Final thoughts (and a prediction) on the 2021 Egg Bowl
Let’s be real for a second.
Ole Miss and Mississippi State fans should be happy. I get it. They won’t appear to be a happy bunch this weekend because the Egg Bowl is gonna Egg Bowl. The rest of us are blessed to get this game on Thanksgiving after a brief COVID-fueled hiatus from its normally scheduled viewing time.
We’re even more blessed that both teams are facing off as ranked teams for the first time since Dak Prescott’s last year at Mississippi State in 2015. Hence, why both fan bases should be happy.
If you had told either side of this rivalry in the preseason that this is where they’d be with their respective Year 2 coach, they would’ve taken it. A 9-win season and a potential top-15 finish is on the table for MSU. A program record for regular-season wins and a trip to a New Year’s 6 bowl is on the table for Ole Miss.
Realistically, that’s the Year 2 bump that both Magnolia State programs could’ve hoped for. But of course, the winner of this game will walk out feeling like a million bucks. The stakes are high, the atmosphere is going to be second to none and let’s just say that the Lane Kiffin-Mike Leach grudge match cannot get here soon enough.
Allow these final thoughts to pass the time before Thursday night’s showdown in Starkville:
1. The Will Rogers stat I’m yelling at everyone who will listen
Are you ready for this? It’s gonna blow you away. Rogers is on pace to finish with more touchdown passes and yards than Gardner Minshew had at Washington State with Mike Leach win 2018. That’s right. Rogers is at 4,113 yards and 34 touchdown passes with 2 games left. He’s on pace for 4,861 passing yards and 40 touchdown passes while Minshew had 4,779 yards and 38 touchdown passes during his breakout season.
If you recall, Minshew finished No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2018. Rogers won’t get there this year, and part of that could’ve been different had he not played through a hurt throwing shoulder against Alabama. Still, though. In the month of November alone, look at this numbers:
- 15-1 TD-INT (T-1 in FBS)
- 407.7 passing yards/game (No. 3 in FBS)
- 188.49 QB rating (No. 6 in FBS)
- 78.8% passing (No. 1 in FBS)
- 8.9 yards/attempt (No. 16 in Power 5)
I threw that last stat in there because that’s crazy efficient for someone who throws the ball nearly 50 times per game. That speaks to Rogers’ ability to connect on those downfield throws when they’ve been there. It isn’t all just swing passes and 5-yard dump-offs. He’s stretching the field better than he has at any point in his career.
Rogers’ midseason turnaround coincided with MSU’s rise, which isn’t a coincidence. When he plays at that level and he’s not taking those costly sacks to fall behind the sticks, he’s capable of picking apart elite defenses. Can Ole Miss’ defense be elite? More on that in a bit.
2. The Matt Corral stat that gives me some pause
Look. You won’t find a bigger Corral supporter than me.
OK, I misspoke. Outside of Kiffin, Jeff Lebby, Ole Miss players, Corral’s parents, his relatives and his close friends, you won’t find a bigger Corral supporter than me. Take that into context as a bring up some not-so-flattering things about him.
In his 5 games since the ankle injury against Tennessee, Corral has 1 game with multiple touchdown passes … and it was at home against Vandy … where his team was 3 touchdowns short from covering the spread. And sure, part of that is the fact that Snoop Conner is a monster and not giving him the rock in the red zone is a fireable offense. Two things can be true at the same time.
Corral is playing hurt. He’s averaging 9 carries per game in his last 5 post-Tennessee contests, compared to 15 he averaged prior to that. I’m not breaking any news by saying that Corral hasn’t been the runner he was before the injury. Part of that is him being self-aware and sliding instead of trying to deliver the blow. Part of that is the coaching staff not wanting to put him in those spots.
But with this game? Yeah, I wonder if Corral, Kiffin and Lebby just put all their cards on the table.
(I elected for a more “G” rating of how to phrase that. You’re welcome, kids.)
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In his last Egg Bowl ever, Corral likely isn’t going to hold anything back. Maybe he’ll have an agent in his ear telling him to be smart and protect himself in certain spots knowing that the pre-draft process is around the corner. But good luck telling Corral to dial it back a notch in this game, especially with what’s at stake.
A lot has changed in 3 years, but we mustn’t forget what the Egg Bowl did to a true freshman quarterback from California who experienced that rivalry for the first time:
Also, a fight broke out, Braxton Hoyett saved Matt Corral’s life, and all players were given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a play (and a TD) that didn’t even count. pic.twitter.com/orZyXvue2J
— The Flying M ™️ (@MSUhistory) November 23, 2021
3. That time of possession number might be as skewed as ever
It should come as no surprise that Ole Miss and Tennessee are last among Power 5 teams in time of possession. That’s the Baylor offense for ya. Neither are complaining. After all, they’re both top-20 offenses. That’s exactly the way you draw it up.
But then look at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are No. 7 in FBS in time of possession. Let me rephrase that. Take out the service academies and MSU is No. 4 in time of possession. This offense can be death by a thousand paper cuts. The Ole Miss offense can be death by a roundhouse kick to the face. Pick your poison. Both are effective.
The question is will either offense try to deviate from their respective styles? Like, will we see Ole Miss try to be a bit more methodical and perhaps slow it down just a touch? Or on the flip side, will we see Leach try and get Rogers in a rhythm with some more tempo and some downfield shots if nothing is working early?
Eh, probably not. We’re talking about Kiffin and Leach. Both coaches are, if nothing else, true to themselves at every turn. The Egg Bowl probably isn’t the time to flip the script.
