Posted by Jerry Hinnen
WAKE FOREST WILL WIN IF: they can control the Mississippi State ground game. The Bulldogs have never been comfortable throwing the ball under Dan Mullen, and it showed again in 2011; in the six games in which State threw for 30 or more yards more than they gained on the ground, they finished 1-5, with the only win coming against hapless Kentucky. In the six outings in which they ran more yards than they threw or approached a 50-50 balance, they went 5-1. That might not be particularly good news for a Demon Deacon defense that ranked 70th in the country in stopping the run and finished the season giving up 175 rushing yards or more to six of their final seven opponents; the last of those was State's SEC colleagues from Vanderbilt, who racked up a whopping 297 yards on 5.4 a pop in their 41-7 win. But State's rush offense wasn't quite its usual dominant self in 2011, finishing 45th in the FBS, and in dynamic sophomore nose tackle Nikita Whitlock and senior linebacker Kyle Wilber, Wake has some of the pieces necessary to slow the Bulldogs down. If they don't, it's going to be as long an evening as it was for Wake vs. the Commodores.
MISSISSIPPI STATE WILL WIN IF: their secondary does to quarterback Tanner Price and the Wake passing attack what it's capable of doing to it. Throwing the ball is the only thing the Demon Deacons do particularly well from a statistical standpoint -- between rush, pass and total offense and rush, pass, and total defense, their 37th-ranked pass offense is the only category in which they finished better than 70th in the FBS -- but unfortunately for Wake, stopping those throws is what the Bulldogs do best. Led by All-SEC-caliber corner* Johnthan Banks and a pair of sharp senior safeties in Charles Mitchell and Wade Bonner, the Bulldogs finished 23rd nationally in pass defense and held opponents to just 6.1 yards an attempt--the 11th-best mark in the FBS. If the Bulldog secondary lives up to those numbers and bottles up Price and Co., it's all-but-impossible to see the Demon Deacons putting up enough points to win.
THE X-FACTOR: Whether or not Mississippi State will be as focused as they could be. The Bulldogs came into 2011 with higher expectations than 6-6 and the Music City Bowl, and nothing they do against the Demon Deacons will keep their 2011 campaign from being a legitimate disappointment. Mullen almost certainly has a better, more talented team than Jim Grobe, but Grobe has pulled off plenty of upsets over better, more talented teams in his Wake career, and if State isn't ready to play there's no reason they can't be his latest victim.
*In most leagues, or maybe even most years in the SEC, Banks would have been all-conference. But this year he shared a league with Dre Kirkpatrick, Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne and Casey Hayward. So it goes.
Keep up with the latest college football news from around the country. From the regular season all the way through the bowl games, CBSSports.com has you covered with this daily newsletter. | Preview