The Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) will take on the Louisville Cardinals (8-4) in Saturday’s Taxslayer Bowl. The game is set to kick off at noon EST from Everbank Field in Jacksonville, pitting these teams from the SEC and ACC. The game can be viewed on ESPN.
Miss State will be without their coach Dan Mullen on Saturday, after he moved back to Gainesville to helm the Florida Gators head position. But he left a lot of talented players behind.
Even after their loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs can still say they’ve had a successful season. Wins against LSU, Kentucky, and Texas A&M were big, as was a near-upset of Alabama. But they also were trounced by Georgia and Auburn, and played poorly against UMASS.
Which version of them will show up depends a lot on Jeffrey Simmons and the defensive line now that Nick Fitzgerald is out. The QB had wheels and size to gain serious yardage on the ground, but we’ll have to see if his replacement, Keytaon Thompson, can improve as the fill-in. He went only 21 for 46 in limited playing time this season.
If Louisville can key on the run, then they will be able to stop the Bulldogs. They know they have the talent on the back-end to keep the pass game at bay. They only let up 462 yards in the last three games combined.
They also have a QB, Lamar Jackson, who is still one of the most electric players in the country, and a run game that’s been on fire. The Cardinals will come in as 6 ½-point favorites.
These teams may have the records to suggest a close game, but the loss of Mullen will weigh heavier than most can imagine. Fitzgerald’s departure, even after being inconsistent late in the season, will be just as big.
Now it comes down to how far RB Aeris Williams can carry the offense, and if it’s enough to make up for whatever damage Jackson is able to do. Williams was helped to a 1,000-yard season by the fact Fitzgerald was always a threat to pull the ball back and run it himself. Thompson has similar talents, but this is a lot of pressure to put on a freshman.
Louisville will be without one-half of their two-headed pass-rushing monster, with James Hearns skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. But Jonathan Greenard is still a force of nature, who may need to be double-teamed often for Miss State to keep the pressure off their inexperienced QB.
The biggest question of all, though, is reserved for the Miss State defensive line. Will they be able to stop a run game that’s compiled over 1,000 yards rushing in the last three games alone. Lamar Jackson has continued to put up video game numbers (3,489 yards passing, 1,443 rushing, 42 total touchdowns), and RB Malik Williams has 8.2 YPC in what has been a breakout season for him.
They have a trio of solid receivers and have given Jackson at least a little more help than they did last season.
Many people will look at Louisville’s loss last year to LSU, and wonder if this will be yet another poor performance against an SEC West team. But the Bulldogs are on the way down without their most important player and former head coach. Louisville was coming off a demoralizing loss to Kentucky last year, and is firing on all cylinders now.
The Cardinals will win this easily, as long as the offensive line continues to impose their will. Jackson will do the rest.