Posted by Jerry Hinnen
MISSISSIPPI STATE WILL WIN IF: their secondary gets some help. The Bulldogs were hoping to be sitting prettier than 5-5 at this stage when the season began, but it hasn't been the defensive backfield's fault; led by a pair of senior safeties and junior corner Johnthan Banks's All-SEC caliber performance, State ranks 14th in the nation in pass defense and in the top 30 in opposing passer rating. Even on the road, even without injured safety Nickoe Whitley, the Bulldogs figure to cause Tyler Wilson as many headaches as any team he's faced since Alabama; it was just last week the Tide's AJ McCarron posted the second-lowest QB rating of his season in Starkville, lower even than his performance vs. LSU. But just keeping Wilson (relatively) in check won't be enough. The rapidly improving front seven has to prevent the boom-or-bust Dennis Johnson from getting rolling; the State running game has to move the chains and keep the low-fi Bulldog offense from getting in field position trouble; and of course the Bulldog special teams can't give up cheap to scores to Joe Adams on punt returns or Johnson on kickoffs.
Do all of those things, and the secondary should provide enough of a defensive foundation to build an upset win around.
ARKANSAS WILL WIN IF: they keep coming up with big plays. Mississippi State is a team simply not built to win a shootout on the road; since their Week 2 explosion vs. Auburn, they've averaged just 12.6 points per their five SEC games. Meanwhile, the Hogs have scored 49 and 44 points against their last two SEC opponents, many of them coming via the home run. Against Tennessee there was Adams' ridiculous punt return, a 70-yard Johnson sprint, and a 40-yard bomb, again, to Adams; against South Carolina the Hogs got a Johnson kickoff return for TD, a 68-yard strike to Jarius Wright, and the game-icing sack-and-strip from Jake Bequette that set the offense up at the 1. Big plays like those not only demoralize the opposition and put points on the board in a hurry, they represent quick possessions that pack more possessions and plays into a game and offer the Hog offense even more chances at pushing their total in the 30s or 40s. Do that against MSU, and the Bulldogs won't have a prayer of keeping up.
THE X-FACTOR: Johnson. The junior has struggled the past two years with injuries and thanks in part to fumbling issues, didn't break into the Hog lineup immediately this season even after the loss of Knile Davis. But Johnson's combination of power and explosiveness offers the Arkansas running game a spark it just doesn't have otherwise, and Bobby Petrino has shown for years that if he can pair some kind of legitimate ground attack with his aerial fireworks ... watch out.