In sports, we now have all types of statistics and terminology that receive much more attention today than they did 20 years ago, if they even existed then. We have WAR stats. We have DOVA stats. Another phrase that has bolted into popularity in the past ten or so years is "trap game."
Do these new stats, metrics and terms add to our understanding of sports, especially football? Maybe so, but the vagueness of some terms, especially trap games, leads to a whirlwind of discussion, some civil and some not so civil.
The theory behind a trap game is simple, but even as recently as 2003, ESPN writers were explaining what a trap game was to readers. In short, an accepted definition of a trap game is when a quality team might overlook a supposedly inferior opponent directly before or after a matchup against another quality program. Calling something a trap game does not mean a team will lose. All it means is that there are additional, off-field factors to consider for the contest.
Barrett Sallee made many Mississippi State fans angry when he suggested Southern Miss as a trap game for the Bulldogs. Our own Daniel Black drew some praise and criticism for his three trap game predictions for Mississippi State. Anyone sitting around hammering these guys for these guess have it all wrong, even those that think making a game of Whack-A-Mole with Sallee's face would be exciting.
The fact of the matter is Sallee and Black picked a nearly impossible task for Mississippi State's 2015 slate because a true trap game, by whatever subjective definition someone wants to use, may not exist, at least not at this time, on the Mississippi State schedule.
If someone held a gun to my head asking which games are trap games for Mississippi State, I'd list Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and Kentucky in that order. Will the Bulldogs lose any of those games? The most likely answer is no.
Perhaps that is the problem with the term trap game today. Many people hear that phrase and automatically assume it is calling for a loss by the better team. That idea is far from correct as statistics show that the better team rarely loses trap games. Instead, the upsets are amplified because they draw all of the attention. Do upsets happen in trap games? Yes, but not as often as you think. Saying something might be a trap game is far from the same as calling for an upset.
If Mississippi State opened up with anyone other than Southern Miss, and then played the Golden Eagles and LSU Tigers, the game in Hattiesburg would easily fit into the trap game mold. It would be on the road against an opponent that should be much improved from the previous season that would like to do nothing more than kick the teeth down the throats of the visitors. However, with this game kicking off the season, the Bulldogs will have a tough time overlooking the game, reducing its value as a trap game. Sallee may not be 100% right on calling this the biggest trap game on the schedule, but he is not far off.
Given the ability of the SEC West, one can pretty much say none of the Bulldogs' matchups against division foes fits as a trap game. Which team will Mississippi State overlook given that all finished above .500 last year? Yes, Mississippi State has Arkansas sandwiched between Alabama and Ole Miss, but before you yell that the Razorbacks are the obvious answer, can you really say that if Mississippi State loses to Arkansas it will mainly be because they overlooked the Hogs? I find it tough to discount the ability of the Razorbacks that easily. I find it tough to believe the Bulldogs will be overlooking Arkansas. Let's move on out of the SEC West.
Black may have been onto something with his Louisiana Tech prediction. The Bulldogs host the other Bulldogs from Ruston on homecoming before an SEC game against a Kentucky team that should be improved. Louisiana Tech had a solid 2014, and if the Bulldogs are overlooking the team, they should not be. Again, given Tech's success last year, it is hard to place them in a "sleeper" category for a trap game. However, their status as a non-SEC foe helps slide them into the category.
Kentucky also would make for a great trap game, but the bye week before the Bulldogs head to Missouri mitigates this to a degree. With a week off following the game, the Bulldogs have little reason to overlook Kentucky. Speaking of the Missouri contest, there is no way that a Thursday night matchup on the road against the defending SEC East champion can be considered a trap game. Doing so would only disrespect the Tigers.
So go ahead, sweat a few games because of off field factors, but in the end, know that you will still probably be cheering Bulldog victories at the end of these "trap games."