Finding an edge: Comparing Mississippi's SEC schools position-by-position
Ole Miss and Mississippi State both earned tremendous victories over top 10 opponents on a big weekend in the Magnolia State last week. The wins vaulted both teams into the top 10 of the Amway Coaches’ Poll, and the Bulldogs and Rebels are actually tied at No. 3 in this week’s Associated Press Poll.
Seriously, the two arch-rivals finally made the unprecedented leap into the top 3 of the AP Poll, but they’re tied. You can’t make this stuff up.
While fans of both programs are thrilled to see their teams elevated to new heights in the polls, there’s no way they are satisfied with being tied in the rankings. What fun is a rivalry if one team can’t be definitively better than the other, right?
We’ll aim to solve that dilemma here today.
Saturday Down South has taken a position-by-position look at both teams, and we think we’ve determined an edge in what is now one of the most high-profile rivalries in the nation. Here are our findings:
QUARTERBACK EDGE: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Bo Wallace played the game of his life in Ole Miss’ 23-17 come-from-behind victory over Alabama last weekend, and he was rewarded with the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Week honor on Monday. However, the senior has no chance in a head-to-head comparison with Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, a Heisman frontrunner with some video game numbers so far this season.
Prescott has accounted for 20 touchdowns in five games this year, scoring those touchdowns in three different ways (13 passing, 6 rushing and 1 receiving). He’s on pace to rush for more than 1,000 yards this season, and has been as effective a passer as anyone in the SEC, throwing just two interceptions to this point.
Wallace has seven turnovers in five games this year, and although he’s on pace to throw for a lot of yards (more than 3,600), he’s nowhere near as complete a player as Prescott. While Prescott is asked to lead the team as both a passer and a runner, Wallace is simply asked to manage games and limit costly mistakes. So far this season he’s been inconsistent in carrying out those duties, although he did play turnover-free football against Alabama.
Not only is Prescott the more complete player on the field, but he’s also more of a leader off it. He’s encouraged his teammates when they’re down. He’s maintained the team’s focus in difficult circumstances like a night game in Death Valley, and he’s yet to make a back-breaking mistake to harm his offense.
It’s no slight to Wallace, who proved against Alabama he is still among the best quarterbacks in the SEC, but Prescott is the best quarterback in the SEC, and could be hoisting the Heisman in New York by season’s end. The Bulldogs earn the nod at the quarterback position.
RUNNING BACKS EDGE: MISSISSIPPI STATE
This was an easy one to call.
Mississippi State’s Josh Robinson has been one of the best tailbacks in the SEC this season, having rushed for 592 yards and six touchdowns in MSU’s first five games of 2014. He’s fourth in the SEC in rushing at better than 118 yards per game, but more impressively has maintained an average of better than seven yards per carry, showing both his consistency as a game-breaking runner and his ability to pick up yards after contact.
And when it’s not Robinson (or Prescott) carrying the ball, the Bulldogs don’t mind giving the rock to backup Brandon Holloway, who has rushed for 151 yards at better than six yards per carry so far this season.
The Ole Miss run game, meanwhile, has been putrid in 2014. Jaylen Walton leads the Rebels tailbacks with 238 yards on the ground through five games, which, for those without a calculator handy, is an average of less than 50 yards per game. Walton has been a better receiver than he has been a runner this season, which would be fine if Ole Miss had another back to carry the load on a consistent basis.
Unfortunately for Ole Miss, it does not have that tailback. The Rebels other choices in the run game — I’Tavius Mathers, Mark Dodson and Jordan Wilkins — have been ineffective all year, combining to rush for 312 yards between the three of them over the course of five games. That’s less than 21 yards per player per game among the three backs. Simply put: it hasn’t been good enough, and the Rebels rank 12th in the SEC in rushing offense as a result.
Robinson alone has only 123 fewer yards than Ole Miss’ entire team, and when combined with Holloway the two backs shatter the Rebels’ rushing totals before Prescott’s numbers are even taken into account. Mississippi State ranks third in the SEC in rushing offense, and has an obvious edge at the tailback position.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS EDGE: OLE MISS
While Mississippi State loves to open up its offense by establishing the run early in a game, Ole Miss loves to throw the ball and allow its dynamic athletes to make plays in space. It’s the reason Wallace has thrown for so many yards this season, and the reason Ole Miss earns a convincing edge at the wide receiver and tight end positions in this comparison.
The Rebels boast one of the top wideouts in the SEC in sophomore Laquon Treadwell, whose combination of size, speed, strength and hands makes him almost impossible to defend. Treadwell led Ole Miss in receptions as a freshman in 2013, and although he is only averaging five catches per game this season, he has a propensity to create explosive plays for the Ole Miss offense through the air.
He’s averaging more than 14 yards per reception this season, and has four touchdowns on the year, including three in his last two games. When Ole Miss needs a big catch, Treadwell is the first place Wallace looks. When the Rebels want to take a shot at a big play, the play is almost always designed to go Treadwell’s way. He’s a star, and he’s still getting better.
However what separates the Ole Miss receivers from Mississippi State’s group is depth. Mississippi State has a strong tandem of starting wideouts itself in Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson, but the Rebels have five or six guys capable of starting in the SEC, while MSU suffers a big drop in production behind Wilson and Lewis.
Ole Miss has three players with at least 20 catches this season (Treadwell, Cody Core and Vince Sanders), and has five players with at least 11 catches if you factor in Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram. Those players have combined to rack up more than 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns through five games, and the depth Ole Miss has on the outside has helped the Rebels to the SEC’s second-best passing offense.
