The No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) take on the Iowa Hawkeyes (also 8-4) in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day in what should be yet another classic battle between the SEC and the Big Ten.
Here are 10 bold predictions to look forward to. And remember, if I’m wrong, it’s their fault and not mine.
1. Defensive slugfest
It’s no secret that both thrive off terrific defensive play. Iowa has given up just 17.4 points per game this year, good for 10th nationally, and the Bulldogs lead the country in scoring defense, giving up just 12 points per game. Combine elite defenses and the fact that both offenses have had their share of ups and downs this year – State scored just 4 points per game in their 4 losses and Iowa averaged just 5.5 yards per play, 85thnationally – and it’s easy to foresee a defensive slugfest. There’s a reason the over/under is 43.5.
2. Bulldogs will struggle to contain outside pressure
The interior of the Mississippi State offensive line has been a strength. The weak spots, at least in pass protection, have been on the outside with offensive tackles Greg Eiland and Stewart Reese. Those two will have their hands full against Iowa defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Anthony Nelson, who each totaled 9.5 sacks this year. Fortunately for Eiland and Reese, who really struggle with speed and quickness off the edge, Epenesa and Nelson rely more on power than speed, but I still think Moorhead will give them plenty of help on the perimeter.
3. Fitzgerald moves up to No. 2
In career passing yards at Mississippi State, that is. He has 6,055 passing yards, needing just 282 more to surpass Wayne Madkin for No. 2 all-time. It won’t be a walk in the park, because the Hawkeyes have a solid pass defense, and they’ve only allowed 282-passing yards or more in a game just once this year (333 to Purdue), and it would be the most Fitzgerald has produced all year long (he has thrown for 243 twice this year), but I think he comes up big in this game, especially since it’s his last game in a State uniform.
4. Nate Stanley struggles
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has, by and large, has a pretty solid season, throwing for 2,638 yards (58.5 percent completion) with 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. However, he’s going to have his hands full with this defense. I mean, Tua Tagovailoa was just 14-of-21 for 164 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 pick, and he had the best collection of offensive talent in the country around him in that game. Stanley will need to play the game of a lifetime.
5. Fitz throws first INT since October
Fitzgerald threw 7 interceptions in his first 6 games of the season, culminating in a heinous 4-pick game at LSU on Oct. 20. Since then? Zero. Yeah, for real. Those who don’t follow the Bulldogs religiously might be quite surprised to find out that Fitzgerald is currently on a 5-game streak without throwing a pick, which is the longest of his career (as a starter). With that said, the Hawkeyes have an opportunistic defense that has hauled in 18 interceptions this year, tied for 3rd-most nationally, and I think they add to that number in this game.
6. Noah Fant will be missed
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the Hawkeyes will be playing without their best player, tight end Noah Fant, who has opted to focus on the 2019 NFL Draft. Granted, the Hawkeyes still have T.J. Hockenson, who won the Mackey Award this year, being named as the nation’s top tight end (yeah, the Hawkeyes had quite the tandem of TE’s this year). Fant, however, is a freakishly gifted athlete whose presence opened up the bevy of single coverage looks for Hockenson. Without him, the Bulldogs will put heavy emphasis on the Mackey Award winner.
7. State rushing attack goes off
The Bulldogs were 19th nationally in rushing yards per game (226.4), while the Hawkeyes were 9th in rushing yards allowed (104.1). Yeah, this is going to be fun to watch. With that said, the Hawkeyes allowed 157.6 in their past 3 games (against Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska), and the Bulldogs averaged 298 rushing yards in their final 2 contests (OK, Arkansas and Ole Miss aren’t exactly defensive juggernauts, but still). I think with the amount of time Joe Moorhead has to prepare for this game, State executes at a high level and they ride a powerful rushing attack to victory.
8. Sweat moves up to No. 4
In career sacks at Mississippi State, that is. Sweat has 22, which is tied for 5th. He needs 2 to tie Johnie Cooks for 4th and 2.5 to match Willie Evans for 3rd. Iowa has a pretty solid offensive line, allowing just 13 total sacks on the year. With that said, Iowa hasn’t seen anything close to the caliber of defensive line that the Bulldogs employ, led by DT Jeffery Simmons (15.5 TFL’s this year) and Sweat (11.5 sacks this year). As amazing as Sweats sack numbers are, remember that he’s done that in just 25 games.
9. Final score, Mississippi State 24, Iowa 13
As mentioned, I think the State rushing attack fuels the Bulldogs to victory, forcing the Hawkeyes to overload the box and allowing for one-on-one coverages downfield that Fitzgerald, playing his final game, capitalizes on. Combine this with the best defense in the country taking on a mediocre (at best) offense and I see the Bulldogs winning by two scores minimum.
10. Moorhead’s first season ends on a high note
It has been a wild ride for Joe Moorhead in his first season, and ultimately, especially with a bowl win to put them at 9-4, the season should be considered a success. The learning curve is enormous when jumping into the SEC for the first time, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Moorhead made mistakes, but he showed an ability to learn, adapt and change – signature traits of a good coach. A win over Iowa will end the season on a high note, give the program momentum heading into the tail stretch of recruiting (where the Bulldogs are ranked No. 19 nationally according to 247sports) and provide a good jumping off point going into spring ball.