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Mississippi State: So Repulsive...and Yet, I Can't Look Away

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Fact: if Vanderbilt wins one of its last two against Tennessee or Wake Forest, the SEC will have eleven bowl-eligible teams. This is unusual historically, but not this year: the ACC has "only" seven eligible teams at the moment but a chance at ten if Miami, Maryland and/or NC State each win one of their last two; ten of eleven are already eligible in the Big Ten; Louisville needs one more win and Pittsburgh two to give the Big East seven minimally qualified teams out of eight. And none of them, under the circumstances, is as unlikely as Mississippi State, and possibly none as plainly ugly.

State can't win the SEC West  - the Bulldogs can technically tie LSU, if they beat Arkansas and Ole Miss and the Tigers impossibly lose to the same two teams in successive weeks; then, there's still the matter of the 45-0 opening night beatdown in Starkville backing LSU's already-secured position in the SEC Championship - and thank heaven for that. By whatever measure you put on the table, the Bulldogs are the bottom dwelling laughingstock we've come to know and mock through Jackie Sherrill's last three seasons in Starkville and Sylverster Croom's first three, none of which resulted in more than three wins, or more than two in the SEC.

Miss. State vs. SEC under Croom
Offense Rush Yds. Per Carry Pass Yards Rating Scoring*
2004 149.5 4.4 141.4 91.1 13.9
2005 113.0 3.3 137.4 86.9 9.8
2006 87.1 2.6 187.5 98.9 15.0
2007 128.7 3.2 125.0 86.6 15.8
Defense Rush Yds. Per Carry Pass Yards Rating Scoring*
2004 219.8 4.7 188.8 131.6 27.5
2005 152.3 3.9 197.5 127.9 22.9
2006 99.5 3.1 227.0 140.7 25.1
2007 165.0 4.2 190.8 109.7 26.0

* Scoring does not include defensive or special teams touchdowns.
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The team is better in one respect, pass efficiency defense - opposing quarterbacks this year are completing a lower percentage of their passes for far fewer yards per attempt - but that hasn't reduced opponents' scoring overall and hasn't been accompanied by noticeable improvement in any other area. MSU still can't throw (it's last in the SEC in passing and total offense and 117th nationally in passing efficiency despite a dramatic improvement in sacks allowed; the Bulldogs' long pass in any of their wins is just 33 yards, against Tulane), can barely run, and is cumulatively about 100 yards and 10-12 points per game worse than the rest of the league on average, which is exactly the margin by which Arkansas is favored to win this weekend in Fayetteville. This sounds about right.

Why, then, was my first reaction to thiscomment, left Wednesday about my decision to rank Kentucky at all, to disagree:

Kentucky's ONLY notable win as far as I can tell is that LSU game.  They played Florida close too, but the Mississippi State loss is awful.
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Yes, all is proceeding according to plan...excellent...excellent!
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If you see a team that isn't demonstrably better at moving the ball or preventing opponents from moving than its undeniably awful predecessors, Mississippi State is indeed an awful loss. But if you see a six-win team that's upset three different then-ranked favorites still either residing in or receiving votes in every recognized poll, playing on the road Saturday to match its conference win total over the last three seasons combined, and it is significantly less awful - especially when you add that the Bulldogs' four losses are to two teams currently ranked in the top ten (LSU and West Virginia), another in the top 20 (Tennessee) and another that was in the top ten when it played MSU and was still there as late as mid-October (South Carolina). In fact, on wins and losses alone, it's almost comparable to the similar turnaround in Illinois, which also has three very good wins over ranked teams, a pair of "acceptable" losses and one sketchier loss (MSU has South Carolina, Illinois has Iowa).

Anyone who has watched these two teams play knows the comparison is ludicrous - Illinois has legitimate weapons on offense, has beaten more teams more soundly and been more competitive across its entire schedule than Mississippi State, which has needed timely turnovers to salvage abysmal offensive efforts in the upsets over Auburn and Alabama. Illinois lined up and ran its offense and defense and beat Ohio State down-to-down, and no one can conceive of Mississippi State doing the same thing. And we don't have to imagine it: in the same situation against a top-ranked conference overlord to start the season, we saw MSU trounced in the aforementioned laugher against LSU. If you get any more specific than wins and losses, Mississippi State is still a bad team - statistically, anecdotally, aesthetically (yes; just try to watch the offense).

Those are the means. But if Mississippi State beats Arkansas Saturday, it will be favored to beat Ole Miss (0-6 in-conference) in the Egg Bowl, and if it does that, too, these will be the ends: 8-4, 5-3 in the SEC, tied for second place in the West with the Auburn-Alabama winner with tiebreakers over both and a passable shot at the Cotton Bowl.

So when we say (and I do mean "we") Mississippi State is an awful team, are we talking about the means or the ends? You can apply the same question to Virginia, UConn or any other "winning ugly" scrappers, but whatever other questions you ask, it can't be denied that - unlike UVA and UConn to date - Mississippi State has played a quality schedule and ostensibly succeeded against a significant portion of it. When assessing the value of beating the Dogs, or the demerits of losing to them, or where MSU might fit into the polls its own self, does it matter how it met those ends? Or only that they were met? Or would you like to see them try to slow down Darren McFadden first?