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Mississippi State vs. Louisville 2017 Gator Bowl Preview

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Your loyal blogger refuses to call it the TaxSlayer Bowl.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

2017 TAXSLAYER GATOR BOWL PREVIEW

Tale of the Tape

8-4 (4-4 ACC, 4-7-1 ATS) Records 8-4 (4-4 SEC, 7-5 ATS)
#17 S&P+ Rankings #23 College Football Playoff, #24 AP,
#23 Coaches, #26 S&P+
39.0 (Off.) | 27.1 (Def.) Points Per Game 32.1 (Off.) | 20.4 (Def.)
560.5 (Off.) | 386.8 (Def.) Yards Per Game 419.8 (Off.) | 302.0 (Def.)
Lamar Jackson (1,443 Yds) Leading Rusher Aeris Williams (1,019 Yds)
Lamar Jackson (3,489 Yds) Leading Passer Nick Fitzgerald (1,782 Yds)
James Hearns/Jon Greenard (7) Leading Sacker Montez Sweat (9.5)
26.6 (Off.) | 28.3 (Def.) Average Field Position 30.4 (Off.) | 28.1 (Def.)
51.4% (Off.) | 45.5% (Def.) Rushing Success Rate 46.6% (Off.) | 39.2% (Def.)
47.1% (Off.) | 45.4% (Def.) Passing Success Rate 43.1% (Off.) | 31.4% (Def.)
49.2% (Off.) | 38.7% (Def.) Success Rate 45.2% (Off.) | 35.8% (Def.)

How We Got Here

There was a time when it seemed like the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Louisville Cardinals would be meeting on a bigger stage than Jacksonville, Florida.

The Bulldogs opened the season 3-0 after crushing LSU by a 37-7 score, but blowout losses to Georgia and Auburn (no shame there) set the Bulldogs out of the Top 25. They rose to #18 after winning four straight over BYU, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and UMass, and then kept it within a touchdown against Alabama.

But they lost to Ole Miss in the season finale, and even more importantly lost QB Nick Fitzgerald to a gruesome ankle injury (please don’t try to find it on YouTube, I’m begging you.) And then they lost head coach Dan Mullen, who took the Florida job shortly after the regular season ended.

If that felt like a disappointment, well, have a look at Louisville’s season.

Louisville opened the regular season ranked #16 in the AP poll and that felt low, what with the Cardinals returning the then-reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. But things just didn’t seem to be clicking from the outset: the Cardinals squeaked by Purdue 35-28 in the season opener, which turned out not to be that bad (Purdue won its bowl game.) They gave up 35 points to a North Carolina team that would finish 3-9. They were uncompetitive in a 47-21 loss to Clemson at home, which, well, it’s Clemson, but then three weeks later they lost 39-25 at NC State to fall out of the Top 25.

And then things really went haywire: they gave up 45 points (!) in a loss to Boston College, which entered the game averaging just 16 points per game. They squeaked by Florida State, but then they lost to Wake Forest by a 42-32 score. They did manage to finish 8-4 by beating Virginia, Syracuse, and Kentucky, but there’s really no way to spin this season as anything but a disappointment.

Ironically, these are two teams that essentially traded defensive coordinators last offseason. Louisville defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon was the coordinator at Mississippi State last season, while Mississippi State’s Todd Grantham came from Louisville. It’s not difficult to figure out who won that exchange: Mississippi State improved from 31.8 ppg in 2016 to 20.4 ppg this season; Louisville, on the other hand, went from 23.8 ppg in 2016 to 27.1 ppg this season.


What to Watch For

Are Keytaon Thompson and Greg Knox ready for this?

With Dan Mullen off to Florida, and Nick Fitzgerald injured, Mississippi State will have a new head coach and a new quarterback. While Mississippi State hired former Penn State offensive coordinator (and Fordham head coach) Joe Moorhead to replace Mullen, running backs coach Greg Knox will be piloting the team in the Gator Bowl. Knox has had a long career as an assistant coach in the SEC, but he’s never been a coordinator, much less a head coach.

Meanwhile, true freshman Keytaon Thompson will make his first career start at quarterback for the bowl game. Thompson appeared in nine games this season as Fitzgerald’s backup, with his most significant action coming in the Egg Bowl after Fitzgerald got hurt. Thompson showed some ability as a runner in the regular season (48 carries for 299 yards), but he’s obviously raw as a passer as everybody saw in the Egg Bowl, when he went 13-for-27 for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Of course, the fact that Thompson threw the ball 27 times (and ran 26!) suggests that Mississippi State’s coaching staff is pretty confident in him; there was no “let’s just hand off 50 times now that the starting quarterback is out.” Whether Mississippi State adjusts the offense now remains to be seen.


Prediction

Mississippi State 31, Louisville 30: I’m calling the upset here. While Nick Fitzgerald is out, that probably won’t make much difference against a defense that couldn’t stop Wake Forest or Boston College. Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s vaunted defense will make enough stops for the Bulldogs to give Greg Knox a 1-0 career record.