good scenario, not a great one. Mizzou still has a 24 percent chance of winning, after all, so let's talk about how that 24 percent might play out.

Here's the optimist's take on rather pessimistic numbers.

When MSU has the ball...

Standard Downs

MSU Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 119.1 16 123.2 11 push
Standard Downs Success Rate 54.8% 7 41.7% 33 MSU
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.11 64 0.88 1 Mizzou big
SD Line Yards per Carry 3.06 41 2.44 22 Mizzou
SD Sack Rate 3.4% 41 5.4% 52 push

Opportunity No. 1: Dink and dunk. Players like De'Runnya Wilson, Fred Brown, and Donald Gray can get open downfield if you take your eyes off the ball. But priority number one for the MSU offense is the short stuff. Mississippi State is great at staying ahead of the chains but doesn't generate an overt number of big plays. Mizzou, meanwhile, gives up the smallest big plays of anybody in the country.

Obviously it's not a good thing if MSU is able to generate four to six yards per play on standard downs and stay in second- and third-and-manageable. But it's better than getting gashed.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Fred Ross (WR): 38 targets, 30 catches, 284 yards (7.5 per target), 1 TD
De'Runnya Wilson (WR): 31 targets, 20 catches, 296 yards (9.6), 3 TD
Malik Dear (WR): 19 targets, 16 catches, 153 yards (8.1)
Fred Brown (WR): 18 targets, 14 catches, 230 yards (12.8)
Gus Walley (TE): 14 targets, 11 catches, 77 yards (5.5), 1 TD
Donald Gray (WR): 12 targets, 9 catches, 179 yards (14.9), 2 TD
Brandon Holloway (WR): 12 targets, 9 catches, 116 yards (9.7), 2 TD
Ashton Shumpert (RB): 11 targets, 6 catches, 68 yards (6.2)
Darrion Hutcherson (TE): 8 targets, 8 catches, 90 yards (11.3), 1 TD
Joe Morrow (WR): 6 targets, 3 catches, 61 yards (10.2), 1 TD

You see the balance here. Ross, Dear, and Walley are the possession guys, Brown and Gray are the keep-you-honest threats, and Wilson fits into both categories. MSU throws more frequently on standard downs than almost anybody in college football -- they're 126th in SD run rate (43%), behind only UMass and Washington State and ahead of pass-crazy teams like Western Kentucky, Texas Tech, and Bowling Green. The run is an afterthought, in part because it hasn't been that great, and in part because the passing game has worked.

You would think Mizzou has an advantage here; the Tigers have tackled so incredibly well on those short passes, with Kenya Dennis, Aarion Penton, and company fighting off blockers and getting to the ball carrier. But MSU's really good the short passing game, probably better than anybody else Mizzou has faced. Something will have to give.

Passing Downs

MSU Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 115.3 38 120.3 27 push
Passing Downs Success Rate 31.2% 60 28.0% 50 push
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.89 35 1.32 2 Mizzou
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.16 70 2.43 14 Mizzou big
PD Sack Rate 4.6% 25 12.2% 13 push

Opportunity No. 2: Closing the deal. Missouri's defense has been good but not elite on passing downs. The Tigers don't blitz frequently, relying on its awesome pass rush and big-play prevention to form a nice combination. It usually works, but opponents can sometimes catch back up to the chains.

This might not be something MSU can take advantage of, however. Like Mizzou, the Bulldogs have been good on PDs ... but not too good.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
De'Runnya Wilson (WR): 22 targets, 13 catches, 228 yards (10.4), 3 TD
Fred Ross (WR): 18 targets, 10 catches, 149 yards (8.3)
Fred Brown (WR): 9 targets, 4 catches, 55 yards (6.1), 1 TD
Brandon Holloway (RB): 8 targets, 5 catches, 37 yards (4.6)
Donald Gray (WR): 6 targets, 4 catches, 85 yards (14.2)

MSU goes from pass-crazy to run-heavy on passing downs. The Bulldogs run almost as frequently on PDs (37%) as on SDs. And a lot of it stems from trusting Dak. You see above that guys like Wilson, Ross, and Brown are running deeper routes on these downs, and MSU knows that if the pass rush gets to Prescott, that doesn't mean Prescott is going down. He's big, and he escapes the pocket well, extending plays either until someone gets open or until he finds a path downfield with his legs.

The Mississippi State offense isn't amazing, but it keeps you off-balance. Prescott doesn't make many mistakes, and the Bulldogs typically create good field position for their defense. And against an opponent like Missouri, with an offense desperate for great field position and/or scoring help, a lack of mistakes is a good asset.

When Mizzou has the ball...

Standard Downs

Mizzou Offense MSU Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 78.1 125 99.0 67 MSU big
Standard Downs Success Rate 35.0% 127 50.3% 99 MSU
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.06 80 1.00 31 MSU
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.09 126 2.93 78 MSU
SD Sack Rate 6.9% 101 6.0% 42 MSU big

Opportunity No. 3: If you're ever going to find some efficiency... Despite Manny Diaz's preferences, MSU is more bend-don't-break than all-out-attack this year. The Bulldogs prevent big plays but allow a pretty high success rate. Now, this only means so much against Missouri, the second-least efficient offense in the country on passing downs. But if the Tigers used the bye week to get their act together to some degree, then the Bulldogs might be accommodating. In theory, a mediocre offensive line (something to shoot for) could open holes for Russell Hansbrough, and any sort of short success could mean the first play-action opportunities of the season.

