I've long held the theory that standard downs are the game-planning and execution downs, and passing downs are the "Hey quarterback, go make a play" downs.
Last year's top 10 in Standard Downs S&P+ (Georgia, Oregon, Arkansas, Nebraska, Florida State, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas A&M) featured some of the better offensive coordinators/play-callers in the country. Meanwhile, the Passing Downs S&P+ list (Texas A&M, Clemson, Alabama, Arizona, Baylor, Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Oregon, USC) featured some of the best quarterbacks. Yes, there is plenty overlap there, and no, this is not meant as some black-and-white, rigid truism. But you can't play-call your way out of second- or third-and-long -- somebody has to make a play.
It probably should have been predictable, then, that an offense that was struggling to keep a healthy quarterback on the field would also be struggling to convert on passing downs. OSU ranked a healthy 16th on standard downs, with a nearly 50-50 split between rushing and passing and plenty of big plays, but the Cowboys were actually rather conservative on passing downs, choosing to either run or dump off to the running back quite a bit. Monken justifiably didn't trust the quarterbacks enough to just let loose. We'll see what changes Yurcich brings to the table in that regard, especially now that Chelf and Walsh are both quite a bit more experienced than they were a year ago.
(It also bears mentioning that Yurcich's system and Shippensburg utilized mobile quarterbacks to an extent, so the nimble Walsh will probably have a role to play in the offense whether he's the full-time starter or not.)
New defensive coordinator (and current and former linebackers coach) Glenn Spencer has promised a more aggressive style of play, complete with attacking, blitzing defense. He certainly has some potentially exciting personnel for this, with four returning linebackers who logged at least 4.5 tackles for loss in 2012 and a nice pair of tackles in Calvin Barnett and James Castleman. The end position is quite green, but there is a lot of speed here.
(Spencer, by the way, used the word "aggressive" like he had an endorsement deal with it this spring, promising a "return" to the aggressive success of 2011. But a lot of the difference between 2011 and 2012 was simple luck in the number of bouncing balls that landed in defenders' hands. OSU's sack rate actually improved by quite a bit in 2012, and the run defense was equal in 2011 and 2012. Plus, the biggest dropoff in 2012 came in defending the pass on standard downs. You can't really blitz more on standard downs without risking getting gashed by the run, so it's not entirely clear to me what increased aggression will do to solve OSU's problems, as they were, from 2012.)
[For an offensive guy], Mullen has been slow to get MSU up to speed on the offensive end. He inherited a unit that ranked 105th in Off. F/+ in 2008 and has improved things, but only so much. MSU improved 61st in 2009 but has ranked only 68th, 80th, and 72nd in the last three years.
Mullen clearly established his tactical bona fides through the years under Urban Meyer, but he hasn't quite been able to put the right pieces in place in Starkville. He needs a mobile quarterback, and while Tyler Russell isn't immobile, he gains his rushing yards (on about two carries per game) via the element of surprise. Mullen needs an explosive running back who can scare the defense into over-compensating and open up the quarterback keeper on the zone read; and while LaDarius Perkins is steady and durable, he's not very explosive. Mullen needs a dynamic receiving corps of players who can operate well in space and turn every short pass into a game-breaking-punt-return type of situation; and while he had a game breaker in Chad Bumphis last year, Bumphis is gone now. Russell's top four targets are all gone, actually.
With a well-seasoned line (five players with starting experience, 95 career starts from a line that was Top 30 in both run blocking and pass protection) and a solid backfield -- one that might be deeper in 2013 if youngsters like Josh Robinson, Derrick Milton, or even fresh man Ashton Shumpert take enough of a leap to steal some of Perkins' carries -- the MSU run game should be stellar. But some young receivers will need to quickly establish a strong rapport with Russell to make sure that progression in the run game isn't met with equal regression in the passing game.
The MSU defense slipped quite a bit in 2012. The Bulldogs surged from 50th to 20th in Def. F/+ in 2010 and maintained form relatively well in 2011 (30th). But last fall, an ineffective front four struggled to generate a consistent pass rush and failed to do its linebackers many favors on the ground.
This was particularly frustrating considering MSU has had more success recruiting for the defensive line than for any other unit. Of the top seven returnees, four were four-star recruits once upon a time; those four players combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, almost all of which came from Denico Autry. Three of the former four-stars will be counted on to not only replace outgoing Josh Boyd and Dwayne Cherrington, but improve on them.
If nothing else, a recruiting ranking tells you something about a player's ceiling; if that's true, then MSU tackles collectively have a pretty high one, as do the ends, with the addition of all-world freshman Chris Jones to the mix. If the line lives up to the rankings, this should be a potentially dominant unit. But it hasn't thus far. Maybe Jones changes that, but "Maybe [blue-chip freshman] changes everything" is a sentence that doesn't bear true as often as we hope.
OSU's biggest advantage
Death, taxes, Saban, rivalries, and Joe Wickline coaching a good offensive line. There are few constants in college football life, but chances are good that OSU will always have a solid line as long as Wickline is on the coaching staff.
He regularly deals with turnover and inexperience and churns out results regardless. Last year's line was one of Wickline's shakier ones, actually, and there's once again room for concern about inexperience -- only three returning players have started at least five games, and projected starting left tackle Devin Davis is out with a knee injury.
But unless MSU's former star recruits up front want to begin acting like it, OSU still has a rather significant advantage there, especially on the interior, where the Bulldogs must replace both starting tackles. If OSU is getting a push for its backs and keeping its quarterback(s) upright, then the pace and diversity of OSU's attack will begin to wear MSU out.
(It also doesn't help that MSU has two new starters at cornerback against an offense that spreads you out and exploits favorable matchups.)
MSU's biggest advantage
We'll stay in the trenches. Mississippi State's offensive line ranked in the top-30 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate, and five players with starting experience, who have accounted for 95 career starts (including 39 from all-conference starting guard Gabe Jackson), return.
The Bulldogs also return basically every carry from last season. LaDarius Perkins, Josh Robinson, and Nick Griffin combined for over 20 carries per game last year in a pass-first attack, and while they were not tremendously explosive (well, Griffin was, and the other two weren't bad), they were all capable of properly following blockers and getting upfield.
OSU has a ton of experience at defensive tackle, and Calvin Barnett and James Castleman are adept at slicing into the backfield for losses, but on a play-for-play basis, they can get pushed around a bit, especially in short-yardage situations. If MSU can stay efficient on the ground, it could open up a passing game that needs some help opening up.
Mississippi State has seen diminishing returns in each of the last two seasons, and Oklahoma State was one of the nation's more underrated teams last season, dropping three tight games while shuffling through three different quarterbacks. The OSU offense has more advantages against the MSU defense than the MSU offense does against OSU, but the Bulldogs will have a chance if these trench battles work out okay for them.
For now, though, give me OSU by 10. This game will tell us a lot, both about how seriously we should be taking the Cowboys in the Big 12 title race and how seriously we should be taking the Bulldogs, period.