On paper (or on a computer screen, since no one uses actual paper anymore), Mississippi State and Arkansas appear to be pretty similar teams. Each has two players in the top 10 of the SEC in rushing yards. Each has a strong front seven, and the secondaries of both teams have had some inconsistencies.
But even with all those similarities, the differences are clear. The Razorbacks under head coach Bret Bielema are running the ball with a traditional pound-the-opponent-into-submission I-formation attack. The Bulldogs, under head coach Dan Mullen, are doing it with their variation of the spread, featuring a dual-threat quarterback, an option game and a ton of mismatches.
The biggest difference, though, is one Bielema discussed this week leading up to their match-up this weekend: Arkansas is trying to get there. MSU already is there.
Asked about the future of his program, Bielema had an example at the ready. “Look at Dan,” was his response.
The Razorbacks were winless in the SEC last year, Bielema’s first in Fayetteville, while the Bulldogs are currently No. 1 in the conference and the country in Mullen’s sixth season in Starkville. But the difference isn’t quite so great as it seems. After all, MSU needed overtime to beat UA last year in Little Rock. In fact, that’s the motivation Bielema has used with his team this week.
“Not meaning this is in a bad way,” Bielema said, “I asked our guys if they’ve improved that much more than we have.”
In Starkville, Mullen has driven one point into his team’s head (and legs) in practice this week: no more lethargic play. It almost cost them the game at Kentucky, and this week a talented Arkansas team comes to town who is bound to get a conference win at some point.
However, delving into the match-ups, it seems this would be a tough time for that to happen, despite the battle the two teams had last year.
Bielema’s team is built on the straight-ahead rushing attack. MSU’s front seven, only allowing 118 rushing yards per game, would love nothing more than to just spend all night Saturday stopping the run. It’s what they’re best at. State’s defensive line runs 10 deep with players they trust and the linebackers are among the best in the country.
If MSU’s defense has had a liability, it’s in the secondary, and that’s where the challenge will lie this weekend. Arkansas doesn’t pass often, but they’re efficient when they do, and deadly when operating off the play-action game.
“It’s a new challenge for us we haven’t seen in a couple weeks,” MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
Said sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown, the player responsible for reading opposing offenses pre-snap, “What they do is hard. That play-action will get to you. They’ll run, run, run, and then they’ll get you.”
Brown, a film rat, said he’s picked up some tendencies when watching film, but that they’re the toughest to read MSU has seen. He said Wednesday he had identified one of the formations they use to do the play-action. The problem? They’ll actually run the ball out of that formation, too.
The Razorbacks went through some growing pains last year, and still have some symptoms of growth this year, but they’re quickly becoming the type of team Bielema wanted.
Mullen summarized it pretty well on Monday.
“They are a big, physical outfit, and they have two of the best tailbacks in the country,” Mullen said. “They have a quarterback who can really throw the football and is very efficient. Because of how well they run the ball, they get some pretty good looks for him in one-on-one coverage. That presents a huge challenge for us this week.”
As big as the challenge will be for MSU’s defense, though, Mullen seemed more concerned with how his offense will perform against a drastically improved UA defense from a year ago. It was the first thing he addressed Monday.
“They present a great challenge with the physicality and speed of their defense,” Mullen said.
Their front seven could remind you of MSU’s to a certain degree. The Arkansas defensive line is big, fast, strong and adept at getting into the backfield. And while not quite to MSU’s level, they’re pretty good at stopping the run, too, giving up 137.9 ground yards per contest.
Dak Prescott said he sees an athletic group of linebackers when studying on tape, as well as some aggressive safeties.
And that may be where MSU gets its chance. Arkansas’ secondary is ninth in the SEC in passing yards allowed, and that’s with the benefit of a clock-eating offense to protect it. State’s rush attack has been stellar, but it may be Prescott’s arm and receivers who could be the difference on Saturday.
Not to say it will be easy, of course. MSU has the best offense in the SEC, averaging over 500 yards per game, but they won’t be the first talented group Arkansas has seen.
“They run to the football very aggressively,” Mullen said. “With the style of defense that they play, they have been very successful against a lot of potent offenses this year. Besides a couple of big plays at the end of the game, they were able to slow down Texas A&M, which is one of the best offenses in the country.”
Mullen mentioned their success against a very strong Alabama offense, as well, but it might be that last comment where his offense can find a crease.
MSU has done a good job of creating big plays, and UA’s defense has had a tendency to give up a few of those big plays. If MSU can hit some long passes with guys like De’Runnya Wilson and Gabe Myles and Malcolm Johnson, it will only make things easier for Josh Robinson, the SEC’s leading rusher.
What happens Saturday? Again, on paper, it ought to, at the very least, be an entertaining game. One thing, however, isn’t listed on the state sheet.
This will be the first home game for a No. 1 ranked Mississippi State team ever.
That has to count for something, right?