CSJ 2020 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl Preview: Mississippi State vs. Tulsa

Mississippi State vs. Tulsa
When: Thursday, December 31st, 12:00 PM EST
Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Tex.
TV/Streaming: ESPN, WatchESPN

The first Group of Five versus Power Five matchup takes place with Tulsa playing the SEC’s Mississippi State. This is the first of three such match-ups in this bowl season with Army facing West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl and Cincinnati playing Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

Tulsa comes into this game after narrowly losing at Cincinnati in the AAC title game by a late field goal, while Mississippi State is coming off a blowout win in its last regular season game versus Missouri.

These two schools have never met before. Tulsa though has played 99 SEC opponents in its history. The Golden Hurricane has 23 wins against the SEC. This is the sixth bowl game Tulsa has played an SEC opponent with the most recent being Tennessee in the1965 Bluebonnet Bowl. Tulsa is playing in its first bowl game since 2016–a 55-10 win over Central Michigan in the Miami Beach Bowl and that win improved their record to 10-11 all-time in bowl games.

Mississippi State is playing in its 11th straight bowl game. The Bulldogs are playing in their 24th all-time bowl appearance and own a 13-10 bowl record. With Tulsa being a first time opponent, Mississippi State owns a 6-5 record in bowl games that are first time matchups.

Mississippi State Bulldogs (T-6th SEC West, 3-7 Overall & SEC)

The Mike Leach era started off with a bang in the Bulldogs season and SEC opener with a 44-34 win at defending national champion LSU but the season went downhill quick after that.

Mississippi State lost its next four games–all its games in October before opening November with a win at Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs than lost three more in a row before getting the season finale win over Missouri.

The big reason for the up and down season was the number of new starters on both sides of the ball. Mississippi State had 26 Bulldogs make their first career start this year, tied for the FBS lead. Nearly 50 percent of the Bulldog snaps have been taken by first-time starters this year.

As could be expected with a Mike Leach lead team, the team likes to throw it almost every play. RB Jo’quavious Marks (56), WR Jaden Walley (48), WR Osirus Mitchell (46) and WR Austin Williams (40) make MSU the only program in the country to boast four players with 40 or more receptions this season.

Throwing them the ball has been inconsistent with the play of both QBs K.J. Costello and Will Rogers. The freshman Rogers replaced the senior Costello as the starter in Week 4 but both have been inconsistent with their play.

In the last game against Missouri though, the Bulldogs used the run game with Marks more and with the more balanced attack Mississippi State was able to win easily over a ranked Tigers team.

Key Player: QB Will Rogers or K.J. Costello

I expect the Tulsa coaches saw this last game for the Bulldogs against Missouri and will take away the run game first and will play close to the line of scrimmage to take away the short passing game to force the Mississippi State signal caller to pass it deep to beat them. Either quarterback will need to read this defense and see if he can hit the longer pass. Turnovers have been a key area for the Tulsa defense too so holding onto the ball will also be a key for the Bulldogs to win this game.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane (T-1st AAC, 6-2 Overall, 6-0 AAC)

Tulsa was the big surprise this year in the American Athletic Conference. The Golden Hurricane was picked 9th in the preseason media poll (out of 11 AAC teams) after finishing just 4-8 in 2019. But Tulsa and Coach Phillip Montgomery way outperformed that in tying for the AAC regular season title with an unblemished in-conference record to tie Cincinnati for the regular season crown.

Tulsa lost to Cincinnati in the AAC title game but gave the best ranked Group of Five school a big scare in that game before falling on a last second field goal to lose 34-31.

The Tulsa defense has been the biggest reason for the turnover in results. Tulsa’s defense has had strong performances so far this season – holding the opposition to 20.8 points, 147.2 rushing yards, 194.1 passing yards and 341.4 total yards per game. Tulsa ranks among the top-30 for many of the main NCAA defensive categories; 7th for fumble recoveries, 10th for TFLs, 14th for 3rd down conversions defense, 15th for red zone defense, 20th for defensive TDs, 21st for passing yards, 23rd for pass efficiency defense, 23rd for scoring defense and 26th for total defense.

A big reason for these numbers was LB Zaven Collins–the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, winner as the nation’s best defensive player. But he has opted out to get ready for the NFL in this game.

The Tulsa offense is headed by senior QB Zach Smith. His lead offense has gotten off to a slow start in all of its 8 games. The offense has scored just a total of 12 first-quarter points with one touchdown (USF), one field goal (ECU) and a defensive safety (UCF) for an average of 1.7 points. Tulsa also has been held scoreless in the first quarter in 5 games this season.

Key Player: QB Zach Smith

That scoring slump to begin the game in the first quarter is something that will need to overturn to beat an SEC team. The offense will likely have to score more also to keep up with the air-raid offense of Mississippi State. Smith has completed just 56-percent of his passes for 1,600 yards and
12 TDs for a 128.57 passing efficiency this season so that percentage will need to go up to find his key wide outs in Josh Johnson and Keylon Stokes.

Fearless Forecast:

Despite Mississippi State being just a three-win team this year, this team has shown flashes of brilliance. And Tulsa being without LB Zaven Collins, the defense will be very tested. However, Tulsa has played with full effort all season and I do not think this game will be any different. I like the Golden Hurricane to come out with another come-from-behind victory in the second half and get the bowl victory. Tulsa 38 Mississippi State 31

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