Mississippi State does not have a single player with at least 20 catches, and aside from Wilson (14 catches for 247 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Lewis (15 catches for 223 yards and 1 touchdown), no other player on the team has more than 9 catches on the year. The Bulldogs third leading receiver, Fred Brown, would be a generous sixth option in the Ole Miss passing game.
The Rebels just have more depth at the position, and their offense is geared toward taking advantage of that depth. Ole Miss earns the edge here.
OFFENSIVE LINE EDGE: MISSISSIPPI STATE
The Ole Miss offensive line has been a major disappointment so far in 2014. We’ve already discussed how miserable the Rebels rushing attack is, and although the Rebs have been better in pass protection in recent weeks, they still rank in the bottom half of the SEC in sacks allowed with nine through five games.
Mississippi State has actually been worse in pass protection, allowing 10 sacks on the year despite protecting a mobile quarterback in Prescott capable of escaping rushers. However, the Bulldogs line has laid down the law in the run game, plowing over opposing defensive fronts to lead MSU to more than 274 yards per game on the ground.
Ultimately, Mississippi State earns the edge because it has allowed far fewer negative plays than Ole Miss has. The Bulldogs have allowed one more sack than Ole Miss over the course of five games, but they’ve only allowed 19 tackles for loss on the year, which is the second-lowest total in the conference. The Rebels have allowed literally twice as many negative plays, ranking second-worst in the SEC with 38 tackles for loss allowed.
It’s pretty simple to understand how allowing negative plays might limit an offense’s productivity, and as a result Mississippi State earns yet another edge in this breakdown.
FRONT SEVEN EDGE: PUSH
Both of these teams have a front seven on defense they can hang their hat on, and both fronts are loaded with future NFL talents. The numbers say Mississippi State has the better front seven, as the Bulldogs rank among the top three in the SEC in sacks, tackles for loss and rushing defense, but the eye test says Ole Miss has just as fearsome a front.
Mississippi State’s Preston Smith has been among the best defensive linemen in the SEC, winning three straight Defensive Lineman of the Week awards to open the season. Behind him, middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney has played like one of the most consistently dominant linebackers in the conference, earning a nod from Mel Kiper Jr. as his top middle linebacker entering the 2015 NFL Draft.
Both players rank in the top 10 in the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss, and both set the tone for their respective position groups, which, as previously stated, are among the best statistical units in the SEC.
But Ole Miss has a ton of talent up front as well. Like State, Ole Miss has allowed only two rushing touchdowns in five games, proving the Rebels front is unkind to opposing offenses when they venture into scoring territory. Ole Miss may have fewer sacks and tackles for loss, but it has not allowed very many big plays in the run game, either, which has helped force opposing offenses to try and throw against one of the best secondaries in football (we’ll get to that in a moment).
Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have savvy veterans up front like Smith, McKinney and Rebels sixth-year senior linebacker Deterrian Shackelford, who has forgotten more about determination and perseverance than most will know in a lifetime. And both defenses boast two of the best defensive tackles in football in sophomores Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss) and Chris Jones (State). Neither player has posted gaudy numbers thus far, but both routinely blow up opposing linemen to create broken plays, even if they don’t make the tackle themselves.
The numbers may not show it, but there’s not much separating these two defensive fronts. I know the purpose of this comparison is to break ties, but it’s only fair to call this one a push.
SECONDARY EDGE: OLE MISS
This may be the most lopsided comparison of the entire breakdown, as Ole Miss is laughably better in the secondary than its counterpart from Starkville.
The Rebels secondary is anchored by All-American safety Cody Prewitt and dominant cornerback Senquez Golson, who continues to lead the conference in interceptions (4) and passes defended (7). Golson’s interception late in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s game sealed Ole Miss’ victory over Alabama, even though Golson had to win a jump ball over the much bigger O.J. Howard to make the play.
Those are the kinds of plays Ole Miss has made in the secondary all year, which has helped the Rebels to the SEC’s best passing defense to this point in the season. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has the worst passing defense in the SEC, allowing more than 328 yards per game through the air. The Bulldogs have still allowed the most explosive pass plays (completions of at least 30 yards) of anyone in the SEC, giving up 10 in a span of five games. Ole Miss has allowed the second-fewest such plays in the conference, giving up just four explosive completions on the year.
The Bulldogs have experience in the secondary with both starting corners, Jameron Love and Taveze Calhoun, returning from last season. However, on a veteran defense with few blemishes, the Mississippi State defense lacks depth in the back-end, which has cost the Bulldogs against some below-average teams this season, including UAB and a now-faltering LSU team sitting outside the rankings.
Mississippi State limited the SEC’s best passing offense in Texas A&M to one of its least productive outings of the year, but those numbers can be credited more to A&M drops than strong play by the Bulldogs’ defensive backs. Ole Miss, meanwhile, did a great job of limiting Alabama’s Amari Cooper last week, and has allowed just one touchdown through the air compared to 10 interceptions as a team.
Need we continue? I’d say the Rebels edge in the secondary is pretty obvious, wouldn’t you?
OVERALL EDGE: MISSISSIPPI STATE
For those keeping score at home, we’ve broken the two teams down across six position groupings, and Mississippi State holds a 3-2 advantage after neither team could establish an edge in the front seven. However, both teams are now in uncharted territory as they both sit near the top of the AP Poll, and depending how the teams handle the circumstances that come with a high ranking, this could all change in a few weeks.
But in terms of how the Rebels and Bulldogs got to this point, it’s actually been Mississippi State with the better team all along. There you go, Bulldogs fans, take these bragging rights and run with them. And for the Ole Miss fans reading this, let this fuel your fire as the season continues this weekend in College Station. There’s plenty of exciting football left to be played in the Magnolia State!