At the midway point of the season, we’ve finally got a game where the match-up itself is the most interesting story.
Not many of us, including me, took the time to preview Georgia State. Bad idea, it turns out, but we made up for it in word count the next week. Then the end of the BYU game ensured Tennessee and Jeremy Pruitt would be the lead story through Chattanooga and into Gainesville, where the Vols lost 34-3 and it seemed like there was no point in talking about how to beat Georgia.
And there probably wasn’t; the quarterback change got our rightful attention. But with Brian Maurer passing his first test against #3 Georgia, “bowl” has re-entered the vocabulary. It’s still probably a conversation for after a win like this one – I’ve got the Vols at 4.25 in expected win total – but Mississippi State comes to Knoxville at 3-2, not the 5-0 some of us thought possible. One of those losses was at home to Kansas State, the other a 56-23 beat down at Auburn in which they trailed 49-9 90 seconds into the third quarter.
Mississippi State is currently favored at -6.5, making this just the second time in the first six games the line is single digits (BYU +3). Something similar happened last season: the Vols were +10 against West Virginia and +3.5 against Florida, then didn’t see single digits again until +9 at South Carolina.
Last season Mississippi State finished 8-5 but 8th in SP+, due to one of the most difficult schedules in college football after catching Kentucky and Florida from the SEC East. They beat Texas A&M 28-13 then rolled Ole Miss 35-3 in Oxford to end the regular season on a high note, though a loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl soured that a bit. As is the case with the entire field, Year Two has not been as magical for Joe Moorehead.
With all eyes on Maurer, what have opposing quarterbacks done against the Bulldogs this season?
|So. Miss.||18||26||69.23%||234||9.00||2||2||L 38-15|
|Kansas St.||10||18||55.56%||123||6.83||1||0||W 31-24|
Obviously, Bo Nix skews the totals a bit. But so does Sawyer Smith on the other end of the spectrum. On the year, Mississippi State’s 8.1 YPA allowed ranks 102nd in college football. The Bulldogs also have only nine sacks in five games, three coming against Smith and Kentucky.
What’s been most helpful to Mississippi State’s defense: getting off the field on third down, where opponents are converting just 31.4%, 23rd best for a defense. The Vols went 5-of-12 against Georgia; Guarantano was 1-of-3 in late action, though one of those plays was a 3rd-and-20 after a Maurer sack, so the runs go to him.
The Bulldogs have also turned away the opposition five times in 20 red zone appearances, an impressive 75% scoring percentage allowed. But 13 of those 15 scores were touchdowns, making Bob Shoop’s defense feast or famine in the red zone.
Will this be a breath of fresh air for Tennessee’s freshman quarterback after facing Florida and Georgia? The Vols’ young offensive line is banged up, and Mississippi State had last week off. It’s tough to pick Tennessee when the Vols have only beaten Chattanooga. But if you’re looking for a real live opportunity – on a number of levels – this is it.