Roanoke's Around the SEC: MSU Week

The whole world had the chance to scout Mississippi State last Saturday as the Bulldogs battled Alabama for SEC West supremacy. Several of my ACC-oriented buddies informed me after the game that MSU did not look particularly special.

Of course, going into the Mississippi State match-up, Alabama’s average margin of victory at home in 2014 had been over 40 points per game – which puts MSU’s five point loss to the Crimson Tide in some perspective. MSU is an outstanding, experienced and well-balanced team. On offense, they can throw and run – and Dak Prescott executes a good read option. After letting Treon Harris run for two scores in our last game, Prescott’s running skills are a major concern.

Our staff crafted its best game plan of the year after our last bye. MSU, however, is easily the best team we will face in 2014. Offensively, job one will be keeping our QB off his back. Job two will be trying to avoid the turnovers that cost us the Florida game. Our defense will be sorely tested in this match-up – but our best defense remains a competent offense. When our offense cannot produce, our defense stays on the field all night. In SEC games, that has translated to wearing down mightily in the second half.

MSU's defense is loaded, for that matter. The Bulldogs are quick laterally and strong on the lines. While they are sometimes vulnerable to the deep ball – we have to protect long enough to get off the long ball and that has been a problem. Frankly, the scheme we ran against Mizzou is likely our best hope in this game – and Johnny McCrary did a nice job with the quick release patterns in Columbia.

While scheming for a road game against MSU may amount to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – there is a lot at stake for our coaching staff. It is hard not to draw comparisons between this road trip and Vandy’s 2011 journey to Tuscaloosa. In that game, which we lost 34-0, we played hard for another first year coach, but were simply outmatched by a superior team. The fight exhibited by the young Commodores that night, even in defeat, was encouraging and fueled an eventual bowl run. Our staff needs to produce a similar level of poise and grit in Starkville, regardless of the ultimate score.

There are some other complications this week. MSU, for beauty contest purposes, needs to beat us badly. The Bulldogs are still very much in the national playoff picture – and they don’t want to “TCU” themselves in the public eye. At the same time, facing us post-Bama/pre-Ole Miss, makes this is a bit of a trap week for the Bulldogs. MSU has played some uninspired games against unranked opponents and the Florida coaching vacancy (and Dan Mullen’s connection to the Gators) could also be a distraction. Still, on Senior Night in Starkville, coming off a tough loss, we likely earn MSU’s full attention.

The good news is: a game against an outstanding opponent is a great gauge of where our team really stands. The bad news is: some questions are better left unanswered. While Vandy has plenty of talent, the squad has played only one game to its full potential all year. The Commodores also are winless on the road – notably, however, our two closest SEC games have come away from home. (Trivia for Vandy historians: when is the last time Vanderbilt went winless in conference without even getting within single digits of an SEC opponent?) I am expecting a spirited effort from the Commodores early in Starkville, but ultimately MSU has too much talent. Pick: MSU 41, Vandy 17.

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A lot can happen in a week in the SEC. Will Muschamp left our place on top of the world – in the thick of the SEC East race. A week later – he is unemployed. Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks, meanwhile, had dropped three SEC games with epic fourth quarter collapses – yet in Gainesville the Head Ball Coach engineered a last minute, come from behind win over his former employer. It was Spurrier’s seventh straight win following a bye. In Athens, Todd Gurley’s long-awaited return fueled the Bulldogs’ massacre of Auburn – but concluded with a season-ending injury to the Georgia star. Through it all, Missouri keeps winning – even if the wins are ugly. If the Tigers vanquish Tennessee and Arkansas – they will take the East title. A Tiger loss in either game gives the crown to Georgia.

Cupcake games abound this week in the SEC. Auburn will lick its wounds against Samford. Pick: Auburn 49, Samford 7. Bama gets a breather against Western Carolina. Pick: Bama 45, WCU 7. Florida will take out its aggressions against Eastern Kentucky: the Colonels happen to be 9-2. Pick: Gators 38, EKU 14. South Carolina faces a decent South Alabama squad – the Vegas line is 22 points. Pick: Carolina 41, South Alabama 24. Our old friends, 8-3 Charleston Southern, visit Athens. If Mark Richt has watched our tape, he should rely heavily on the power running game here. Pick: Georgia 51, Charleston Southern 16.

In addition to our game, there are two big conference match-ups. Ole Miss visits Fayetteville rested, coming off a bye. Arkansas finally recorded Bret Bielema’s first SEC win last week by shutting out LSU. Arkansas is looking better and better – but LSU’s total inability to throw made the Razorbacks’ life easier. No such luck this week against Mississippi’s balanced attack. Ole Miss will have its hands full with the Razorbacks’ power running game – but Bo Wallace should provide just enough aerial firepower to carry the day. Pick: Ole Miss 24, Arkansas 21.

The most intriguing SEC game of the week pits surging UT against East-leading Missouri in Knoxville. The Vols carved up UK’s defense for fifty points last week. Missouri’s d-line strength, however, will put a lot of pressure on Tennessee’s banged up o-line. Joshua Dobbs’ “escapability” will be on display, perhaps more than he would like. Meanwhile, Mizzou resorted to its power running game behind Russell Hansbrough to subdue Texas A&M (much the way the Tigers held us at bay in the fourth quarter in Columbia.) The success of the Tiger running game helped Maty Mauk get back on track, too, after several sub-par outings in which he was asked to sling the ball too much. This game likely goes down to the wire – with all the Georgia faithful pulling for the Vols. Vegas likes UT by 3 – and the line did not shift (as of this writing) when word of A.J. Johnson’s suspension surfaced. Johnson is the glue that holds the Vols' defense together. The Vols will also be without safety Brian Randolph for the first half as he sits out for a targeting call against Kentucky.

Mizzou remains unbeaten on the road. It is, however, really hard to win back-to-back SEC away games. Nonetheless, Mizzou’s line strength seems to match up well with the Vols’ greatest weakness. My gut originally told me Tennessee would pull this one out. After word of the Johnson suspension broke, and as a high ankle sprain to the Vols' center Mack Crowder may require yet another O-line shuffle – I changed my mind. Pick: UT 31, Mizzou 37.

There will be a lot of pride on the line in Starkville. The administration cannot be happy with the team’s trajectory. Last year a 6-6 MSU team stepped over our 8-4 squad to swipe the Liberty Bowl invitation – this year we visit MSU as 30 point underdogs. Senior-laden MSU has moved in the right direction in 2014, while we are still struggling to find our footing. By the way, here is the answer to the historical trivia – the last time Vanderbilt failed to get within single digits of any SEC opponent was 1986, Watson Brown’s first season at the helm.

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