Hard to believe the last Bowl Game preview I did was back in 2007. And at the time, I wasn't exactly optimistic about the potential outcome. But after a long two year absence, Michigan is finally back in a Bowl game. A New Year's Day Bowl Game. They'll be playing the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl, the Big Ten and SEC's newest bowl allegiance, (surprisingly) the sixth oldest bowl gamein existence. And I get to say Michigan's in a Bowl Game over and over again. Something I haven't been able to do in a while. So I've got that going for me.
The weird thing is, going into this week, I actually knew very little about Mississippi State. I knew they were coached by Tim Tebow's former offensive coordinator at Florida (Dan Mullen). I knew that Florida's offense took a nose dive reminiscent of a Uruguayan rugby team jet when Mullen and Tebow departed. I knew that all of a sudden, Mississippi State was putting up monster offensive numbers in comparison to anything they did under Sylvester Croom. I also knew they had a pretty good defense. But since that was it I delved into the numbers, the boxscores, the message boards, and this is what I got.
The Bulldogs had a fairly impressive 2010 season, especially when you consider that they're a year removed from being 5-7. MSU improved in just about every statistical category in 2010, tacking on 2 more points a game, 20 more yards a game, and dropping their points allowed by almost a touchdown. Part of that has to do with some surefire NFL talent on this team, led by tackle Derek Sherrod and linebacker Chris White. Another part of it has to do with not beating themselves. The Bulldogs were a +6 in turnovers on the year (+26/-20).
On offense the Bulldogs run a sort of Tebow Spread/Option/Something not-so-fancy offense. The staple of the offense is a version of the veer that they run in three different manners, using both backs and the quarterback as a runner depending on the opening. This tends to suck opponents' defenses towards the line and frees up MSU's outside receivers, which MSU does like to throw the ball to. The result is an offense that looks a lot like Illinois, but with a larger emphasis on putting the ball downfield.
The engine that drives the offense is Quarterback Chris Relf. Mullen's offense uses Relf as both a ball carrier and passer at a basically 50% clip (197 passes, 179 carries). Relf has a strong arm, but can be fairly erratic. One moment he's launching a perfectly thrown bomb, the next he's turfing an easy 10 yard out. His end season stats reflected a 10 TD/5 INT ration, but where Relf makes his presence felt is as a runner. At 6-4, 240, he's a load to tackle coming downhill. Over the season he racked up 683 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
But Relf isn't a one man show. He has two backfield mates that warrant fear in their own right. Junior Vick Ballard rushed for 892 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season. He's joined by redshirt freshman LaDarius Perkins who rushed for 526 yards and 3 touchdowns. Ballard's the key back in this offense. A smaller sized back, he possesses good acceleration, top end speed and aggressively hits the holes. Early in the season he tended to run into the line and try to power his way through, but as the year wore on he started to bounce outside a little more. He's not a tackle breaker, but if there's a defense on earth that will turn him into one, it's Michigan's.
On the outside, MSU is in some legitimate trouble. Their best receiver Chad Bumphis is out for the Gatror Bowl with a collarbone injury. Bumphis led the team with 44 catches, 634 yards, and 5 TDs. Without Bumphis MSU will likely target Arceto Clark (22 catches, 317 yards, 2 TDs) , Chris Smith (20 receptions, 218 yards, 1 TD) or tight end Brandon Henderson (20 catches 304 yards, 2 TDs) in an attempt to stretch out the Wolverine's defense. There is talent in this group, but the absence of their big play receiver will hinder the passing game.
On the Defensive side of the ball Mississippi State is an average outfit. They're stout against the run, surrendering just 152 yards on the ground. But in the air.... they're almost as bad as Michigan. MSU is giving up 236 yards per game in the air. Part of this is a penchant for blitzing, and they run a lot of run and pass blitzes in an attempt to keep pressure on the quarterback and the ball carrier. The result is stellar run defense numbers, but some extra-crispy numbers on the pass end.
Here's the thing. Michigan's a rush offences, Mississippi State is a defense designed to stop the run. Over the course of the year Michigan has run to set up the pass. The problem with this is that when they run up against a stout line combined with talented, quick linebackers they haven't been able to establish that running game early and have fallen behind. To wit, Mississippi State possesses two outstanding linebackers in Chris White and K.J. Wright. White led the team in tackles (105), TFL (15.5) and sacks (6). Wright posted 93 tackles, seven TFL, and three sacks. On the interior of the line the Bulldogs have Pernell McPhee (32 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss), Fletcher Cox (6.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and Josh Boyd (7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks). The line has been very good at maintaining their gaps and allowing their linebackers to make plays. Consequently, Michigan's running game may have some rough sledding unless they can establish the pass to back the Linebackers off the line-of-scrimmage.
