If you fell into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep in August, and awoke to find Arkansas sporting a 6-4 record and favored in remaining home games against Mississippi State and Missouri, you might be inclined to think that the season went about as planned.
Arkansas probably started 4-0 before losing to a super-hot Tennessee team coming off a win over Florida. After falling to Alabama, Arkansas upset Auburn but lost to Ole Miss and LSU on the road. Sounds accurate?
Not quite. This season has been anything but normal. Arkansas started slow, but lost in Hog fans' agony was the fact that plenty of other SEC teams ranged from disappointing (Auburn, Tennessee) to obviously flawed (Ole Miss, Missouri). As Arkansas improved, other programs didn't. The Hogs have won four straight and five of the last six and now sit at second place in the vaunted SEC West.
Arkansas is finally favored, both by Vegas and by S&P+.
Arkansas Offense vs. Mississippi State Defense
Arkansas has rapidly risen to first in the nation in success rate, boasting at least 50% success during the four-game win streak. Advantages are found all over the basic matchup here, but the most significant advantage is Arkansas' success rate against Mississippi State's. The Bulldog defense, like Arkansas', is a bend-don't-break unit, giving up plenty of yards but not giving up too many big plays.
The running game is probably the biggest key. Like LSU the week before, Mississippi State is coming off a gutting by Derrick Henry and the Alabama running game. Arkansas probably won't hit many big plays in the run game, but it seems unlikely that MSU will be able to keep Arkansas' efficiency down.
The main reason for Arkansas' probable run game success is the dominance of an offensive line that has improved massively in recent weeks. State gets after the passer, so that's a concern for the Hogs, but otherwise Arkansas should win this battle up front.
The Hogs remain best in the nation in passing. This is the fifth separate game this season Arkansas has ranked 1st in Passing S&P+. Mississippi State's pass defense is better than its run defense, but Arkansas still has some efficiency advantages, plus if Arkansas is running well, the Hogs won't have any trouble passing regardless of the quality of the defense. MSU is far from the saltiest pass defense Arkansas has faced this season.
Mississippi State Offense vs. Arkansas Defense
Arkansas' numbers are slightly improved after a nice showing against LSU, but the numbers are still poor overall. The Hogs don't particularly do anything well defensively, but luckily MSU isn't an offensive juggernaut, although they are quite capable of putting up points.
The Bulldogs are closer to Ole Miss in terms of offensive style and run quality. Arkansas should have no trouble slowing the Bulldog run game, including called runs from Dak Prescott. It's improvised scrambles that are the concern with Prescott, but those are counted towards passing stats in these ratings.
Arkansas' defensive line had a huge game against LSU and has improved tremendously since the Texas Tech debacle. The Hogs jumped nearly 30 spots after a five-sack performance against LSU. This is the major statistic that will almost certainly be affected by the dreaded "Bama Body Blow Theory," the idea that teams - especially their offensive and defensive lines - play worse in the week or two after facing Alabama. Mississippi State allowed Prescott to be sacked nine times a week ago. Can they recover? History says "unlikely," and Arkansas isn't an ideal opponent to face when tired.
Here's MSU's only advantage, but it's a big one. If Prescott has a career game (certainly possible), MSU could win without doing anything else well.
Keys to the Game
- Chip away at Mississippi State's pass-game advantages. This key encompasses a few smaller things: keep Prescott in the pocket, rush the passer, and stop the run game. Stopping the pass is unlikely, but doing other things well can lead to an easy win anyway, and much of that falls on the defensive line. Prescott threw for more than 300 yards against Alabama, but the Bulldogs lost 31-6.
- Maintain offensive balance. Mississippi State's defense is decent but not elite. Keeping things on the ground against a weak run-success defense should open up some play-action passes.
- Strike early. Coming off a physical loss to Alabama (and with the Egg Bowl next week), MSU might fade quickly if they fall behind. Launching a quick strike by taking a two-score lead as quickly as possible could open up the doors to a rout. This means taking advantage of opportunities and not giving up big plays on the first few drives of the game.