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 take a look at the special teams play by the Bulldogs this year. Yes, the overlooked and undervalued special teams play.
First off, I'd like to note how satisfyingly impressive Georgia Tech's special teams play was this year. They finished the season with the most blocked kicks in football, and they're currently ranked 23rd by football outsiders for their special teams FEI rating. It's nice to see the consistency for much of the special teams play when you consider what we've dealt with seeing in many years' past.
MSU hasn't exactly fared quite as well in special teams. For a team that is mostly consistently good in almost all metrics for offense and defense, the special teams unit is all over the place.
They have blocked four kicks which is 8th in the nation. Tech and three other teams are first with six. They've only allowed one blocked kick to go along with that.
The punt coverage team hasn't been great as they are 58th in the nation in yards per return allowed. MSU's punter Devon Bell had a good season though to somewhat make up for that, and the unit comes in at 27th in the nation in net yardage.
The kick coverage team is ranked 16th in the nation allowing just 17.9 yards per kick return and zero touchdowns. Georgia Tech is 110th in that category, and it's the only main part of the special teams unit that struggled this season.
The return unit for Mississippi State has been really bad. They rank 81st in the nation in yards per kick return with one touchdown. Only one other team has returned a kick for a TD and rank as low. The punt return team has been dismal averaging 4.2 yards per return to rank them 115th in the nation. Only four power-five conference schools are below the Bulldogs in that category.
MSU is only 10-13 this season of field goal tries. Both makes and attempts is among the lowest totals in all of the nation. They've made only one field goal on three tries longer than 40 yards, which was a 45-yard make. They've also missed four extra point attempts. Evan Sobiesk accounts for almost all of the attempts, but backup Westin Graves missed his only field goal try and is 4-5 on extra points.
Using FO's special teams FEI, Mississippi State is ranked 48th. Both their field goal efficiency and punt return efficiency ranks towards the bottom of all of college football.
It's hard to exactly gauge how important special teams may be leading up to a game, but it's undeniable that some of the biggest plays in a lot of games tend to be made on special teams. So far this year, Georgia Tech has been much better at limiting those big plays by other teams and even making a few of the big plays themselves.