An unrelenting 2018 college football schedule for No. 16 Texas A&M (5–2, 3–1 SEC) and Mississippi State (4–3, 1–3) gets no easier on Saturday when the Aggies head to Starkville to take on the Bulldogs in a crucial SEC West showdown for both programs.
The Aggies return to the gridiron from a much-needed bye week after a 26–23 dogfight against South Carolina in Week 7. When we last saw A&M, junior tailback Trayveon Williams was adding to the resume for an All-SEC season scoring the go-ahead touchdown against the Gamecocks with 1:36 left in the game. The Aggies were limited in the ground game to 105 yards, but sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond showed up big passing for 353 yards with a touchdown moving the offense for four Seth Small field goals.
After winning the first three games of the season against non-conference opponents, life for first-year MSU head coach Joe Moorhead has gotten rough. The Bulldogs began the season ranked No. 18 climbing to No. 14 but have dropped out of the spotlight after losses to Kentucky, Florida and LSU. The Bulldogs' 19–3 loss to the Tigers in Week 8 was an old-fashioned SEC battle in the trenches with neither side willing to give an inch. MSU actually outgained LSU in total yards, 260 to 239, but four Nick Fitzgerald interceptions were too much to overcome. Mississippi State’s ground game performed well but may be without top tailback Kylin Hill against A&M due to a leg injury.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Mississippi State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Mississippi State’s offensive production
There is concern in Starkville regarding Mississippi State’s offense and for good reason. As the season wears on, the production on the field has become increasingly one-dimensional and is getting worse. Nick Fitzgerald was the entire MSU offense against LSU, rushing for 131 yards and passing for just 59 yards. Fitzgerald and the offensive line have been amazing on the ground even with opposing defenses loading the box to stop him, because they know he is only completing 47 percent of his passes this season. With Hill questionable, the offense could become even more singular against a very good A&M defense.
The Aggies are much improved on defense this season, holding the opposition to 323 yards per game. The run defense is best in the SEC and fourth best in the nation allowing only 80 rushing yards per contest.
2. Mississippi State’s run defense vs. Trayveon Williams
The Bulldogs’ defense is to be feared as well, especially against the run. MSU held LSU to 110 net yards on the ground and for the season is 20th best in the country allowing 115 per game. Safeties Johnathan Abram (53) and Mark McLaurin (48) are leading the team in tackles running down the alley to pick up what linebacker Erroll Thompson (46) and tackle Jeffrey Simmons (36) do not get.
Williams is second in the SEC in rushing with 798 yards but has been challenged early in the season against stout run stopping teams. In games against Clemson and Alabama, Williams was stuffed for 31 total yards in each game. He got back on track going over the 100-yard mark against Arkansas and Kentucky but was kept in check against South Carolina.
3. Kellen Mond in the pocket
If there is a most improved player award in the SEC, Mond is deserving of the honor. Under head coach Jimbo Fisher, Mond is becoming the talented all-around player promised as a four-star recruit out of IMG Academy. The sophomore QB has improved his completion percentage (62) this season and has showed up big in key games with a 430-yard performance against Clemson and 353 against South Carolina. Mond’s favorite target, tight end Jace Sternberger, is sixth in the SEC in receiving yards (496) and third in receiving touchdowns (6).
The Bulldogs have put the clamps on opposing passing attacks with heavy pressure coming off the edge by Montez Sweat. Sweat is tied for the conference lead in sacks (8.5) with Alabama’s Isaiah Buggs. As a unit, MSU is limiting opponents to 168 yards per game in the air.
Texas A&M and Mississippi State are now going in different directions this season with the Bulldogs spiraling towards mediocrity while the Aggies have improved each week. The national spotlight has rightfully been given to Alabama and LSU, but A&M is lurking in the shadows as a one-loss in-conference team that could grab a share of the SEC West title in a three-way tie with LSU and Alabama.
Over the 11-game history between A&M and MSU dating back to 1912, the Bulldogs have a slight edge with a 6–5 series nod. The Aggies are refreshed and have something to play for, while MSU takes the field after a bruising game against LSU.
Prediction: Texas A&M 24, Mississippi State 10
— 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.