Texas A&M comes into Starkville this Saturday looking for its fourth straight win over an SEC team. Mississippi State is smarting from a poor offensive performance in Baton Rouge that left many questioning once again the capabilities of Bulldog senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and his skipper Coach Joe Moorhead.
Coach Jimbo Fisher left a school that won a national title over an SEC team just five years ago, sealing the first victory for any conference aside from the SEC since 2005 and one of the only three in the past 11 years. Fisher is obviously a capable coach, and he has already made improvements from last season. His pro-style offense that has sent numerous players to the next level has shown the type of promise that could rise to elite levels in the near future but remains at the moment a capable but beatable scheme. Fisher’s signal caller Kellen Mond has taken a season where as many as half the experts predicted he would be the backup and quietly turned it into one of the better seasons of any quarterback in the conference. Mond has 1800 yards from a 61.7% completion rate, and he averages 8.41 yards per attempt. Mond hasn’t run like a Fitzgerald or a Shea Patterson or a Johnny Manziel would have, but he’s a capable runner. In true A&M vs Bama fashion, he sprung for 98 yards on the ground in Tuscaloosa this season. Mississippi State hasn’t faced a quarterback this mobile since Terry Wilson at Kentucky, whom they limited to 18 yards rushing. Mond, however, has let his arm do the work in more recent weeks, with only 54 rushing yards combined in his last three outings. He has 10 touchdowns to 5 interceptions on the season.
A true halfback threat stands alongside Mond in the A&M backfield in junior Trayveon Williams. Williams has 798 yards this season on 139 carries, and has rushed for over 100 yards four times. However, he was contained when running into the defensive fronts of Alabama and Clemson, and MSU’s fronts seven is comparable to those two clubs’. Jashaun Corbin has added 169 yards to the Aggie running game as a freshman. Fisher does have a deep stable of young running backs that have gotten a few carries here and there as the season went on, and they can be included in his scheme Saturday in relief of Williams or as a part of certain packages. But most of the damage is done by either Mond or Williams as far as the ground game is concerned.
Jace Sternberger for Texas A&M has not only been the best tight end in the SEC but the best in the country statistically. He averages over 17 yards per catch and has 496 yards on the year to go with 6 touchdowns. He’s a matchup difficulty for sure, but his money is made after the catch—he’s a handful to bring down to the ground. Sophomore Quartney Davis is probably the biggest threat from the Aggie receiving corps with 24 catches for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns. Second-year man Cameron Buckley is another receiving option with 329 yards on 22 catches but no scores. Another sophomore, Jhamon Ausbon, is a key contributor as well. A&M is not a team that uses its running backs in the passing game extremely often. Like the running back group, there are several reserve wide-outs that can contribute in limited roles as well.
Texas A&M, on the surface, looks like one of the most balanced, even-keeled offensive squads in the SEC. They are capable in both phases of the offense. A quarterback that is competent, a mid-to-upper-level tailback, a fantastic tight end, some good receivers, and a proven head coach are all recipes for success. However, there are some deeper points to examine. Texas A&M has become one dimensional when playing against better defenses at times. They amassed only 71 rushing yards against Clemson and were forced to pass all over the place (now, in a magical night for Mond that didn’t come without a few huge mistakes, TAMU did throw for 470 yards that night against a Clemson secondary that looked lost in College Station). Their rushing game was also limited against Alabama, with quarterback scrambles accounting for most of the ground yardage that day. Bama favors a heavy man coverage type of defensive scheme that is vulnerable to that attack, but Mississippi State is more diverse in its defensive backfield looks out of necessity. TAMU is probably one of the better offenses the Bulldogs will face this season, certainly in the upper half of their 12 opponents. But it has not been other teams’ offenses that have given MSU trouble this season; in fact, it has been its own offense instead that hinders them. I am going to hazard a score prediction of 14-10 in favor of the Bulldogs, but the up-and-downs of the home team’s offense that will take the field Saturday makes it no fun to predict.