Last year, MSU possessed the ball for 32:27, but this year, with both offenses even more entrenched in their respective identities, don’t be surprised to see closer to a 2-1 split in that department in favor of the home team.
4. Strength on strength is MSU’s run defense against the Ole Miss ground game
I left out a key piece of that MSU time of possession stat. The Bulldogs are No. 7 in FBS against the run. Zach Arnett’s stock continues to rise with how well that 3-3-5 limits SEC ballcarriers. Here’s how some of these studs have fared against MSU:
- Tank Bigsby: 16 carries, 41 yards
- Chris Rodriguez: 8 carries, 34 yards
- Brian Robinson: 19 carries, 73 yards
- Ty Davis-Price: 13 carries, 51 yards
Dominique Johnson and Isiah Spiller are the only backs to hit the century mark all year against MSU’s run defense, and neither of them hit 110 rushing yards. Arnett relied heavily on veterans like Nathaniel Watson, Jett Johnson and Nathan Pickering to plug up holes and disrupt plays in the backfield.
That’s an excellent test for a versatile Ole Miss ground game that ranks No. 2 among Power 5 programs. Jerrion Ealy is healthy now, which could be pivotal in this game. He’s the home-run threat that Ole Miss might need against a group that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
In Ole Miss’ 2 losses, it averaged just 117.5 rushing yards compared to 256 in the wins. More importantly, Ole Miss was held to just 3.2 yards per carry in those 2 losses compared to 5.5 yards per carry in the 9 wins.
There’s your ballgame, folks.
5. DJ Durkin has to learn from Derek Mason
The book on stopping MSU’s offense used to be play drop-8 coverage, get that big sack with a 3-man rush, get off the field and live to fight another day. Now, though? Auburn showed us exactly why you cannot simply hope to beat MSU playing drop-8 coverage all game. You have to mix up your pressures because if you don’t, there’s a good chance that Rogers is gonna pick you apart.
The key sequence of that MSU-Auburn game a few weeks ago was when Mason finally sent a blitz and Rogers fumbled, but MSU recovered. On the very next play, Mason sent more pressure and TD Moultry got home. Unfortunately for Auburn, a costly sack in a 1-score game turned into a targeting penalty:
The T.D. Moultry targeting play pic.twitter.com/BDnc8Fozdj
— Patrick Greenfield (@PCGreenfield) November 13, 2021
The problem for Auburn wasn’t just the targeting penalty. It was that Mason adjusted too late. Rogers was already in the midst of a record-setting comeback, and Auburn was on its heels all day.
Ole Miss cannot afford to do the same thing. As tempting as it is to hope that Ole Miss single-season sacks record-holder Sam Williams gets home, he needs help from the next level. Maybe that’s blitzing Chance Campbell instead of using him as a spy. Maybe that’s hoping Jake Springer can time one perfectly and get a clean shot on Rogers. Whatever the case, MSU no longer operates an offense that can be figured out with minimal defensive creativity.
Rogers will pick Ole Miss apart if Durkin doesn’t make the right moves.
6. I know these coaches might preach discipline, but … the Egg Bowl is gonna Egg Bowl
I’m gonna throw this out there because it’ll be worth remembering as both teams inevitably engage in extracurricular activities after the whistle. MSU is No. 119 in FBS in total penalties per game (7.8) and Ole Miss (9.0) is No. 128. In other words, don’t be surprised when all of those cliché midweek comments about discipline go by the wayside.
Just because I was curious, I looked up the total penalties and penalty yards in each Egg Bowl in the last decade:
- 2011 — 12 penalties, 125 yards
- 2012 — 9 penalties, 91 yards
- 2013 — 12 penalties, 89 yards
- 2014 — 6 penalties, 50 yards
- 2015 — 9 penalties, 61 yards
- 2016 — 9 penalties, 75 yards
- 2017 — 22 penalties, 209 yards (DK Metcalf fake dog pee celebration game)
- 2018 — 6 penalties, 59 yards
- 2019 — 10 penalties, 75 yards (Elijah Moore fake dog pee celebration game)
- 2020 — 15 penalties, 128 yards
I actually thought those numbers would be worse. In the past 4 years, it’s been an average of 13.3 penalties for 118 yards.
But again, with a pair of teams who have been pretty undisciplined to begin with, we could see flags flying all over the place by night’s end.
My guess? None will be thrown because of a fake dog pee celebration.
And a prediction … MSU 35, Ole Miss 31
Two things are preventing me from picking Ole Miss. One is a less-than-100 percent Corral. Seeing some of his limitations these last few weeks made me rethink this team’s offensive capabilities. The other is with this game in Starkville and a second-to-none atmosphere, I wonder if we’ll see an Ole Miss team that was similar to the one we saw struggle to run the ball against Alabama and Auburn.
This will be a step up from the road game at Tennessee, which was Ole Miss’ best win away from home this year. MSU can just lull you to sleep like few offenses in college football. That, I’m guessing, is what allows Rogers and Co. to wear down the Ole Miss defense.
MSU went from being, as Cole Cubelic called them, “the weirdest team in the country” to now being a team that nobody should want to play. Rogers has provided that much-needed stability. That plays a pivotal role on Thursday night.
Expect plenty of twists and turns. We could get several lead changes in the second half, and perhaps this comes down to a last-minute scoring drive for the home team.
But give me Leach to get his first Egg Bowl victory.