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 defensive attack that finished the season tenth in scoring.
The strength of the MSU defense is the front four that features two NFL-ready defensive linemen. Chris Jones and Preston Smith are monsters up front for the Bulldogs and each of them are 6'5", 280 lbs. plus. The Tech offensive line will have their hands full dealing with them all game.
Before his departure, Geoff Collins fielded an aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme that will surely be carried over for the bowl game. Collins, who has a history at Georgia Tech, likes to really get after the quarterback with a scheme that many call "Psycho Defense." It'll be interesting to see how that approach differs against the option attack. His defense typically likes to load the line in some strange looks where linebackers will even be at the LOS standing straight up. His focus was to get Jones and Preston in different gaps to either force double teams or get pressure to the QB.
MSU is 13th in the nation in sacks, while they are 41st in tackles for loss. That shows that a heavy passing attack may favor their defense that mainly likes to get after the quarterback. That approach obviously won't be used as much against the Tech offense, and the strategy of the defense will have to really change.
Their passing defense has been abysmal this season ranked 122nd in the country. It'll be interesting to see if Paul Johnson attempts to attack that weakness often.
As far as rushing defense, Mississippi State has been pretty good. They rank 25th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game at 126.5. They only allow 3.7 yards per carry, but Ole Miss was very successful running the ball in the Bulldogs last appearance.
An impressive stat for the MSU defense comes in the redzone. They are first in the nation in redzone defense with just a 60% scoring rate for opposing offenses. Allowing just 15 touchdowns and nine field goals on 40 attempts is really dominant and something Georgia Tech will have to look out for. Getting six points will be crucial when the Jackets are in scoring territory.
Just like their ranking in defensive scoring, MSU is 10th in the nation in football outsider's defensive FEI. Georgia Tech is 57th. No advanced metric jumps out as dominant in their numbers used to create the overall rating, but they're consistently towards the top. The defensive strength of schedule has been strong at 8th in the nation, while Tech's is 6th. The only stat that shows MSU as vulnerable is the explosive drives allowed rating where they come in at 57th. A few huge plays for the Tech offense would go a long way to helping them out against this strong defensive front.
Overall, the Mississippi State defense will be a very tough unit to face for this top ranked offense. Despite them being ranked 10th in FEI, Tech has already faced the #1, #2, and #7 defenses in FEI in Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. We saw the struggles against those three teams at times, so hopefully the offensive line has gotten some things figured out, and the MSU defense won't be in the backfield as often as those three teams were.
The key is pretty simple, and it's always the key for the Tech offense. Keep the Bulldog defensive front out of the backfield and limit plays for a loss. The loss of DeAndre Smelter really hurts the ability for Tech to succeed in obvious passing situations like we saw against FSU, and keeping the yardage to go at a minimum will allow for the most success against a Mississippi State defense that can be susceptible to the run game and explosive plays.