Much like the Yellow Jackets, Mississippi State was a team that provided very little in expectations leading up to the season.
Those expectations were shattered with nine straight wins to begin their 2014 campaign and a #1 placement in the College Football Playoff rankings. The mood in Starkville was darkened by losses to Alabama and Ole Miss in the final three weeks to end the season, but the bullies still find themselves as the second highest ranked SEC team going into an Orange Bowl showdown with Georgia Tech.
Mississippi State found their success with a very balanced team that sports a top-15 offense and defense in terms of scoring. In this piece, we will look at the offensive attack that led many to believe the Bulldogs were the best team in the nation and had a Heisman candidate leading them under center.
The player of focus on the offense is certainly quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott had a brilliant season and was probably the frontrunner for the Heisman prior to his performance against Alabama.
Prescott is a 6'2", 235 lb. Junior who came into the season with good experience from a mediocre Sophomore campaign. His large frame combined with plus-athleticism makes him a great asset to run the read-option with, which is what MSU ran very effectively all season.
His arm is fairly up-and-down, but from what I've seen, you live with MSU passing on you, but you have to focus on limiting the run game. He started the year on fire, running for over 100 yards in four of his first six games and throwing 14 touchdown passes. He didn't run for 100 yards once after his sixth game though, and threw just ten touchdowns compared to six interceptions in the second half of the year.
The two low points were Alabama and Ole Miss, in which he easily had his two lowest outcomes of the season in terms of QBR - both of which were under 35. Considering those were the two losses for MSU, it's important to slow down Dak if you want to beat the Bulldogs.
Other than Prescott, the focal point will be Junior running back Josh Robinson. Robinson carried the ball 177 times for 1128 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season. He is a load at 5'9", 215 lbs. His skill set could be challenging for a Tech defense that has struggled against the run at times. While he isn't the speed back that Dalvin Cook is, he is a downhill runner who would be considered a one-cut back. Once he makes a person miss with that first cut, he's not easy to bring down, and the Tech defense will have to be swarming to the ball. He exemplifies the power running game that MSU employs and runs the read option with Prescott very well.
Robinson and Prescott accounted for over 68% of the team's carries on the year, and they will be the two key guys that Tech will have to stop on the ground.
For the unit as a whole, Mississippi State has been a formidable offense all year. You'll be hard-pressed to find a stat that jumps out at you, but they're very balanced. In terms of yards, they rank 20th in rushing yards per game and 36th in passing yards per game. Those stats correlate well with their attack, as they run the ball on about 59% of their offensive snaps.
The key may be getting up on Mississippi State and forcing more throws than usual. In their two losses, Prescott was forced to throw the ball more than any other game, and like I stated earlier, he had the worst performances of the season in terms of passing efficiency. A MSU team that is in control and running their preferred offense is very dangerous, much like another offense we know.
Using advanced metrics, Mississippi State ranks very similarly to the basic measurements. They're ranked 21st in offensive FEI, in which the Yellow Jackets are ranked first. When looking at the different measurements that make up the overall rating, MSU doesn't have any numbers that jump out in a good or bad way. Like much of the other showings, they're consistently a good but not great offense. One interesting note is their offensive strength of schedule, which actually ranks the strength of the defenses a team plays, is only 37th in the nation. Georgia Tech's is ranked 3rd.
All in all, Mississippi State will be fielding a very good and polished offense on the 31st of this month. There's not a whole lot of trickery or explosiveness, but it's an efficient system. They will turn the ball over at times with 21 giveaways on the season - ten fumbles, 11 interceptions.
The most comparable offense we've seen would probably be what Duke showed against Tech this year. Duke ran the read option very well out of the shotgun and moved the ball consistently with it.
MSU's offense is of course designed from Head Coach Dan Mullen's mentor, Urban Meyer. Prescott is used much like Tim Tebow in the zone read play where he will step forward with the ball carrier with the ball in the HB's "pocket" until he makes a decision at the very last moment to give or pull. It's a method that forces the defense to be very disciplined in not getting over-aggressive, but it also puts a lot of emphasis on the quarterback making the correct read.
The offense is almost completely composed of the zone running scheme combined with a screen-heavy passing game, while they'll sometimes go to five-wide sets that feature some difficult receiver routes and the go-to hesitation QB draw up the middle.
It should be a great matchup that features two very interesting and strategic offenses.