In boxing, styles make fights. It’s no different in the game of football. Mississippi State caught the right match-up when it was announced they would face off with Georgia Tech, a team that features a triple-option attack, in the Orange Bowl (Mississippi State’s first major bowl since the 1941 Orange Bowl.)
Even though the Yellow Jackets are a favorable draw, it doesn’t mean the game will be cakewalk. “Their style of offense, Georgia Tech wants to play from ahead,” Mississippi State’s Head Coach Dan Mullen said. “They want to run the clock. They want to use ball control. They want to force you to limit the possessions you have so you don’t have possessions to come back late. They force you to press on offense and make you do stuff you’re not comfortable with.”
Which brings me to the Bulldogs first key to victory: pushing the tempo.
Mississippi State has pushed the tempo at times this season when they needed to put pressure on the opposing team. Against Georgia Tech, they need to come out the gate and get the Yellow Jackets out of their comfort zone.
Obviously, Georgia Tech will try to control the time of possession battle and play smashmouth football. Mississippi State’s ability to pass should prevent them from doing that, though. Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs All-SEC signal caller, will likely be juiced to employ that strategy. He struggled as a passer the last couple of games, which has hurt his draft stock. If the Bulldogs speed up the tempo, they’ll likely be passing the ball a lot. And if Prescott lights it up, he could enter the draft knowing that he will get taken in the first two or three rounds. (More on Prescott in Hot Takes)
If Mississippi State’s offense falters, the Bulldogs front seven, one of the best in the nation, has the players to slow down the Yellow Jackets option attack. It will be daunting challenge getting past a front that includes future NFL players like Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney.
“I think that it is going to be a challenge for us to run the ball effectively against them.” Georgia Tech Head Coach Paul Johnson opined on facing the talented front seven. “They are very physical up front. We can only do our best and line up against the players that they put in front of us.”
Mississippi State has the players up to front to stop the Georgia Tech option attack. But they are still susceptible to the big play through air.
My second key: protect against the deep ball.
The Yellow Jackets don’t exactly excel at passing the ball. They don’t have to be…going against the Bulldogs porous secondary. J.T. Gray, the Bulldogs All-SEC Freshman, move back to safety should help some. But I think the Bulldog safeties can be exploited the way they have the whole season (Mississippi State is allowing 285.2 passing yards per game).
“You look at the quarterback, how he likes to throw the ball, the way he wants to locate the ball, (and) those types of things,” said second-year cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend, who will be calling the plays following the departure of Geoff Collins to Florida . “They run the ball so well, that we have to do a great job of seeing our key, taking our time and making sure we’re doing the right things while we’re out there covering.”
The Bulldogs have the advantage from a talent and match-up standpoint. But they aren’t experienced in prime-time games. Georgia Tech, which played in the Orange Bowl in 2010, has that experience.
My final key to victory: handle the moment. I know some view bowl games that aren’t played for the national championship as meaningless. But for Mississippi State, this game has huge implications. Win and you’ve capped off a special season. Lose and you’ve lost three of your last four games and proved the critics correct who called your early-season victories flukes correct. So, Mississippi State needs this game to legitimize their season.
“For our program it is so special,” Mullen said of playing in the Orange Bowl. “A lot of people wondered what we could do and accomplish. It’s an unbelievable reward for us to come and play in one of the most prestigious bowls there is with the historical ramifications of doing so.”
To win, the Bulldogs not only have to play up to their potential. But they also have to realize the moment. They didn’t realize the moment against Alabama or Ole Miss. It cost them a shot at the national championship. The Bulldogs can’t make the same mistake again.
The Bulldogs may have the talent to match-up with the triple-option attack. It doesn’t mean that talent can’t mess up by playing “hero” ball.
So, it’s imperative to play smart, disciplined and focused on Wednesday. If the Bulldogs do, then they’re setting themselves up for another great season in 2015.
- Potential Early Entrants: Mississippi State has three potential early entrants: Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and Benardrick McKinney. McKinney is pretty much “a lock” to enter the draft—as he’s projected to be a first-round draft choice by most prognosticators. This game will solidify his first-round status.
Prescott is the most interesting name. He’s probably a mid-round guy after struggling late in the season throwing the ball. But if he has a great game through the air, he could potentially boost his stock and bolt to the next level.
Robinson is in different situation. Even with a good game, he’s likely a mid-round guy at best. But I’ve always believed running backs should enter the draft early if the opportunity is there. Stay tuned.
- Senior Prospects: While the Bulldogs have several talented underclassmen, they have several seniors who will try to boost their stock or enter the draft conversation. Preston Smith and Jameon Lewis are the only seniors whom are sure-fire top choices. The rest: Dillon Day, Ben Beckwith, Blaine Clausell, Kaleb Eulls, P.J. Jones and Matt Wells need an impressive bowl game and pre-draft workout to secure their draft position. They’ll get shots in the NFL regardless. But there’s more security in getting drafted by a team that wants you.
- Potential Breakouts: Ashton Shumpert, Nick James and J.T. Gray are three young Bulldogs who I feel have a chance to announce themselves on Wednesday.
Shumpert finished the season strong–flashing some of that four-star potential many thought he had the last two games.
James was steady the whole season as a run stopper and gap filler. With the Yellow Jackets being a run-heavy team, he could showcase himself and emerge as a key component in next year’s Bulldog defense.
Gray was named an All-SEC freshman after only five games of action. With a move back to strong safety during bowl practices, he could position himself as MSU’s starter at that spot, even with the impending arrival of Jamal Peters over the summer.
- Chris Jones: I think it’s an understatement to say that Chris Jones had a sub-par season (26 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.). His numbers weren’t horrible. But he’s capable of much better production. The Orange Bowl would be a great game to remind everyone who the real Chris Jones is.
- Finish Recruiting Strong: Mississippi State has a top-15 class nationally and brought in immediate help with a couple of Juco transfers: Martinas Rankin, Donald Gray, Jonathan Calvin. But they still have a couple of holes to fill. The Bulldogs could use another offensive lineman or two and need to possibly secure the commitment of another safety prospect. And most importantly, the Bulldogs need to keep the aforementioned Jamal Peters in the fold. He’s a potential year-one starter or two-deep player at the safety position. It’s paramount that the “Dawgs” fend off the Alabama’s and Ole Miss’ of the world for his signature. He’s that good.
Coach Mullen has yet to name a new defensive coordinator. Geoff Collins replacement is a no brainer, in my opinion. Manny Diaz, MSU’s former defensive coordinator who had the original “Pyscho D” in 2010, is the natural fit. Diaz and Mullen did have issues–considering Diaz almost quit before the season due to personality conflicts. I feel they need each other, though. Mullen needs a defensive coordinator who he doesn’t have to break the bank to bring on. Diaz needs to be in the big time again after getting scapegoated at Texas.
Diaz would have the parts to play his attacking style defense. Talented defensive linemen(Chris Jones, Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson). Fast linebackers ( Beniquiz Brown, Richie Brown and Gerri Green). And while the safety position still needs to be upgraded, Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun are similar to the Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield corner tandem in 2010.
It would be a seamless transition and would keep Mississippi State’s defense at the top of college football.
Jeremiah Short, Peach State College Sports Contributor
Catch me on the “SportsKrib” on Wednesday’s 8-9 Central and Thursday’s 8-10 Central. Follow me on social media @DaRealJShort or check out my facebook page JShortJournalist or my Google Plus page J.Short- Journalist.