The big 2013 Liberty Bowl breakdown: Turnarounds for Mississippi State, Rice

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, Mississippi State pulled a 2012 Rice, improving late in the season to reach a bowl and get its coach off of a relatively hot seat. Can the young Bulldogs ride quite a few defensive advantages to a seventh win that seemed quite unlikely two months ago? (Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN.)

How much is a late-season push worth? It varies by the team, obviously. This time last year, Rice rode a five-game winning streak into bowl season, then just kept right on rolling, thumping Air Force by 19 points.

(The Owls are actually still rolling. They've won 16 of 20 after winning nine of their previous 30.)

This time around, however, Rice will be playing against a team that improved dramatically late in the season. Even if the record doesn't quite show it, Mississippi State was a much better team in November than before.

The Bulldogs began the season at 4-3, but their most impressive victim was Bowling Green. They encountered a stretch of three consecutive ranked opponents (at South Carolina, at Texas A&M, Alabama at home), and at their established level of play, they would have lost each game badly. But they were increasingly competitive, hanging in against A&M and Alabama well into the second half.

They needed to both survive a trip to Arkansas and upset Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to reach bowl eligibility, but they did just that. Depending on your source, it's possible that head coach Dan Mullen could have been in pretty shaky shape if the Bulldogs missed another bowl, but they didn't.

This isn't an amazing team, by any means. But after ranking in the 50s in the F/+ ratings most of the season, MSU charged to 43rd late. The Bulldogs' defense gives them the edge against a Rice team that is very, very happy to be in Memphis, though November form will probably be required to get a seventh win that seemed pretty unlikely a couple of months ago.

How they got here

Rice's season to date

In my 2013 Rice preview, I said that whatever the peak of the David Bailiff era at Rice was meant to be, we would probably see it this fall. Rice players were talking about conference titles and 10-win seasons, and I mentioned that with a front-loaded schedule, the Owls might not lose after October 5.

I was wrong -- the Owls did lose once -- but the players were right. After early losses to Texas A&M and Houston, Rice caught fire, beating Tulsa on the road (an impressive win until we found out Tulsa wasn't any good), holding serve at home, and dropping only one conference game against a surprisingly awesome North Texas team.

Rice hosted Marshall in the conference title game, raced out to an early lead, and coasted in surprisingly easy fashion, 41-24. If this is the peak of the Bailiff era, well, I would say the first outright conference title since the 1950s is a pretty high peak, even if Conference USA isn't now what it once was.

MSU's season to date

If you're in the running for a division or conference title, you absolutely want to play best late. But if you are simply trying to hang on for bowl eligibility, you can run into trouble by playing poorly against non-conference foes early and playing well against teams that are out of your league late.

But MSU endured, scared Alabama, beat its rival, and reached 6-6. Granted, four of the six wins were by a combined 21 points, and the Bulldogs went 4-1 in one-possession games, meaning there was a bit of a high-wire act to get here. But the wins still count.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Rice 10-3 NR 55
66 50 32
Mississippi State 6-6 NR 43 -7.5 60 20 104
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Rice Offense 86 89 81 91 37 65 97
MSU Defense 34 2 12 16 86 104 69
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Rice Offense 63 29 48 34 113 81 121
MSU Defense 27 26 37 70 83 101 72
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
MSU Offense 51 59 58 54 26 45 57
Rice Defense 38 53 39 55 14 35 34
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
MSU Offense 75 65 53 99 54 57 42
Rice Defense 45 34 17 61 87 78 84
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Rice Special Teams 31 40 38 8 90 64
MSU Special Teams 51 122 62 25 111 52

Rice's biggest advantages:

MSU gives you big plays. On a play-for-play basis, Mississippi State's defense holds most of the advantages against a Rice offense that didn't improve nearly as much as its defense in 2013. The Bulldog D ranks in the top 20 in both Rushing and Passing S&P+, and Rice is worse than 80th in both.

But when MSU gives up a score, it tends to be a pretty explosive one, and Rice's offense, though inconsistent, is capable of the big plays it's going to need.

Of the four Rice receivers targeted at least twice per game, three of them average at least 9.1 yards per target, and all four average at least 13.4 yards per catch. Rice is right up there with the Auburns and Minnesotas of the world when it comes to run frequency in non-option offenses; they do it a lot.

But they don't necessarily need a lot of success on the ground to catch you napping through the air. Jordan Taylor, by far the No. 1 target, has 54 catches for 846 yards and came up huge in the C-USA title game, with six catches, 131 yards, and a touchdown. He's an awkward matchup and huge target at 6'5, 210, and if someone in a good MSU secondary falls asleep, he's going deep.

Three-and-outs could be Rice's friend. The measure is not adjusted for strength of schedule, but it bears mentioning that Rice has the advantage on both offense (big) and defense (small) when it comes to First Down Rate, the ability to get at least one first down on a given drive.

