When Texas A&M (7-1, 4-1 SEC) travels to Starkville on Saturday to take on Mississippi State (3-5, 1-3), the fight is on for both SEC West programs seeking a much-needed win. For the Aggies, a potential spot in the College Football Playoff is on the line. For the Bulldogs, an outside shot at becoming bowl eligible is at stake.
The intensity of the season took a big leap forward on Tuesday night for the Aggies when the College Football Playoff Selection Committee ranked Texas A&M fourth. That makes the Aggies the last of the four teams in the playoff, but there are still plenty games remaining. But the last thing the Aggies want to do to is lose, especially to a team that’s near the bottom of the SEC West standings.
The Bulldogs have suffered through a tough 2016 season dropping four very winnable games to South Alabama (21-20), LSU (23-20), BYU (28-21 in double-OT), and Kentucky (40-38). With four games left, there is not a surefire win on the schedule with Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss still to come after Texas A&M. But a win over the Aggies could turn remaining outlook around and at least give Mississippi State more hope of extending its school record streak to seven consecutive bowl appearances.
Texas A&M features a wide-open offense that features arguably the best receiving corps in the nation and is powered by one of the most productive rushing attacks. Mississippi State is led by a one-man gang on offense in quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. The sophomore will need to be at his best if the Bulldogs want to keep up with the Aggies.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Texas A&M -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Texas A&M Contain Nick Fitzgerald?
Mississippi State has no trouble when it comes to moving the ball up and down the field (430 yards per game) or putting points on the board (30.4 ppg). On paper, this offense is as balanced as any head coach would want with 220 passing and 209 rushing yards per game. The trouble is the offensive production within is not balanced. Fitzgerald leads the team in rushing with 657 yards and six touchdowns, followed by running back Ashton Shumpert (231, TD).
A sophomore, Fitzgerald has good size (6-5, 230) and has shown he’s capable of being a one-man wrecking crew, similar to his predecessor, Dak Prescott, Fitzgerald is coming off a game against FCS member Samford in which he threw for 417 yards while rushing for another 117 and accounting for seven (5 passing, 2 rushing) total touchdowns. He’s just the third player in SEC history to throw for 400 yards and run for 100 in the same game. He has already faced tough defenses in LSU and Auburn, and posted solid, but not spectacular, numbers.
Texas A&M hasn’t enjoyed the same success on defense in comparison to either of the Tiger teams, allowing 424 yards per game. But the Aggies have some playmakers on that side of the ball. If defensive ends Garrett Myles and Daeshon Hall can set the edge, leading tackler Shaan Washington will be in charge of limiting Fitzgerald’s rushing yards from his middle linebacker spot. If allowed to run loose, this SEC West showdown could be closer than many would guess.
2. How Badly will Texas A&M Exploit Mississippi State’s Pass Defense
Mississippi State has a solid run defense, holding teams to 154 rushing yards per game. The downfall for the season has come in trying to limit the damage done through the air. Statistically the Bulldogs are one of the worst in the FBS ranks against the pass, allowing 263 yards per game. That places them 105th out of 128 teams. The scary part for MSU fans, the Bulldogs have yet to face a top-notch passing offense, but that’s about to change.
Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight is not known for staying in the pocket and picking apart a defense with his arm, but he has his choice of big-play targets to throw to in Josh Reynolds, Christian Kirk and Ricky Seals-Jones.
3. Can Mississippi State Contain Trayveon Williams?
Williams is fifth in the SEC with 776 rushing yards on just 99 carries. The true freshman has shined in big games, with the exception of the Alabama game (9 att., 23 yds.). Against Tennessee, he got a season-high 28 carries and turned those into 217 yards.
If the Aggies can set the tone up front with the ground game, that should open up opportunities for Knight on designed QB runs while also setting the stage for some deep shots downfield in the passing game.
No one denies Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen’s overall coaching abilities. The Bulldogs will be ready for Texas A&M. The problem is that the Aggies have far too many weapons on offense for most teams to slow down much less stop.
Outside of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State has not had much success running the ball. This won’t get any easier against Texas A&M either, especially with a healthy Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall expected to return to anchor the Aggies’ defensive line. Another Achilles heel for the Bulldogs has been on third down, as they are 12th in the SEC converting just 35 percent of their attempts.
The Aggies will not be caught looking ahead with Ole Miss up next. A focused Texas A&M team should arrive in Starkville on a mission.
Prediction: Texas A&M 37, Mississippi State 21
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.