Two creative and balanced offenses will be on display when the Mississippi State Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 SEC) travel to College Station on Saturday to take on the Texas A&M Aggies (5-2, 3-1), highlighting one of the better national matchups in Week 9 of the college football season. The big questions in this SEC West showdown: Which stars will grab the spotlight, and which defense is ready to take on the challenge?
Mississippi State travels to Texas with a full head of steam after dismantling Kentucky 45-7 in Starkville in Week 8. Everything was clicking for the Bulldogs, who racked up 441 yards of total offense behind standout junior dual-threat QB Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald completed 18-of-26 passes for 155 yards with a touchdown and rushed for a team-high 115 yards on 12 carries with two more scores. The MSU defense was stout, allowing 134 yards passing and 115 rushing.
The Aggies entered their bye week with a momentum-building 19-17 win over Florida on Oct. 14. A&M was outgained by Florida 355 to 251 but buckled down on defense when it counted and got two big plays from receiver/return specialist Christian Kirk to set up the win in the Swamp. The offense limped along against the Gators but stuck with true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond through an 8-for-24, 180-yard, one-interception game in the road victory.
Mississippi State at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 7:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Mississippi State -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The production of Kellen Mond
Mond's performance in the pocket has been a roller-coaster ride for head coach Kevin Sumlin and the 12th Man. He played well against Arkansas but seemingly took a step back against South Carolina. He did surprisingly well against Alabama, hitting 19-of-29 passes for 237 yards with a score and pick, but then turned in a dud against Florida. Mond hurt the Hogs and SC with his running abilities but was hemmed in against the Tide and Gators. The Aggies offense works best when their quarterback keeps the opposition off balance with the run and the pass.
Mississippi State is fielding a top-10 total defense, allowing just 281 yards per game, including games against Georgia and Auburn. The Bulldogs will be ready for Mond.
2. Stopping Nick Fitzgerald
The secret to beating MSU this season is stopping the Bulldogs dual-threat QB from running, which is easier said than done. In losses to Georgia and Auburn, the talented junior rushed for 47 and 56 yards, respectively, and was held out of the end zone. In every other game this season, Fitzgerald has at least one rushing score. The trick is for defenses to win on first and second down, forcing third and long for MSU.
A&M’s defense is fantastic on third downs, allowing a conversion only 29 percent of the time. The Aggies are strong against the run this year as well, holding teams to 135 yards a game and setting up a great matchup within the game. Aiding the Aggies' cause, MSU’s leading receiver Keith Mixon (16/238/1) is questionable for Saturday.
3. Can A&M run the ball?
For the first five games of the season, the Aggies were running the ball down the opposition’s throat. Over the last two contests, the Aggies could muster only 71 yards against Alabama and 83 against Florida. Trayveon Williams leads the Aggies in rushing with 440 yards and five touchdowns on 91 carries, but he has not come close to the 100-yard mark since rushing for 203 against UCLA to open the season. His 10-carry, 18-yard performance against Florida will not cut it in SEC play. Backup Keith Ford is not fairing any better.
Mississippi State is solid against the run, limiting teams to 128 yards per game. If Mond is ineffective, the tailbacks must find a way to move the chains.
The best player on the field come Saturday will be Aggies receiver/returner Christian Kirk, who is a game changer on offense and special teams. But Mississippi State is among the best in the nation at limiting punt returns, giving up an average of two yards per return, and the Bulldogs have the second-best pass defense in the FBS ranks, holding teams to 154 yards per game. If they limit Kirk and stop Kellen Mond from running, Mississippi State can pick up a very big SEC road win.
The home team has won the last four games in the series, but that could change on Saturday.
Prediction: Mississippi State 24, Texas A&M 21
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.