The Week 6 slate is filled with marquee games in the SEC, and the action begins in Starkville with a matchup between Texas A&M and Mississippi State with major West Division title implications on Saturday morning. Both teams have passed their major tests so far, as Texas A&M defeated South Carolina in Columbia in its opener and rallied to beat Arkansas 35-28 in overtime last week. Mississippi State won its first three non-conference games with relative ease and won 34-29 at LSU on Sept. 20. While the final score was close, the Bulldogs dominated the Tigers and should have won by more than five points.
These two teams have played only seven times, with Texas A&M owning a 4-3 edge in the series. The Aggies have won the only two matchups with both teams as SEC members. Mississippi State’s last win over Texas A&M was in the 2000 Independence Bowl.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Noon ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Mississippi State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State’s Pass Defense
It’s tough to read too much into non-conference games as a clear indicator of what to expect in league action. But is Mississippi State susceptible to opposing teams through the air? The Bulldogs rank last in the SEC against the pass but are ninth in pass efficiency defense. Mississippi State has also allowed 10 passing plays of 30 yards or more (worst in the SEC) and seven of 40 yards or more. That’s not exactly the best news for a defense to read going into a matchup against Texas A&M. The Aggies lead the nation with 21 plays of 30 yards or more, and the big-play ability of the passing game could add to that total against Mississippi State’s pass defense. Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill isn’t as explosive on the ground as former signal-caller Johnny Manziel, but the sophomore leads the SEC with an average of 349 passing yards per game. Hill also has just two interceptions and is completing 65.6 percent of his passes.
2. Stopping Dak Prescott
Texas A&M’s defense has showed progress through the first five games of this season after a brutal 2013. Last year, the Aggies gave up 32.2 points a game and allowed 6.7 yards per play in SEC games. Texas A&M held South Carolina to 28 points in the opener and limited Arkansas to seven points in the second half of last week’s game. The Aggies are still allowing 6.7 yards per play, but opposing rushing attacks are managing just 3.8 yards per carry, a clear decrease from the 5.4 mark last year. The depth and overall talent is better for Kevin Sumlin’s defense, but Mississippi State is its biggest challenge so far this year. The Bulldogs feature a diverse attack, averaging 270.8 yards per game on the ground and 266.8 per contest through the air. Quarterback Dak Prescott gashed LSU for 373 yards on Sept. 20 and presents a unique challenge for Texas A&M. The Aggies showed last week they are better and have the talent necessary to compete in the trenches in the SEC. Prescott is the best quarterback this defense has played so far. With an ability to rush for 100 yards on the ground and throw for 300 through the air, Prescott won’t be easy to stop. Is the Texas A&M defense up to the challenge?
3. Offensive Standouts at RB and WR
With no shortage of points expected, keep a close watch on the playmakers outside of the two quarterbacks (Hill and Prescott). Mississippi State running back Josh Robinson is quietly averaging 7.8 yards per carry and leads the team with 485 yards on the ground. The Aggies feature three running backs with at least 158 rushing yards, with Trey Williams (234 yards) leading the way. Both teams are deep and talented at receiver, as Texas A&M has five players with at least 13 receptions, including standout freshmen Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones. On the Bulldogs’ sideline, Jameon Lewis is the clear favorite of quarterback Dak Prescott (15 receptions, 223 yards), but De’Runnya Wilson has provided big plays in 2014 (17.5 ypc) and Fred Brown (17.3 ypc) is also in the mix. A tight game is expected in Starkville. Which set of skill players will provide their quarterback with the most help?
Prepare for offensive fireworks. Vegas set the over/under at 70.5 and that total could be higher. While the offenses will have their way, it’s all about timely stops on defense. Both teams have had success getting after the quarterback (combined 30 sacks so far), while Mississippi State has been better at forcing turnovers (9 to Texas A&M’s 4). The Bulldogs won’t have center Dillon Day due to suspension, which is a significant loss for the offense. If Prescott can overcome Day’s absence, and Mississippi State’s rushing offense controls the flow of the game, the Bulldogs will score another huge SEC win this year. An up-tempo, high-scoring game would favor Texas A&M, especially if it can jump out to an early two-score lead and limit Prescott’s ability to have success on the ground. This one is tough to predict, but the home team gets a slight edge.