Both the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Vanderbilt Commodores will take the field on Saturday afternoon in Nashville with the hopes of rebounding from Week 7 losses, but the margin by which each fell last week is quite distinct. Vanderbilt dropped its second straight in a one-point loss at South Carolina, while the Bulldogs fell by 40 to Alabama in Starkville.
That loss for the Bulldogs (3-3, 1-2 SEC) was just the second game of the first six that ended in more than a one-possession margin of victory by either team, joining Mississippi State’s 24-10 Week 2 win over NC State. The Commodores (2-5, 0-3) have had the opposite trend, with both of their wins coming by three (Colorado State) and two (UConn) points, while two of their five losses have been shutouts by 62 (Georgia) and 42 (Florida) and two others have come by a total of 38 points to FCS East Tennessee State and Stanford.
Vanderbilt might be just what Mississippi State wants to see after such a lopsided loss, as the Bulldogs have won four in a row against the Commodores dating back to 2008, including a 24-17 victory in Starkville last November. In fact, going back to the early 1970s, the Bulldogs have assembled three winning streaks of four games each en route to building their 14-7-2 edge over their neighbors to the north. But Vanderbilt has come away victorious in each of the last two instances when Mississippi State has looked to push its win streak to five games, a pattern the Bulldogs will look to halt on Saturday.
Mississippi State at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Mississippi State -20.5
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
The Bulldogs haven’t surpassed 30 points since their one-point win over Louisiana Tech in the season opener. That trend leaves Mississippi State just shy of 25 points per game, which among SEC offenses is better only than South Carolina and their opponents on Saturday. The Bulldogs truly find themselves on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to their yardage production, though. Will Rogers leads a passing attack that paces the SEC and is fourth nationally with more than 360 yards per game through the air. An intriguing subpoint: Rogers has by far the most completions (250) of any quarterback in the FBS, even those with one or two more games played up to this point — Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (210) is the next closest. That leads, then, to Rogers’ 8.65 yards per completion being the lowest of any qualifying quarterback in the FBS, rendering him one of only five quarterbacks nationally to average less than a first down (10 yards) per completion.
With such a high-powered passing game but a mediocre offense in terms of total yardage, it’s the rushing attack that takes the fall. Mississippi State has totaled 280 yards on the ground in its first six games, the fewest in the FBS by a massive margin. Only the Arkansas State Red Wolves, who are 1-5 entering Week 8, have rushed for fewer than 500 yards heading into Week 8. Meanwhile, five teams — Air Force, Army, Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss and Florida — average more than 250 rushing yards per game. Against Alabama last week, Mississippi State failed to break even as the Crimson Tide sacked Rogers seven times and held the Bulldogs to minus-1 rushing yards.
Vanderbilt has yet to keep an opponent under 21 points, which — in tandem with allowing 40 or more to three opponents in a four-week stretch — has the Commodores giving up 34 points per game in 2021, the second-highest average among SEC peers (Missouri: 37.1). One positive sign of satisfaction for Vanderbilt first-year head coach Clark Lea and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, who joined the Commodores after four seasons as the defensive backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens, is the unit's eight interceptions thus far, two of which came last week against South Carolina thanks to linebacker Ethan Barr and safety Dashaun Jerkins. That has Vanderbilt tied for third in the SEC and 13th nationally in picks — clearly showing the influence Minter has had in such a short amount of time. The Commodores will look to add to against pass-happy Mississippi State.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
Like Rogers, Ken Seals (9.53) is at the bottom of the FBS leaderboard in yards per completion (9.5) and his 5.27 yards per attempt is the third-lowest mark. That number stood still last week as Seals missed the game at South Carolina after suffering an injury to a finger on his throwing hand in the loss to Florida. He's expected to sit out on Saturday too. Mike Wright stepped in and completed 11 of 21 passes for 206 yards, a touchdown and an interception, a performance he’ll look to build on now that's he had more reps as the starter in practice.
The Commodores’ 14.3 points per game occupy the bottom spot in the SEC (next lowest: South Carolina, 21.9) and is ahead of only three other FBS teams (Southern Miss, Arizona and New Mexico State). One of the key factors for Vanderbilt to focus on shoring up in the second half of the 2021 season: turnovers. The Commodores have thrown nine interceptions and lost six fumbles. Their 15 total giveaways are the most in the conference heading into Week 8. It’s been a rough go on the ground as well, as leading rusher Rocko Griffin has mustered just 284 yards, though a subtle positive is that at least his total outdoes Mississippi State’s team-wide production. Griffin led the way against South Carolina with 57 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, while Will Sheppard hauled in Wright’s only touchdown as one of his three catches en route to his team-high 120 yards.
That rushing threat — or lack thereof — presented by Griffin and others will face a stiff test in Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are third in the SEC at 107 yards per game on the ground allowed, also good enough to land in the top 25 overall. That strength in stopping the run helps to counter the Bulldogs’ struggles in making plays behind the line of scrimmage, as they are producing just five tackles for a loss and a shade more than two sacks per game this season. MSU also is hoping to pad its turnover numbers against a Commodores team that's been very accommodating in that department. The Bulldogs have eight takeaways (six INTs) in six games.
Vanderbilt hasn’t exactly stood out defensively in the first half of 2021, but holding Rogers anywhere near his season average for passing (360.3 ypg) would be a major win for the Commodores. So keep an eye on the secondary, which will be busy considering Rogers averages more than 56 pass attempts a game. If Vanderbilt can come up with an interception or two this game will be a lot closer than many expect and there could be an upset brewing in the Music City.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 26, Mississippi State 23
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.