As it enters its game against Georgia, the college football world is buzzing over whether or not Mississippi State is “for real.”
What should we make of Mississippi State’s 3-0 start to the season, including last week's clobbering of LSU? What’s behind the Bulldogs outscoring their opponents 143-28? Is this sustainable?
Well, consider the numbers.
When Mississippi State ranked No. 1 Sunday in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings (if there were no preseason projection), the SB Nation college football analytics expert said he wasn't at all surprised.
Yes, number one. Yes, Mississippi State.
Mississippi State has dominated in the five factors that determine winning football games — explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers, according to Connelly — with its defense ranking inside the top 20 in each of them.
“It all seems logical at the moment,” Connelly said. “It’s not smoke and mirrors the way they’re doing it. It’s just a question of can they keep it up over 12 weeks, can they avoid a specific injury that would ding them this way or that way.”
For that, we, of course, need to stay tuned. But, according to the numbers, things look promising for No. 19 Mississippi State, which travels to Athens for a highly anticipated game against No. 12 Georgia (3-0) on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN).
Sign up: Receive The A-Gap Newsletter in your email inbox
Mississippi State’s current S&P+ ranking is 17. Connelly still includes the preseason projections in the rankings because it’s too early to know the quality of a given team’s opponents. Still, MSU has been sharp in the areas that are most maintainable, Connelly said.
The steadiest of those numbers is success rate, which determines the efficiency battle. Unlike big plays, which are largely unpredictable, success rate, where MSU ranks No. 12 on offense and No. 19 on defense, indicates that a team is able to pick up the necessary yardage on certain downs, therefore extending drives. That then typically leads to either scoring points or, at least, helping win the field position battle.
Whether it’s designed runs for Nick Fitzgerald or handoffs to Aeris Williams, Mississippi State is gaining good chunks of yards on first and second down. The Bulldogs have yet to show a trend on third downs by mixing in play-action well, and are 18 of 38 on third down conversions, which is No. 25 in the country.
Mississippi State is scoring — it is ranked No. 42 in points per trip inside the 40 — and it is winning the field position battle. LSU, for example, started all of its 11 drives either at or inside its own 35. With the exception of once starting at MSU’s 2 after an interception, Louisiana Tech started all of its 10 other drives in the first half at or inside its own 26.
Teams so far are starting deep in their own territory and the Bulldogs aren’t allowing big plays to help them out, either.
MSU allowed a 58-yard pass play against Louisiana Tech that led to a field goal in the first quarter of that game, but then only allowed three plays that went for more than 15 yards — and they were all less than 25 yards. Against LSU, the Bulldogs held the Tigers to only four plays of more than 10 yards until garbage time in the fourth quarter.
“When you look at how they’re doing it, it makes sense,” Connelly said.
But again, what many people in Starkville really care about is how sustainable all of this is.
“If Mississippi State manages to maintain the same two-deep, for the most part, then I think they have a pretty decent chance of playing at a high level,” Connelly said. “Now, the whole thing about them being number one in the country if you only look at this year’s data … that’s shaky. It’s safer to think of them as a top-20 team instead of the number one team.”
In the preseason, Connelly ranked Mississippi State No. 28 in the country and in tier that said the Bulldogs are capable of being a top-15 squad. The projected S&P+ ranking for MSU was 30th and its record prediction was 6-6 with the biggest question mark being how much the defense can improve.
Heading into Week 4, MSU now has a 9-3 projected record with less than a 50 percent chance of winning its next two games, per SB Nation.
“It’s been a very, very encouraging start and it’s been encouraging in ways that does seem like it could be maintainable moving forward,” Connelly said. “It was certainly conceivable that Mississippi State was going to be pretty good. I would assume at some point they are no longer the number one team in those rankings, but they’re going to be pretty good, I think.”
Perhaps, even for real.
To read Bill Connelly's work, click here. He is on Twitter here.