Mississippi State should adopt the old phrase, “Thank God for Mississippi.” With two more SEC Games to play, the Bulldogs are hopelessly mired in 5th place or worse in the SEC West regardless of how they do for the remainder of the season. Don’t confuse their position with a lack of something to play for, however. At 5-5, one win would make them bowl eligible and two would increase their lot. Either way, a bowl trip for Mississippi State could perk up an otherwise disappointing season.
On the other hand, Arkansas needs to remember how close this game was last year in Starkville (38-31 in 2OT) and that this game is every bit as significant as last year’s game with Mississippi State. In 2010, not long before the Hogs’ game with the Bulldogs, we realized that the Sugar Bowl was reachable for the Razorbacks. Arkansas’ Most Important Game in Four Years! The Hogs find themselves sorely needing more style points to convince BCS Voters and computers that the Hogs are better than Alabama at this point in the season. However, the Holy Grail of an SEC Championship Game berth only comes with a win over LSU, AND LSU remaining ahead of Alabama in the BCS Polls. Another full-game highlight reel like Adams, Wright, Johnson and Wilson pulled off last week against Tennessee would help against Mississippi State but would be a Godsend against LSU in light of Alabama’s pitiful six points against the Tigers.
More than anything, since Mississippi State was in the conversation at the beginning of the season, the biggest question is, “What happened?” Houston Nutt might have an epic fail for a season as hidden deficiencies expose themselves all at once, but not Dan Mullen. The single best explanation is their schedule. The Bulldogs have faced LSU, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and lastly Kentucky in conference play. Let’s put it this way, in comparison to BCS Champion style performances as measured by the College Football Champion Index™ LSU, Alabama, and Georgia are Nos. 1, 2, and 4 in the Performance Rankings, and South Carolina is No. 26. Regardless of the year, Auburn’s offense is capable of laying 25 points down in a quarter with a few choice calls from Gus Malzahn.
However, other than against Auburn when the Bulldogs scored 34 points, Mississippi State’s offense simply isn’t scoring. Six points against LSU, ten against Georgia, 12 on South Carolina, and seven on Alabama. That’s 35 total points in four SEC games. Their 34 against Auburn was in a losing effort while the Bulldogs posted their only SEC win with 28 on Kentucky. Arkansas faced a team with similar offensive production when the Razorbacks faced South Carolina which scored 14 on Tennessee, 14 on Mississippi State, 54 on Kentucky, 13 on Auburn and 21 on Vanderbilt in the weeks before they found defeat against the Hogs. But the Razorbacks are getting better each week on defense, and each week more weapons on offense appear and the running game produces more and more.
There’s hardly a question that the Hogs will treat this game as a perfect form tackle with the target being on the other side of Mississippi State squad. (Right, Guys?) The College Football Champion Index has both teams ranked one spot apart in Performance Rank. The main reason for the similarity in Performance Rank is that the Defenses are closely similar. Each gives up about 20 points per game to opponents. The Razorbacks give up an average of 375 yards per game on defense while Mississippi State allows 353 yards per game. Both teams permit ground games within 5 yards of one another. The Hogs allow about 18 yards per game more in passing defense than do the Bulldogs. The Hogs are ranked 21st in pass efficiency defense while the Bulldogs are 27th.
Where the Razorbacks excel and are shoulders above Mississippi State is on offense. The Hogs are putting up almost 39 points per game while the Bulldogs score 26 points per game. The Razorbacks drive a full 80 yards more than the Stark-villians each game, but in the critical factor of passing efficiency which is a measure of the effectiveness of the passing game, Mississippi State ranks 41 positions lower than Arkansas in national rankings.
The Mississippi State offense will feature Vick Ballard who’s producing about 80 yards rushing per game to complement QB Chris Relf’s 30 yards per game rushing. However, Relf’s passing efficiency number of 120.37 ranks only as the 86th best in the country as compared to Tyler Wilson’s at No. 29 (146.14) and Georgia’s Aarron Murray who leads the SEC with a 158.23 passer rating. Together Chris Relf and Vick Ballard account for about 2/3rds of the Bulldogs’ offense. Receivers Arceto Clark and Chris Smith are each averaging 2.7 catches per game.
Looked at another way, this is a prime game for the Razorbacks’ Defense to play run blitzes and by all means, keep Ballard and Relf in front of them, and look for some three-and-outs.
On the other hand, Tyler Wilson needs to avoid those risky throws like the ones which Vanderbilt could have picked off five or six times. Mississippi State D-Backs Johnthan Banks and Nickoe Whitley are tied respectively at No. 8 and No. 11 in the nation in interceptions averaging .50 and .44 per game each. Add in Cameron Lawrence with another couple of picks and on average Mississippi State will pick off at least one ball per game.
But if you were to take a look at SEC Leaders, Jarius Wright leads the SEC in receptions per game (5.89) and receiving yards per game (100.67) while Tyler Wilson leads the SEC in Total Offense with 285.3 yards per game. Special teams can hardly be called a sore spot for Arkansas anymore. Dylan Breeding leads the SEC (7th nationally) in punting average with 44.64 yards per kick while Joe Adams manages to return punts on average of 17.86 yards per touch to lead the SEC and rank 3rd nationally. Despite being out a couple of games for different reasons, Marquel Wade averages 29.60 yards per kickoff return to lead the SEC and rank 12th nationally. Even someone from Mississippi could see that the Hogs are capable of moving the ball anytime it’s in a Razorback’s hands.
For what it’s worth, odds-makers have made Arkansas a 12 to 14 point favorite, but in light of Arkansas hanging 44 points on the sixth-ranked defense in the country and 49 points on Look Red-Eyed’s Volunteers (unscramble Look Red-Eyed), it’s tough to see Mississippi State scoring much more than 24 points or so while the Hogs need every style point they can get.
Should the offense struggle for some reason, consider this. Other than against Alabama, the Hogs’ WORST point total for the year has been 29 points, which not so long ago would have been a really good day. Excluding the game with Alabama, the Razorbacks average about 47 points per game whether against cupcakes or SEC opponents. In light of that kind of point production, it’s worth mentioning that since the Razorbacks entered the SEC, you could almost count on one hand the number of SEC Conference game losses through four quarters of play where the losing team scored 40 points, and that’s approaching 20 years of SEC regular season games. It’s that kind of offense which has in large part made the Arkansas Razorbacks 24-5 since Halloween of 2009.
Look for the Hogs to do much better than last year and hold the Bulldogs to two touchdowns and maybe a field goal to take this game somewhere around 45-17.
On a totally separate matter, I’m late to the ESPN Depth Chart party featuring Tyler Wilson, but I finally saw it on demand. If there was one exchange in that episode which summed up the early part of Tyler Wilson’s 2011 season it was this:
In a quarterbacks meeting reviewing film…
Garrick McGee to Tyler Wilson: So you’re telling me that we’re going trips one-thirty and that you’re looking back there to see if Peacock’s spanning to the outside blitzer?
Tyler: Making sure that we’re good there. [You know he's telling the truth.]
McGee: So if he would have come through, what would you have done?
Tyler: (somewhat sheepishly, but positive) I’d have to make a play. Stand in there.
McGee: And get whacked again, huh?
Later McGee says to Wilson: You can make throws off balance, people can’t make set…Just drives me nuts when you’re makin’ ‘em.