Yes, this is pie-in-the-sky optimism. I'm just saying, there will be a chance if Mizzou has its act together for the first time all season.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 26 targets, 10 catches, 144 yards (5.5)
Nate Brown (WR): 22 targets, 16 catches, 165 yards (7.5), 3 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 18 targets, 11 catches, 158 yards (8.8), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 12 targets, 8 catches, 52 yards (4.3)
Jason Reese (TE): 11 targets, 4 catches, 28 yards (2.6)
Keyon Dilosa (WR): 8 targets, 8 catches, 42 yards (5.3)
Ish Witter (RB): 7 targets, 6 catches, 55 yards (7.9)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 6 targets, 4 catches, 12 yards (2.0)

Opponents are running 58% of the time against MSU on standard downs -- basically the middle of the pack. The key here will obviously be getting Russell Hansbrough some room to run.

We've long made fun of the national writers who keep jumping the gun on [Random Blue-Blood Team]'s inevitable rise. Okay ... NOW's the year Nebraska is back. NOW's when USC avoids the brain farts. Etc. (I don't do as much making fun these days because, as it pertains to USC at least, I'm one of those writers jumping the gun.)

I find myself doing the same thing with Hansbrough and Nate Brown. We know what Hansbrough can do, and word is that he's healthier than he's been since the first snap of the season. And when Brown does something good, he looks awesome doing it. You just know he's got a breakout game cued up to release at some point. So ... now? What about now?


Getting either Hansbrough or Brown going would be huge. Predicting it means predicting something that didn't happen in the first two months of the season, so maybe it's a fool's errand. But you just know it could happen.





Passing Downs

Mizzou Offense MSU Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 77.5 117 145.8 5 MSU very big
Passing Downs Success Rate 23.1% 120 26.0% 28 MSU big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.67 87 1.43 7 MSU big
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.54 43 2.17 10 MSU
PD Sack Rate 7.7% 74 7.8% 51 MSU

So ... three "opportunities" is enough, right? I've long called passing downs the play-maker downs ... and Mizzou has no play-makers. So it's hard to find an opportunity on PDs.

Actually, that's not the right tone. Let's try this:

Opportunity No. 4: Eventually those deep balls will connect. MSU's pass rush is solid but not spectacular, and Drew Lock might occasionally have some time to go deep. In theory, Mizzou receivers won't continue to dive, almost make the catch, and fail. Eventually they'll land a haymaker or two.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 20 targets, 10 catches, 91 yards (4.6), 2 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 19 targets, 4 catches, 28 yards (1.5)
Nate Brown (WR): 16 targets, 4 catches, 86 yards (5.4), 1 TD
Ish Witter (RB): 10 targets, 6 catches, 34 yards (3.4)
Jason Reese (TE): 9 targets, 7 catches, 73 yards (8.1)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 8 targets, 7 catches, 45 yards (5.6)
Sean Culkin (TE): 7 targets, 6 catches, 65 yards (9.3), 1 TD
Emanuel Hall (WR): 6 targets, 2 catches, 19 yards (3.2)

Wes Leftwich and Nate Brown have caught eight of 35 passes on passing downs. EIGHT OF THIRTY-FIVE. The four wideouts listed above have combined for a 33% catch rate but are still only averaging 11 yards per catch. No wonder Drew Lock was going deep a lot against Vandy ... what's the point of doing otherwise? The odds of catching intermediate passes aren't any better, and at least if you accidentally complete a deep ball, it's a 30-yard gain.

Seriously, 8-for-35. There has to be some progression to the mean at some point, right? An offense with talent both proven and theoretical cannot remain this bad for this long. That's what I'm telling myself anyway.

Five Keys

1. The trenches ... always the trenches

I'll just copy and paste from last week (and the week before, and the week before that).

Spoiler alert: This is probably going to be the No. 1 key all season. Missouri's offensive line was between bad and terrible for most of four games, and Mizzou had one of the least efficient offenses in the country. ... This key is for both sides of the ball, of course. If Mizzou's defensive line wins its battle, and the Missouri offensive line can either fight to a draw or only occasionally lose, the Tigers might be able to position themselves to win. But this has to be a net win for Mizzou, and preferably a large one.


2. Field position (and turnovers)

For the same reasons as in previous weeks. Mizzou needs the occasional short field or defensive touchdown (or, hey, maybe a special teams TD, though that feels like far too much to ask for), and as good as this defense has been, it hasn't created many (outside of the Georgia game, anyway). Even with a relative breakout performance, the Mizzou offense isn't suddenly going to be capable of driving 70+ yards four times to win a game. It'll need help ... even more help than the defense has already given it.

3. Finishing

And if Missouri gets a short field or manufactures a nice drive ... please, oh please, oh please finish the drive in the damn end zone. Mizzou's red zone execution has been tragic this season. The Tigers probably won't win any game in which that continues to be the trend.

4. First-and-10

Mizzou took the first step (a mostly invisible one) toward good offense against Vanderbilt, actually generating a better than 50% success rate on first downs. The problem, of course, was the self-sabotage that usually followed on second-and-short. But until you nail first down, nothing else matters. Second-and-9 with a shaky line and a freshman quarterback is death.

On the flipside, if MSU's short passing game is clicking, and Mizzou cannot leverage the Bulldogs into passing downs, then it's going to be a long evening.

Well, the weather's probably going to make sure it's a long evening regardless. But you know what I mean.

5. Russell Hansbrough

He's gotten almost no help from his line, and, with maybe only four games left in his college career, he's scored zero touchdowns and experienced zero breakout games in his senior season. That makes me sad. If Mizzou can somehow get him going, the Tiger D should make sure there's a chance to win this game. But again, that's asking for something that hasn't happened since January 1.


The themes here are the same as they've been all year: don't stink on first down. Finish your drives. Figure out the curse someone put on your offensive line two months ago and reverse it. For very obvious reasons, MSU is projected to win and will probably do so.

But Mizzou has been an incredible November team in recent years, and the Tigers still have a chance to flip the narrative on this season. But if they are to do so, it starts tonight.