The Missouri Tigers will play a road game for the first time in nearly a month when they take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon in Starkville in both teams' regular-season finale. A Missouri win would guarantee that the Tigers finish north of .500 regardless of their bowl fate, while Mississippi State has won just one game in September and November while scoring a total of 30 points in four October losses.
Of Missouri's four losses this season, three have come against SEC foes currently among the top 10 of the latest College Football Playoff rankings — No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 Florida, and No. 8 Georgia. The Bulldogs snapped Missouri's three-game winning streak last week in Columbia with a 49-14 result behind 28 unanswered second-half points that helped put the game squarely out of reach. The Tigers managed just 22 rushing yards in the game, capping their total yardage at an even 200 in the loss.
Missouri will look to have more success against another team of Bulldogs, with Mike Leach's group currently stuck in a three-game losing skid. Mississippi State also lost to Georgia on Nov. 21 in Athens, followed by a loss in the Egg Bowl against archrival Ole Miss in Oxford on Thanksgiving weekend before falling by two touchdowns at home to Auburn last Saturday. The Bulldogs had an equally tough time running the ball last time out, mustering just 19 yards on the ground in a game that was 9-3 after three quarters before the Tigers put it away with two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
These two programs have met just once since Missouri joined the SEC and three times in all. Mississippi State came away victorious in the most recent encounter, a 31-13 win in 2015 in Columbia, as Dak Prescott threw for 303 yards and four touchdowns while Drew Lock managed just 107 yards with a pair of interceptions. Missouri won the previous two matchups, however, the inaugural meeting in 1981 (14-3 in Jackson, Mississippi) and again in 1984 (47-30 in Columbia, Missouri).
Missouri at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network Alternate
Spread: Missouri -1
When Missouri Has the Ball
Quarterback Connor Bazelak has done well this season to limit his turnovers, as his interception against Georgia was just his third all season (across 286 passing attempts) which ties him with Alabama's Mac Jones for the second fewest (min. 100 att.) in the SEC behind Texas A&M's Kellen Mond (two). Playing largely from behind, Bazelak completed 17 of his 28 passes for 139 yards against the Bulldogs' stout defense, his first game under 200 yards since the Tigers' season opener against Alabama — the only other game in which, just like against Georgia, Bazelak notched a rushing touchdown. He has only two games with a touchdown pass in 2020, with four of his five coming in the 45-41 win over LSU in the "Battle of the Tigers" and the other in a 17-10 win over South Carolina on Nov. 21.
It has been an up-and-down year for running back Larry Rountree III, who is 149 yards shy of his second 1,000-yard rushing season (2018). Rountree has alternated pairs of games under rushing 100 yards with pairs over the century mark, including efforts of 160 and 185 yards — with three touchdowns in each — against Vanderbilt and Arkansas, respectively. Despite his inconsistency in yardage, he's tallied a rushing score in each of the last six games and in seven of nine overall, being held out of the end zone against Alabama and LSU. In the passing game, Rountree actually led all Tigers in receptions (four for 35 yards) against Georgia while Damon Hazelton paced the group with 42 yards on a pair of catches, with 10 different Tigers catching at least one pass.
Though its record might suggest otherwise, Mississippi State has had some success defensively this season. The Bulldogs possess a top-30 rushing defense nationally with 128 yards allowed on the ground in 2020, good for fourth in the SEC. They have allowed a shade under 385 total yards per game, also good for fourth in the conference and a top-50 mark nationally. but their struggles have come where it matters most — on the scoreboard — with six of their nine opponents putting up at least 28 points and two (LSU and Alabama) eclipsing 40.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
The Bulldogs have struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball this season, entering this week averaging 17.3 points per game. That's 13th in the SEC (only Vanderbilt is lower) and 118th out of 127 FBS teams that have played this year. The ineffectiveness can be traced to a number of areas, but two especially stick out: Mississippi State's FBS-worst 23.2 rushing yards per and 16 interceptions. Duke (19) is the only team with more picks this season. It's a bad combination when the run game struggles to be a factor and when playing from behind and needing to pass to move the ball.
K.J. Costello started strong with 623 passing yards and five touchdowns in a stunning season-opening road win over defending national champion LSU. However, the offense certainly hasn't been the same since his injury against Alabama, which caused him to miss more than a month and a half and cede the starting job to true freshman Will Rogers in the meantime. Rogers surpassed 50 passing attempts against Auburn last week, completing 30 of 51 for 221 yards, throwing a touchdown but adding two costly interceptions. Costello went through pregame warmups and was active against Auburn but Rogers started and played from start to finish, so some question remains as to who will take the field first against the next wave of Tigers.
The Bulldogs may struggle to move the ball, but if they can get into the red zone they should be able to come by some points. Missouri allows opponents to score on nearly 94 percent of their red-zone trips, the eighth-worst clip in FBS. Elsewhere, the Tigers find themselves in the middle of the pack in most other major defensive categories, entering this weekend ranked between 60th and 80th nationally in passing, rushing, total, and scoring defense as well as in sacks per game, though Trajan Jeffcoat is tied for the SEC lead with 0.75 per contest (6.0 in eight games).
Inconsistency has been a common theme for Mississippi State throughout 2020, with a near-nonexistent rushing attack definitely not helping matters. Missouri, meanwhile, has had only one win by more than 10 points but — thanks to an SEC-best and top-10 nationally red-zone offense, scoring on 93.3 percent of trips inside opponents' 20-yard-line — should have enough left in the tank to close out the regular season with its sixth win.
Prediction: Missouri 30, Mississippi State 17
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of @MIzzouFootball)