The question of which team is the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC could be answered on Saturday night, as Mississippi State travels to Athens to take on Georgia in one of Week 4’s biggest matchups. While Georgia was projected as the SEC East favorite by some this preseason, Mississippi State was considered a top 25-30 team and picked by most after the top three in the SEC West. But as last week’s win over LSU indicated, coach Dan Mullen’s team might be the No. 2 team in the West behind the Crimson Tide.
After a disappointing 8-5 debut at Georgia last season, Kirby Smart seems to have his program trending in the right direction. The Bulldogs defeated Appalachian State in the opener, won at Notre Dame in Week 2 and soundly defeated Samford last Saturday. As expected, Georgia’s defense is among the best in the SEC and has yet to allow an opponent to score more than 19 points in a contest this year. The unquestioned strength of this Georgia team is its defense and ground attack, as quarterback Jacob Eason remains sidelined with a knee injury, forcing true freshman Jake Fromm to handle the starting job. Fromm has performed well in his first action but faces a tough stretch, starting with the matchup against Mississippi State, followed by road tests against Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
Mississippi State is the toughest job in the SEC West, but Mullen has transformed this program into a consistent winner. The Bulldogs have played in seven consecutive bowl games and won 19 contests from 2014-15. This team finished 6-7 last fall in a rebuilding year but got better over the course of 2016. Dynamic quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads the way on offense, and running back Aeris Williams has also picked up where he left off at the end of 2016. But the bigger storyline through the first three games for Mississippi State has been its defense. Under new coordinator Todd Grantham, the Bulldogs appear to have made significant progress on this side of the ball.
Georgia leads the all-time series 17-6 against Mississippi State. These two teams have not played since 2011. Georgia has claimed 10 out of the last 11 meetings against Mississippi State.
Mississippi State at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Georgia’s Rushing Attack Against Mississippi State’s Defense
The strength of Georgia’s offense rests with its ground attack. However, generating a push on Saturday night could be a challenge for Kirby Smart’s offensive line. Mississippi State is limiting opponents to 101 rushing yards per game and a paltry 2.6 yards per carry. Coach Dan Mullen’s defense has been especially active around the line of scrimmage so far with 20 tackles for a loss, and standout LSU running back Derrius Guice was held to 76 yards in last week’s game. Sophomore Jeffery Simmons is the leader up front for Mullen and coordinator Todd Grantham, with linebacker Leo Lewis and junior college recruits Johnathan Abram (safety) and linebacker Montez Sweat helping to bolster a unit allowing just 9.3 points per game.
Can Georgia’s offensive line open up enough holes for the ground attack to thrive? This unit entered the season with a few question marks but has led the way for an average of 4.9 yards per carry. The Bulldogs are averaging 230 yards per game on the ground, which ranks fourth in the SEC through three weeks. Nick Chubb returned from a serious leg injury in 2015 to rush for 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Sony Michel posted 840 yards last season, with Brian Herrien (363 yards) also factoring into the mix. All three running backs return for 2017 and form one of the nation’s best backfields. In addition to Chubb, Michel and Herrien, the Bulldogs can also utilize talented freshman D’Andre Swift.
With freshman quarterback Jake Fromm back under center, the Bulldogs need to win first and second down to keep the distance on third downs manageable or stay out of too many obvious passing situations. Will Chubb and Michel have a big night and surpass LSU’s production on the ground? Mississippi State is likely to load up the box and force Fromm to win through the air. If Chubb and Michel struggle, it’s hard to see Georgia’s offense being able to muster enough points to win.
2. Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams Versus Georgia’s Front Seven
Strength versus strength. The chess match between Dan Mullen’s offense and Kirby Smart’s defense is the must-see battle on Saturday night. Mississippi State enters Athens ranked first in the SEC in rushing offense (297.7 ypg) and scoring (47.7 ppg). Also, the Bulldogs average 6.8 yards per play and have generated 15 plays of 20 yards or more. Georgia has allowed only 14.3 points per game and 4.01 yards per play through three matchups. Smart’s defense has succeeded in wreaking havoc around the line of scrimmage by generating seven sacks and 22 tackles for a loss.
In last week’s win over LSU, Mississippi State dominated the line of scrimmage. Mullen’s offense gashed the Tigers for 285 rushing yards and two touchdowns, with running back Aeris Williams chipping in 146 and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald posting 88 yards on 14 carries. Fitzgerald and Williams got all of the postgame attention from last week’s win, but a tip of the cap goes to the offensive line, which simply manhandled LSU’s front. Fitzgerald worked over the offseason to sharpen his passing skills, and he's passed for 543 yards and seven touchdowns so far. The run game leads the way for Mullen, but Fitzgerald will have opportunities to test Georgia’s secondary if Smart decides to load the box or devote extra attention to the running game.
Will Mississippi State’s offense match its success from last week against Georgia? On paper, this is a tougher matchup than the one Fitzgerald faced last week. LSU’s defense isn’t hurting for talent, but there’s a cast of young players receiving significant snaps. Georgia’s defense is loaded with upperclassmen, including standout linebackers Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter. Smith leads the team with 19 stops, and Carter paces the defense with three sacks. There’s no shortage of speed and athleticism for Smart to counter Fitzgerald and Williams.
Can Georgia hold the edge and prevent Mississippi State from attacking the perimeter? And on early downs, Smart’s defense has to keep Fitzgerald and Williams in check, leading to obvious passing situations. If Mississippi State replicates last week’s performance, it’s tough to see Georgia winning this game.
3. Georgia QB Jake Fromm
Sophomore Jacob Eason is getting closer to returning from a knee injury, but all signs point to Fromm making his third career start on Saturday night. The true freshman completed 10 of 15 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in his debut against Appalachian State and held his own on the road at Notre Dame in Week 2 by throwing for 141 yards on 16 completions. Fromm didn’t have many opportunities to throw in an easy win over Samford last week. He attempted just 13 throws and completed eight for 165 yards and three touchdowns.
Stepping into the starting job as a true freshman in the SEC is never easy. However, Fromm has handled the pressure so far and is 2-0 as a starter. Saturday night’s matchup is the next opportunity for Fromm to impress, as Mississippi State’s defense enters this game ranked second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. The Bulldogs have allowed just one touchdown through the air and are holding opposing quarterbacks to just 43.3 percent in completion percentage. Grantham is known for his aggressive approach, so it’s no surprise Mississippi State has seven sacks and 20 tackles for a loss through the first three games.
While a trip to Notre Dame was a tough assignment, Saturday night’s game versus Mississippi State is the toughest assignment of Fromm’s young career. The Bulldogs are talented, athletic and fast in the front seven, headlined by rising star Jeffery Simmons. Can Grantham confuse Fromm with different looks or consistently put the freshman into third-and-long situations? Or will Fromm continue to play with poise and provide the offense with some much-needed balance?
The battle of Bulldogs is one of Week 4’s toughest games to predict. Mississippi State was impressive in last Saturday’s victory against LSU, and the defense could stuff the run like it did against the Tigers, forcing Fromm to win it through the air. However, Fitzgerald and Williams probably won’t run wild against Georgia’s defense. If Georgia is unable to get the ground attack going, Fromm is going to have a tough night battling out of third-and-long. The guess here is Georgia’s defense slows Fitzgerald just enough to limit the production on the scoreboard, and the homefield advantage is enough to pull out a three-point win.