After what’s been considered a rough first season under head coach Mike Leach, Mississippi State will look to take a two-game winning streak into the offseason when they face off against No. 24 Tulsa in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
The Bulldogs, who currently sit in the basement of a loaded SEC West, showed what they were capable of in last week’s blowout win over Missouri, however, Tulsa is one of the best Group of Five teams in the country.
Here’s everything you need to know going into the game.
Ah, bowl season—one that in recent times has also become the season of opt-outs.
Fortunately for Mississippi State, not too many players can afford to opt-out of the team’s bowl game. Therefore, none have.
Out of 59 players who technically will be eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft, not a single one landed themselves on an All-SEC first or second team this year, but there’s still a handful, including Osiris Mitchell and Errol Thompson, that have a chance to hear their name called come April.
This game is important for those players as it could be their last opportunity to bolster themselves within the circles of NFL executives, unless they decide to accept the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility granted due to COVID-19.
Tulsa, on the contrary, will be without their best player in redshirt junior Zaven Collins.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebacker, who was awarded the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player, recently announced via his Twitter that he would be foregoing the bowl game in order to prepare for the draft.
During the team’s eight regular-season games, Collins compiled 54 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, and four interceptions—two of which were game-clinching.
Collins will be a glaring gap in a Golden Hurricanes defensive unit that currently sits as college football’s No. 26 best defense, but will it be a big enough loss for a Mississippi State offense that ranks 103 out of 127 teams to take advantage of?
Defense vs. Defense
As already noted, Tulsa’s defense is good.
Tied with Alabama and Notre Dame for No. 7 nationally, the Golden Hurricanes have recovered 10 of the 12 fumbles they’ve forced. On top of that, they are No. 14 in the country in opponent third-down conversion percentage, allowing other teams to convert just 32.8% of the time.
The one issue that lies within Tulsa’s defensive unit is their inability to force interceptions. The team has forced six this year but the now-absent Collins accounted for four of those takeaways.
As the air raid attack has struggled to find its form at Mississippi State, their defense has been a strong suit in 2020.
No. 53 in total defense, the Bulldogs have been exceptional against the run. With a new 3-3-5 scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, Mississippi State finished the regular season at fourth in the SEC and 21st in the country in rushing defense.
The defensive back unit also has some serious bright spots in Emmanuel Forbes and Martin Emerson. Forbes is tied for the SEC lead in interceptions with four. Emerson is fifth in the conference with nine pass breakups. Those two players combined should be enough to slow down Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith, who completes just 56% of his throws.
Two good defenses. Sounds like a recipe for a low scoring ball game.
Emerging vs. Experience
When asked what his thoughts on Tulsa were, Leach immediately began to harp on the experience within the Golden Hurricanes locker room.
“I guess that’s the biggest thing that jumps off the screen is that they play together well. They’re a little bit older of a group, so you know those guys are used to playing with one another,” he said earlier this week.
18 of Tulsa’s 22 starters are either juniors or seniors. Of those 18, highlighted by Jaxon Player (32 tackles, three sacks) and Keylon Stokes (588 total yards, two touchdowns), nine earned All-AAC honors.
For Mississippi State, multiple freshmen have emerged as key players this season. Forbes, who is tied for fifth in the nation in interceptions, is a true freshman, and as of recently, quarterback Will Rogers (1,828 yards, 10 touchdowns) and wide receiver (691 yards, two touchdowns) have really stepped up.
Viewing Information + Prediction
Date: December 31
Time: 11:00 a.m. CDT
Location: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, TX
Prediction: Mississippi State (+2.5) 27, Tulsa 20