So why in the world would a supposedly sane SEC blog put Mississippi State ahead of Arkansas? That's the question that many of you have had ever since we noticeably posted the Arkansas preview earlier in our bottom-to-top march through the SEC, then followed it with Mississippi State. And by we, of course, I mean I; whether he agrees or not, Year2 had made it pretty clear the whole time that I'm the one in charge of deciding the order of the teams.
It would be tempting to fall back on the quite honest reasoning that I'm trying to select who will win the games here, not which team is better, and I believe for reasons that I'll explain in a moment that Mississippi State will defeat Arkansas. But those reasons essentially boil down to the very thing I'm trying to set aside there. I do believe that Mississippi State will be the slightly better team -- emphasis on slightly.
For all the improvement in both teams' defenses -- some of which was more genuine than others -- they remain teams centered on offense. Arkansas has six offensive starters returning, including three wide receivers and the running back. Mississippi State has nine, including the quarterback, three wide receivers, the running back and the tight end. Arkansas loses more than half of its starting offensive line; Mississippi State loses slightly less than half. That distinction can be notable in an offensive line, the difference between plugging in holes and reworking what must act as a single unit from the ground up.
Then take into account the fact that, with Ryan Mallett and the three-fifths of the offensive line that's now gone and all those returning starters, Arkansas needed two overtimes to defeat Mississippi State last year. Why is it so preposterous to believe that an Arkansas team sans all those players might have more trouble this year outscoring essentially the same Mississippi State offense?
(Yes, I know, Tyler Wilson. When you're betting your season on a guy who attempted 51 passes last year because he supposedly looked good in a game in which he threw two back-breaking interceptions in the fourth quarter, I don't think it's entirely unreasonable of me to wait for more evidence before your argument wins me over.)
And that game is likely to determine the third-place team in the SEC West, if for no other reason than serving as the tiebreaker. Both Arkansas and Mississippi State are likely to be distant runners-up in the SEC West to Alabama and LSU. I'm not even sure I see a route to much better than .500 in conference play for either. The other objection is that Mississippi State's schedule is more difficult, but some of that is based on factors that aren't that important. Yes, the Western Division Bulldogs have more road games than anyone else, but they're going to beat UAB whether that game is played in Starkville, in Birmingham or on the moon. The only road games against teams that are likely to be in the running for the SEC championship are going to be at Georgia and at Arkansas. If either of the teams has a chance to pick off Alabama or LSU, it's probably going to be Mississippi State.
The Hogs-Dogs pecking order might not be clear-cut either way, but to me Mississippi State looks like the better team this year. Narrowly so, sure, but a third-place finish is a third-place finish when it comes to predictions. Arkansas is going to be a solid team in 2011, but the guess here is that Mississippi State is going to be just a little bit better -- especially when the game that will decide third place is played.
Place: 3rd in the SEC West
Record: 8-4, 4-4 SEC
Could be: 6-6 to 10-2
Best chance for an upset (besides the obvious): SOUTH CAROLINA
9.1.11 | at MEMPHIS | WIN
9.10.11 | at AUBURN | POSSIBLE WIN
9.17.11 | LSU | POSSIBLE LOSS
9.24.11 | LOUISIANA TECH | WIN
10.1.11 | at GEORGIA | POSSIBLE LOSS
10.8.11 | at UAB | WIN
10.15.11 | SOUTH CAROLINA | POSSIBLE LOSS
10.29.11 | at KENTUCKY | POSSIBLE WIN
11.5.11 | TENNESSEE-MARTIN | WIN
11.12.11 | ALABAMA | PROBABLE LOSS
11.19.11 | at ARKANSAS | POSSIBLE WIN
11.26.11 | OLE MISS | POSSIBLE WIN