Bulldogs look to snap losing streak against surging Aggies in key SEC West matchup
A battle of offensive minds will be on display for college football fans across the country come Saturday, matching the wits of pro-style minded Jimbo Fisher and the No. 11 Texas A&M Aggies (2-1) against the Air Raid offense of Mike Leach (1-2) and the Mississippi State Bulldogs. If all goes as planned, the scoreboard in Starkville will be seen from the orbiting International Space Station.
Shaking some critics off his back, Fisher left Kyle Field in Week 3 of the SEC season with the biggest win of his three-year tenure in College Station. The Aggies fought back from a 28-17 deficit midway through the third quarter against then-No. 4 ranked Florida for a 41-38 victory. The 26-yard Seth Small field goal sealed the win for A&M, but there were standout offensive performances from quarterback Kellen Mond, running back Isaiah Spiller, and receiver Caleb Chapman along the way.
Leach has long heard that his offensive style would never work in the SEC due to the athletic defenses and extremely talented cover corners... that theory is taking shape. The Bulldogs put up 623 yards of total offense and 44 points in a season-opening victory against LSU but have been stymied in consecutive losses to Arkansas (21-14) and Kentucky (24-2). One of the glaring problems is actually coming from the fuel that drives the offensive engine, graduate transfer quarterback K.J. Costello. Costello threw three picks against the Hogs and topped that with a four-interception day in Lexington.
No. 11 Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Texas A&M -6
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
After back-to-back weeks of surpassing the 300-yard mark, the big question is whether Mond can keep beating defenses with his arm. The senior gunslinger had his best game of the early 2020 season against Florida — completing 25-of-35 attempts for 338 yards with three scores — and did so without throwing an interception. Mond's big day came with a newfound connection in Chapman at receiver. Chapman earned the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Player of the Week honors after securing nine passes for 151 yards with two touchdowns. The bad news: the sophomore receiver is now out for the rest of the season due to a "lower leg" injury.
As Mond finds it easier to laser in passes, he can thank the sophomore tailback Spiller for the extra room in the opposition's secondary. Spiller is third in the SEC in rush yards (316) but has only found the end zone twice on the ground. The super sophomore has gone over 100 rushing yards in two of the Aggies' three games and burned the Gators for 174 yards off 27 touches while netting his first two scores of the season.
Playing a run-heavy team in Kentucky helped pad the stats for MSU's secondary, which has allowed an impressive 210.0 yards per game. A fairer comparison of how the game may go for MSU's defense is to look at the opener against LSU. Tigers quarterback Myles Brennan threw for 345 yards with three touchdowns in his first collegiate start. The Bulldogs' defense played down and dirty against the Wildcats and held the team to just 157 yards of total offense. Spiller and Co. might be in for a long day if MSU comes ready to play again on defense.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
Statistically, MSU outplayed Kentucky, posting 295 total yards to the aforementioned 157. The problem for the Bulldogs on offense is the turnovers. When Costello was yanked after throwing four picks against Kentucky, his backup, Will Rogers, threw two more. Costello still managed to complete 36 passes, with nine different targets catching a pass between the two quarterbacks. There is a foundation for the offense to roll; they just have to get on the same page.
We all knew a culture change from 2019 to '20 was coming on offense, but the falloff for running back Kylin Hill has been sad to watch. Hill has gone from third in the SEC with 1,350 yards and 10 rushing scores to ranked 35th in the conference at 58 total yards with zero rushing scores. And, he is not even leading his own team in yards on the ground — the honor goes to Jo'quavious Marks (64). In this odd switch, Hill is leading his team in receptions (23) and is 10 yards behind Osirus Mitchell in total yards (237 to 247) with one receiving score. Leach's offense will continue to struggle if a rushing attack is not found.
A silver lining for MSU, A&M's weakness on defense is against the pass. The Aggies are giving way to 299.0 yards per contest, 64th among 76 active FBS teams. Gators QB Kyle Trask lit A&M up for 312 yards and four touchdowns. But when Florida did try to run against A&M, the Gators only covered 90 yards on 24 totes with one score.
At 59 years of age and heading into his 19th season as a head coach running the same offense, Leach is not going to change his proverbial offensive spots overnight. Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom gave the rest of the conference the blueprint to beat MSU: rush three and drop the rest of the roster into the secondary. It is now up to Leach to find a way to make it work. With no rushing attack, MSU is failing on third down converting just 34 percent of their opportunities; something must change.
For Fisher, he has to avoid a letdown game. As the schedule now shapes up, A&M could run the table and end the year as a one-loss team trying to make a case for a College Football Playoff berth. If the Aggies show the same fight against Florida come Saturday, this victory could shake off a few more of Fisher's doubters.
Prediction: Texas A&M 31, Mississippi State 24
Podcast: Week 7 Preview and Predictions
— 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.