The defensive backfield is somewhat of a mystery to me. On the year the Bulldog secondary has been left on an island and wished "bon chance!" On the season they've only poached 10 total interceptions (the other two were by White, mentioned above). Because the Bulldogs' love blitzing, the secondary has been both a beneficiary and victim of this approach. The defense is giving up a completion rate of 56.7% (Michigan's is 63%), but they're also giving up over 230 passing yards a game. The reason for this is pretty obvious, when get pressure you get a lot of incompletions. But when the pressure fails, well, you get torched. On New Years you'll see corners Corey Broomfield (38 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 pass breakups) and Jonathan Banks (50 tackles, 2 interceptions) matchup on Michigan's outside receivers. MSU's strong safety Charles Mitchell (86 tackles) is more of a Jordan Kovacs style run defender, so expect to see him near the line of scrimage quite a bit and on the blitz. Like Michigan, MSU will trot out a redshirt freshman at free safety. Nickoe Whitley had a decent season, posting 47 tackles and 3 interceptions on the year but at this point he is a Ray Vinopal equivalent.
So What's Going To Happen?
Predicting the outcome of a Michigan Football game over the last three years, especially as a Michigan partisan, has been damn near impossible. You never truly know who's going to show up, play, get injured, miss a tackle they would otherwise make, or be a hero. Games you expect a win, sometimes they lose. Games you expect them to lose, well... mostly they lose but every now and then they surprise you. But when you're looking at a bowl game angainst an opponent that is traditionally in the basement of the SEC, you're drawn to rely on your prejudices. This is a game that Michigan should win if we're going on name plates alone.
But we're not.
Mississippi State's offense isn't that good, but it is effective. The Bulldogs were the 16th ranked rushign offense in the country this season for good reason. They execute their option/spread very well and they've got some powerful athletes to rack up the yards. Against the option Michigan will truly be at the mercy of its linebackers Kenny Demens, Cameron Gordon and Jonas Mouton. I suspect MSU will run the option at Gordon until he shows the ability to stop it over until Mouton overcommits himself to the Gordon side of the field and they cut it back to the hole Mouton was supposed to cover.
One advantage the Michigan defense has against MSU is that they see a variation of this in practice every day. A speed based, veer/pitch attack isn't too diferent from the offense Rodriguez has run in the past, and a lot of the assignments will be the same. Executing those assignments, however, will be the issue as Michigan hasn't proven it can do that for any extended period of time this season.
A second break swinging Michigan's way is the absence of MSU's top receiver. Even though Mississippi State isn't a big time passing offense, they do through the ball approximately 45% of the time and had four receivers with 20 or more catches. Regardless, when you lose your best receiver (especially one with double the number of catches than the next guy on the list) your whole offense suffers. I suspect the Bulldogs will be able to move the ball in the air, but without their star I don't see Michigan giving up gigantic chunks of yards on single plays to MSU. Having said that, I am now 100% positive it will happen exactly the opposite.
Mississippi State averages almost 400 yards a game. Michigan gives up 440 a game. Expect the Bulldogs to match their season average in yards, but without their best receiver I think the Bulldog offense will sputter just enough for Michigan to get some stops.
On offense, Michigan is going to have to throw the ball. A lot. With the Bulldogs likely blitzing around 60% of their plays, Robinson's going to have to make quick decisions and get rid of the ball quickly. That said, I like Robinson's feet versus a blitzing linebacker, especially when he's 100%. If Robinson can juke/shake/bake, he'll have plenty of open field in front of him to run. We'll also see Robinson's ability to make quick passes over the top to Roy Roundtree and his great screens to Kelvin Grady and Martavious Odoms (who will be back!). If Michigan can exploit the holes left by the blitzers, it will open up the game.
The key to this game will be who scores points early. If Michigan goes down by two scores before the half, as I've demostrated, the prospects look grim. First half scoring anemia is to blame in all of Michigan's losses. You can't be down 16 points at the half and win a game. If Michigan is within a touchdown at the half, they're in a great position. If they're leading, then all signs point to a win. If Michigan can put up some early points, and either build a lead or keep pace with MSU, the Wolverines should be able to walk out of Florida with a win.
I suspect the defense will play as it has all year, bad. You'll see some improvement due to healthy and extra practice, but this defense isn't going to shut anyone down. The offense will score a lot of points, but they'll also cough the ball up and put the defense in a bad position. Our special teams will be awful. It will be a standard Michigan game, a lot of points, a lot of holding your head in your hands, and (hopefully) some relieved elation.
I'm guessing Michigan wins 33-30. But like with anything Michigan related this season, it's just a guess.