COLUMBIA — In the roller coaster of the college football season, this would appear to be a relatively mild week.
South Carolina hosts Mississippi State on Saturday inside Williams-Brice Stadium, where it has won 14 straight games. The Bulldogs’ latest game came eight days ago, a nail-biting win over … Kentucky. Yes, that Kentucky.
There isn’t much of a reason to expect Saturday to be tense, much less competitive. Or is there? I caught up with Bulldogs beat writer Michael Bonner of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger to look deeper into Saturday’s matchup. You can follow Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonner. Here’s his take on Mississippi State and Saturday’s game.
Wood: Mississippi State has shown the ability to compete with elite teams this season, but (mostly) not for four quarters. What is the barrier preventing MSU from breaking through for an upset win?
Bonner: Mississippi State’s inability to finish games has been its biggest weakness all season. The problem exists in the first half as well. Oklahoma State, Auburn, LSU, Bowling Green and Kentucky all scored in the final minutes second or fourth quarter. The Bulldogs have shown the ability to compete with elite teams such as Auburn and LSU, but let the game slip away in the final 15 minutes. They lost to Auburn in the final 10 seconds. Against lesser opponents, the issue arises due to the fact MSU plays to the level of its opponents. It comes second away from a conference road win in Auburn, yet nearly falls to 1-5 Kentucky at home. The Bulldogs have an inexperienced offense and defense, which contributes to the problem.
Wood: Everything seemed to be built around quarterback Tyler Russell this season, but he’s had trouble staying on the field. How much turbulence has his inconsistent availability created?
Bonner: Tyler Russell’s inability to stay on the field might actually help MSU in the long run. Dak Prescott has emerged as a viable option as both a runner and a passer in Russell’s absence. He’s allowed the Mississippi State offense to become more dynamic and leads the team in passing, rushing and touchdowns. Even after Russell returned from a concussion, Prescott has still been the main option at quarterback. MSU will play both, but if it’s close, Prescott will get more reps.
Wood: MSU fans were ready to elect Dan Mullen governor of the state after the Bulldogs started last season 7-0. Since then, things haven’t gone as well. Has the fan base wavered at all in its support for Mullen.
Bonner: The Mississippi State fan base has been very critical of Dan Mullen. Fans are getting antsy looking for a quality win. The last time MSU beat a ranked team came in 2010. Since then the Bulldogs are 0 for 13. The Maroon and White faithful also jump on the team’s play calling, which has improved since Prescott has seen more snaps at quarterback. Still, not a week passes when fans aren’t asking for offensive coordinator Les Koenning to leave. Mullen isn’t quite there yet, but the momentum is building. A win Saturday or another bowl appearance would likely quiet the noise a bit.
Wood: Let’s talk math. With four games left, MSU is two wins from bowl eligibility. What chances do the Bulldogs have of making a fourth straight bowl trip?
Bonner: Speaking of bowls, the players and Mullen believe they will go to a fourth straight bowl. They built a lot of that hype around a win against Kentucky. MSU now needs two wins in the final five games. The best opportunities came at Arkansas and home against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Looking at Mississippi State’s schedule in August, six wins looked difficult to accomplish, yet Mullen never avoided the topic of a bowl. He took it even further and all-but guaranteed a fourth straight trip. He even talked about how since he’s taken over eight wins have become the basement for the season. While that looks highly unlikely, a bowl game is within reach.
Wood: Who wins, what’s the score, and why?
Bonner: Mississippi State has lost six straight away from Davis Wade Stadium dating back to last season. As stated before, the Bulldogs have lost their last 13 to ranked opponents. Overall Mullen is 2-21 against ranked opponents in his tenure in Starkville. But this might be his best opportunity to snap a couple of those streaks. South Carolina hosts homecoming with a banged up quarterback and running back. And for MSU the law of averages say that at some point they just have to stumble into a win against a ranked opponent. Other than the “well they have to win sometime” argument, there’s really no reason to pick MSU. Mississippi State keeps it close, and has a chance to win, but like it has done all season, can’t close. South Carolina 28-24.