As I've written before, you can boil the field position battle down to three things: overall quality (who's moving the ball and who isn't), three-and-outs, and special teams. The MSU defense holds a drastic advantage in the first of those three, but Rice could potentially counteract that with decent defense and by winning the latter two categories. The Owls are good-to-great in the kicking game, MSU's return games have been mediocre-to-bad, and if Rice is going three-and-out less than MSU, consider the field flipped.

Rice doesn't have a ton of margin for error here, obviously. But the recipe for the Owls winning this game -- fewer three-and-outs than MSU, good special teams play, make some defensive stops against a sketchy offense -- isn't exactly hard. The Rice defense has improved dramatically since last year, with proper depth in the defensive backfield for an effective 4-2-5 and play-makers at each level of the defense, from sophomore tackle Christian Covington and end Cody Bauer up front, to safety Malcolm Hill and corners Phillip Gaines and Bryce Callahan in the back.

MSU's biggest advantages:

Behind schedule? Lights out. Perhaps one of the more surprising units in the SEC was Mississippi State's secondary, an incredibly young unit (seniors on the current two-deep: zero) that broke up passes and gave MSU one of the best passing-downs defenses in the country despite a pass rush that was mediocre at best.

Sure, players like end Preston Smith and five-star freshman tackle Chris Jones were able to harry passers at times, but MSU recorded just 16 sacks in 2013. And they ranked second in Passing Downs S&P+. Granted, a lot of that had to do with the play of Nickoe Whitleywho evidently played much of the season with an ACL injury before electing to have surgery after some Egg Bowl heroics. But corners Jamerson Love (a junior), Taveze Calhoun, and Will Redmond (sophomores) are strong, and sophomore safety Kendrick Market has held his own.

Okay, so maybe MSU's passing-downs defense will suffer a bit without Whitley. What was Rice's offense on passing downs? Eighty-ninth. The Owls like to take shots downfield, but only on their own terms. They run 50 percent of the time on second- or third-and-long, and they will probably find the going quite difficult if they try to get aggressive, Whitley or no Whitley.

39th might be the cutoff. Mississippi State wants balance in its offense, running an average amount on standard downs and more frequently than average on passing downs. LaDarius Perkins, Josh Robinson, and Ashton Shumpert average about 20 carries per game, and the Bulldogs were able to establish strong running games against teams ranked worse than 39th in Rushing S&P+ (Rice's ranking). They went for 277 and 5.1 per carry against Auburn (44th), 216 and 6.0 against LSU (52nd), 299 and 7.0 against Texas A&M (69th) and gained at least 5.2 yards per carry against six of seven teams below the No. 39 cutoff. (Against teams better than 39th: 2.9 yards per carry.)

Run defense has been a general strength for Rice; the Owls allowed under five yards per carry seven times in 13 games and experienced a lot of their lesser performances in run defense during blowouts wins (New Mexico State averaged 6.1 per carry, and Louisiana Tech averaged 6.0, and Rice beat those teams by a combined 64 points. If MSU cannot run, the Bulldog passing game is far from scary, even if quarterback Dak Prescott has totally recovered from shoulder injuries that slowed him in November. But if the line is getting a push and both Prescott and the backs are finding holes, the Bulldogs will run and run and run.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue and leading rusher Charles Ross are seniors, as are about half of the starters on the lines and a few defensive backs. None of these players are irreplaceable, but they played hefty roles in this season's success.

Knowing how we tend to react to a team losing its starting quarterback, it's safe to say that Rice won't be the conference title favorite next year even, if the Owls aren't going to fall apart altogether. But if underclassmen like Jordan Taylor, running backs Jowan Davis or Darik Dillard, or young defenders pave the way for a Rice upset, it would certainly help in the perceptions battle.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, is projected to start just four seniors in Memphis, and while one of them is LaDarius Perkins, this is quite obviously a young team that will be expected to improve by quite a bit in 2013. If the Bulldogs are indeed a top-45 team in 2013, they should expect to improve into the top-35 level next year.

The problem, of course, is ... where does that get you in the SEC West? Ahead of Arkansas and who else? Regardless, a Liberty Bowl win would cap a lovely late-season charge and perhaps garner a couple of preseason poll votes.

Summary

F/+ Projection: MSU 24, Rice 21
Win Probability: MSU 64%

The battle between the MSU offense and Rice defense is rather difficult to read. The Bulldogs' offensive success will be dependent on their ability to run the ball, and it's unclear whether they'll be able to. But MSU gets the nod here because we're pretty sure Rice won't be able to run the ball very well against the Bulldogs. Without a steady run game, Rice will have to toe a pretty thin line -- make a couple of big plays in the passing game, win field position, win special teams.

It's possible, but it's more likely that MSU will simply make more plays than Rice and take home its seventh win.

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