On the first Saturday of the year the nation will be tuning into ABC at 2:30 to see what Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State has in store this year. Early lines put the Cowboys as much as a two touchdown favorite so there won't be too many people picking State. But our boys may have something to say about that in arguably the most high profile non-conference regular season game MSU has played since 2002 at #15 Oregon - but really with this fancy neutral site kickoff game it is definitely up there as far as high profile non-conference regular season games MSU has ever played in.
My initial thoughts on this game were that it would most likely be a loss for the Dawgs. While OSU cycled down in 2012, they were a combined 23-3 the previous two years and 41-11 in the previous four seasons. But the more I have gotten into the game and broken it down I really think this is a true swing game. In a year where a lot of State fans have put themselves on the fence about Dan Mullen, what better way to start the year than with a swing game that could really set the tone for the season with either a loss or a win.
There are obviously some high expectations for OSU having been picked to win their league and The Sporting News has ranked them 6th in the country going into the season. But the Cowboys aren't without some holes, specifically in the defensive backfield, offensive line and defensive end.
MSU Receivers vs. OSU Secondary
This will be a key matchup because of the unknowns going in. The Cowboys do return 7 of their top 8 DBs but they turned that same trick last year and actually ended up being worse at 280 passing yards per game and 307 in conference. Out of their 10 INTs last year, only ONE came from the cornerbacks, and he was a backup (Ashton Lampkin). 7 of the 10 picks came from the safeties. Last year this group also allowed a 60.8% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks.
Tyler Russell's group of up and coming wide outs are a big time mystery for this game. Who knows how they will perform? Unless this Okie State secondary makes some serious strides in this offseason that they didn't last year State should be able to create plenty of opportunities to move the ball through the air. While going into a big game like this with a young receiving corp but veteran line and RBs would seem to lend itself towards pounding the football, I think getting the passing game opened up early and often may be a key as they will probably be in a zone. If so, Jameon and Malcolm should be able to get open and move the chains. This matchup could be an advantage for MSU if the talent we have is able to produce come game time.
MSU Defensive Line vs. OSU Offensive Line
This matchup could be the key to the game for the Dawgs. Mississippi State's D-line is one of the more underrated units in the SEC. From a pure talent standpoint we've got the players. Inexperience and possibly coaching was an issue last year but this group should be ready to go under new leadership and another year under their belt.
The Cowboys only return 38 career starts among all offensive lineman which is 108th in the country. They basically only return one and a half starters with RG Parker Graham starting all 13 games and LG Brandon Webb starting 5 games. Much of their success is predicated on the short, quick passing game so getting to the quarterback might not happen too often, however, getting a good push and stopping the run at the line will be crucial to making them one dimensional and allowing our linebackers to stay in coverage. There is an opportunity here for the MSU D-line to take advantage of some of their inexperience early in the season - especially in the 2nd half when State's depth could come into play and get into the backfield a little easier.
MSU Offensive Line vs. OSU Defensive Line
The last potential weakness I pointed out for Oklahoma State was their defensive ends. They lose their full time starter on one end and two part timers on the other end meaning they'll have a couple of new guys in Tyler Johnson and Jimmie Bean. The tackles are a different story as both are returning starters and were all-conference players last year.
The good news is MSU's strength on the O-line is the interior so they matchup well here. With inexperienced ends it may give State's young receivers just a bit of extra time to get open. The Cowboys were decent in defending the run game last year (142 YPG).
MSU Secondary vs. OSU Receivers
This could potentially be a major weakness for the Bulldogs. Lots of experience and high end talent is gone and OSU will be coming at us with a solid, proven passing attack. They return their top two QBs (and Gundy has hinted at using both this year) and top 3 receivers. They will get their yards and their points.
This may be a game worth taking some risks. The potential of getting some turnovers could really account for a big swing in the game, and could be worth giving up a monster play or two as they will likely move the ball well through the air regardless.
This isn't a slam dunk for Oklahoma State as many prognosticators may think. Mississippi State has some advantages, the question will be can they exploit them? Mike Gundy isn't thrilled about playing a team like MSU in the opener - could it be he knows his teams aren't nearly as sharp early; is he concerned about whether his guys are taking this game seriously?
OSU allowed 79.5 plays per game last year - that was 118th in the country! State will need to stay balanced, taking advantage of their secondary and keeping the ball away from their offense by running the ball and keeping the clock moving.
Defensively, MSU must get off the field on 3rd down and force some field goals when they get inside the red zone. The Cowboys will score but the defense has to come up with a few stops to give us a chance. Making sure tackles and bringing some pressure to put heat on their young O-line, and our D-line holding their own in the running game could be keys to success.
Looks like this could be a great game to watch. Hail State.