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Revisiting: Mississippi State on the Margins

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asked this question last November, when Mississippi State was getting ready to play Arkansas with a chance to improve to 7-4 overall and above .500 in the SEC for the first time in eight years. It lost that game but won its last two, finishing 8-5, 4-4 in the conference, with wins in four of its last five. I probably should wait for the belated SEC edition of the "Stats Relevance Watch" to go into this, for the benefit of the "stats don't matter" crowd, but writing about the Bulldogs for a magazine coming out this summer, I was reminded just how frustrating it is to try to figure out where they're going based on those performances.

That finish just made a puzzling team that much more of an enigma. Not to get too philosophical, but how does one explain a team that didn’t significantly improve in any tangible way from its lame duck predecessors, yet somehow won as many SEC games (four) as it had in Sylvester Croom’s first three years combined, and fell just one win short of matching its entire win total (nine) over that span? MSU was outgained by 73 yards per conference game, a wider margin than in its 1-7 season in 2006, and finished last in the SEC again in passing, pass efficiency and total offense. It also finished next-to-last in scoring despite a league-best six non-offensive touchdowns (five interception returns and a punt return), three of them leading directly to narrow wins over Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss. That handful of critical plays at critical moments might be the single biggest difference from the last place teams of Croom’s first three years:

MSU Output vs. Opponent Output, SEC Games
Total Yds. Yds./Carry Yds./Pass Pass Rating TO Margin Record
2004 -118.6 -0.37 -2.3 -40.5 -1 2-6
2005 -99.4 -0.58 -2.2 -40.9 + 2 1-7
2006 -51.9 -0.24 -1.9 -41.8 -2 1-7
2007 -73.4 -1.07 -0.6 -20.3 -1 4-4

In the big picture, the only element the Bulldogs improved last year relative to their opponents was in the passing (this is wholly a defensive improvement), and that came in conjunction with a much greater disparity in the running game (mostly a defensive regression). On the whole, MSU was getting beat at the same rate by these measures it was when it was finishing 1-7; the defense was better, but the offense, especially the passing game behind overwhelmed freshman Wesley Carroll, was worse. The turnover margin overall was –1; in SEC games, it was zero.

Or maybe the spirit of victory dwells within them.
- - -

Thus, the basic problem: was Mississippi State a slightly above average team by definition, because of its final record and wins over Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky and in the Liberty Bowl (wherein Central Florida outgained MSU but missed three field goals and lost a defensive slog, 7-3), or was it still a fundamentally bad but improbably lucky team destined to fall to earth without the same dramatic breaks?

As I suggested, the obvious answer is the big plays off turnovers, without which the Bulldogs are probably 1-7 again in the conference and have no chance to slip into a bowl game. As necessary as the game-changing plays were, though, when you parse the specific trends in wins and losses, it's clear they didn't occur in a vacuum; it wasn't as easy as Bad Team + Timely Turnover = Surprise Win. 

That's counterintuitive based on the big picture since, compared against its own output, State's raw offensive numbers within SEC games were not better in wins than in losses. Just the opposite, in fact – offensively, MSU was only a little worse running in losses than it was in wins but much, much better passing in terms of both yards and efficiency, and significantly better in total yards in the four losses. Based on that, it makes sense to conclude the bridge from winning to losing was constructed exclusively with turnovers.

It's all relative, though: if the Bulldogs' offense was just bad, regardless, the defense fluctuated between bouts of equal misery and surprising ferocity:

2007 MSU Output vs. Opponent Output, SEC Games
Total Yds. Yds./Carry Yds./Pass Pass Rating TO Margin Point Margin
4 Wins -45.5 -1.1 + 0.3 + 8.6 + 11 + 7.5
4 Losses -101.3 -1.6 -1.95 -79.2 -11 -22.0

When MSU won, it won close; when it lost, it lost big. At best, State was still getting beat at the line of scrimmage and outgained overall, but when the defense brought it, the margins were significantly smaller – the pass defense in the wins was so good that even the Bulldogs' rock bottom numbers through the air were still somehow a hair better than the opponents'. Narrow margins can be overcome by turnovers, and in this case, no gap was wider than the number of takeaways. Plus-eleven in four games is as astounding as minus-eleven is atrocious, and MSU made the most of those chances with what amounted to winning touchdowns on picks against Auburn and Alabama (to say nothing of Derek Pegues' punt return to tie and essentially break Ole Miss, a game the Rebels had in the bag eight minutes earlier). Those single plays don't matter in nearly the same way when a comeback is a double-digit odyssey (though, to be fair, the 45-0 opening loss to LSU was much worse than the other three examples and drags down the numbers in losses a bit). 

The fact that State actually matched up well with some opponents on a down-to-down basis is a more positive sign than if it had been consistently quashed as usual and just got a couple turnovers go its way at the right time. The question going forward is, how does the defense decide when to show up? There was no rhyme or reason last year – they shut down André Woodson but got carved up for five TD passes by Casey Dick two weeks later. The strong pass rush was one of the catalysts of so many turnovers; though MSU was last in the SEC in sacks, it was first in tackles for loss and also got a lot of hurries from Titus Brown and Avery Hannibal, who are both gone.

This is not a very good omen: defensive and special teams touchdowns are about as reliable as lightning strikes, and it required a spate of them to get by last when the defense was playing well part of the time. If the defense regresses, even that kind of unlikely opportunism won't be able to turn the tide. Certainly nobody outside of Starkville expects Wesley Carroll to do it.