1. Starkville prepares for a changing of the guard at QB
Before Dan Mullen, Mississippi State had won at least nine games in a season just four times in 68 years. If the Bulldogs beat NC State on Wednesday, that would give MSU three such seasons in six years.
There are more games these days, which makes raw win totals a little easier to accomplish. But a win could also give MSU its third ranked finish in six years; the Bulldogs had pulled that off only four times in the 28 years pre-Mullen. If computer ratings are your thing, a good performance in Charlotte might give Mullen two of MSU's 10 best-ever teams according to Sports Reference's Simple Rating System.
The Belk Bowl still represents a passing of the torch. It's the final game for quarterback Dak Prescott. The big signal caller from Haughton, La., was used mostly as a run threat for his first couple of seasons but developed into something far greater. He threw for 1,940 yards and rushed for 829 as a sophomore, and he became the SEC's best quarterback in 2015. He has thrown for nearly 6,900 yards and 52 touchdowns over his final two seasons, and he has still rushed for more than 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Prescott is college football's version of a high-volume shooter. Not including sacks, he attempted 38 more carries than leading running back Brandon Holloway, and he attempted nearly 39 passes per game. Backup Nick Fitzgerald showed serious promise -- 11 of 14 for 235 yards and three scores through the air, 23 carries for 127 yards and three more scores on the ground -- but even if Fitzgerald thrives, Prescott's final game is a momentous occasion.
QB @15_DakP also has his own inside cover, highlighting the legacy he is leaving behind. #HailState pic.twitter.com/Iq6KBtNdNH— MSU Football (@HailStateFB) December 16, 2015
There was almost another changing of the guard. Mullen hasn't been shy about interviewing for other jobs and did so again this fall. Be it an attempt for contract leverage or an "I'm never going to win this division with Alabama and company" cry for help, it wasn't certain until recently that Mullen would be around in 2016.
His team might be used to the rumors by now, but it will still be interesting to see if his team is fully behind him in the Belk Bowl. If so, MSU has a decent edge. If not, the Wolfpack are good enough to end Prescott's career on a sour note.
2. Program renewal in Raleigh
NC State has its own big senior at quarterback, and Wolfpack fans might be about as attached to Jacoby Brissett as MSU fans are to Prescott. The senior Florida transfer has served as Dave Doeren's right-hand man in rebuilding a program that had lost its way a bit.
This team found itself firmly lodged in Glen Mason Territory when Tom O'Brien was in charge; his Wolfpack went bowling in four of five seasons and finished ranked in 2010, but State administrators came to the conclusion that they were never going to top the eight-win mark again under TOB, so they made a move ... and went 3-9 in Doeren's first year.
Doeren's last two years have simply matched O'Brien's -- he's 15-10, just like O'Brien was in 2011-12 before his dismissal -- but the Wolfpack grade out well on paper. Outside of Brissett, they are quite young: star tight end Jaylen Samuels (64 catches in 2015) is a sophomore, as are four of the top five tacklers.
Prescott is a far more proven passer than Brissett, and MSU has a more efficient offense, but NC State has weapons. Not including sacks, Brissett and junior running back Matthew Dayes have combined for 18 carries and 114 rushing yards per game, and Samuels' 81 percent catch rate has given the Wolfpack stability. Dayes is out with injury, but freshman Reggie Gallaspy II came on strong at the end of the regular season. Junior receivers Jumichael Ramos and Bra'Lon Cherry average 13.4 yards per catch, and if the Wolfpack stay on schedule, they have enough weapons to keep a defense on its heels.
State's offense was a bit all-or-nothing over the final nine games, averaging either 5.7 yards per play or greater (six times) or 4.2 or fewer (three). The defense was basically the same all year, allowing 5.5 or greater six times and fewer than 4.3 six times. Take the over in both cases in this game.
3. Key Stat: Standard downs success
Check out the monstrous stat preview here.
Spread: Mississippi State -5
S&P+ Projection: Mississippi State 31.0, NC State 29.1
Team Sites: Backing The Pack, For Whom The Cowbell Tolls
|Category||NC State offense||Mississippi State defense||Mississippi State offense||NC State defense|
|Standard Downs S&P+ (Rk)||122.4 (7)||99.3 (65)||120.0 (12)||95.1 (84)|
|Passing Downs S&P+ (Rk)||95.8 (86)||118.8 (19)||119.9 (25)||117.0 (23)|
There isn't a ton of separation, but you can see where it takes shape.
Both offenses hold significant advantages on standard downs and could threaten to stay in second-and-medium and third-and-short all game.
Mississippi State's advantages form on passing downs, however. Both Manny Diaz's MSU defense and Dave Huxtable's NC State defenses are good at closing out drives when they get the opportunity, but only MSU's offense is effective at catching back up to the chains.
So if the leverage rates (the ratio of standard downs to total plays) is even, maybe that favors MSU. But if the Bulldogs can't knock the Wolfpack off schedule, that doesn't apply.