Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2 SEC) at Houston Cougars (3-1, 2-0 Conference USA)
Kickoff: Oct. 9, 7 p.m. Central.
TV: CBS College Sports
It's not a conference game. There's no top 25 poll position to lose. The real important game is next week against Rice. By every objective metric, there's not much more than pride on the line when the Houston Cougars take on the Bulldogs of Mississippi State on Saturday.
But then there's the small matter of the streak. UH has won 18 straight contests within the friendly confines of Robertson Stadium, a program record, and the fourth-longest such streak in the nation. In a Cougar season that has seen its share of disappointment, with injuries, suspensions, and a crushing defeat already in the books, nobody wants to lose the streak, especially at the hands of a traditional SEC cellar dweller.
I don't mean to disrespect MSU. An SEC team is an SEC team (unless it's Vanderbilt...they don't count) and I believe that the Bulldogs are on the way up under second-year head coach Dan Mullen. They played competitive games against the likes of LSU and Florida last year, and gave the Cougars all they could handle before the good guys pulled out a 31-24 victory. This year, they have victories over Memphis, Georgia and Alcorn State, and losses to Auburn and LSU.
If there has been one defining characteristic of the first five weeks of the 2010 college football season, it is that it's impossible to know what to expect from one team from one week to the next. UCLA gets slapped around by Kansas State and Stanford, then blows out Houston and Texas-Austin. Tulane struggles to beat a 1-AA opponent, loses a couple of not terribly competitive games, then goes and beats a pretty good Rutgers team on the road. So it feels pointless to use what Team X did against Team Y to predict what it will do against Team Z, but let's do that anyway to try and size up the Bulldogs.
Houston Offense vs Mississippi State Defense
It feels unbelievably strange to state that this is the match-up that concerns me more. With a true freshman at quarterback for the Cougars (whether it be David Piland, Terrance Broadway or both), the Cougars figure to look to the combo of Bryce Beall and Michael Hayes to run the ball early and often. The Bulldog run defense has been stout thus far, however, giving up just 3.6 yards per carry, and not allowing a single 100-yard rusher. (Although that stat is somewhat deceiving. Auburn and LSU combined to rush for 357 yards against the MSU defense, and both averaged over 4 yards per carry.)
If it is Broadway getting the start at QB, there is mixed evidence as to what to expect, should he tuck the ball and run. While talented dual-threat QB Cam Newton of Auburn was held relatively in check, Alcorn's (freshman) quarterback was able to make some plays with his feet, including a 78-yard scamper for six points.
The Bulldog pass defense hasn't blown anybody away thus far. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray had one of his best games of the year against Mississippi State, and even Alcorn State had some success throwing the ball around last week, to the tune of a 14-for-27 team performance, with 207 yards in the air, a touchdown and no MSU picks. With James Cleveland sitting out due to a team-mandated suspension for UH, it will be up to the rest of the receiving corps to step up. Utilityman Justin Johnson will get a lot of Cleveland's reps, Patrick Edwards is always a threat on the deep ball, and Tyron Carrier is entirely too talented to have only 121 yards receiving so far this year. Dude is absolutely primed for a breakout game. Mississippi State likes to bring pressure on the quarterback, so whoever gets the starting nod for Houston, they'd better be ready to make quick decisions, and trust their receivers to make plays.
So the best case scenario is that Beall and Hayes have some success running the ball, MSU keys on the run, and the extra week of practice reps pays dividends for the new Cougar passer(s). The worst case scenario is that the Bulldogs don't need to load up the box to stop the run, and can sit back and wait for Broadway/Piland to make mistakes. Both of those scenarios are entirely plausible, as is anything in between. I don't even know why you're reading this article, pretty much anything could happen.
Mississippi State Offense vs Houston Defense
The Bulldogs ran up 98 points against the likes of Memphis and Alcorn State. But in three confernce games, MSU managed just 45 total points. The question is, which level of competition will the Cougar defense more closely resemble - the SEC bad boys, or the powderpuffs?
The Cougar defense is no longer the Swiss cheese-resembling unit that lost the team so many games a year ago. On the ground, Houston has allowed 1.1 fewer yards per carry as compared to last year, as well as 1.4 fewer yards allowed per pass attempt. Still, "better than the 2009 Cougar defense" and "good defense" are not synonyms.
Job one will be trying to stop running back Vick Ballard. The JuCo transfer may not quite be Anthony Dixon (1,445 yards rushing, 12 TD last year), but he's doing a pretty good impersonation so far, rolling up eight scores on the ground, and averaging 6.5 yards per carry. But much like the Bulldogs as a whole, the difference in competition has meant absolutely everything for Ballard - he has topped 30 yards rushing just once in three games against opponents not named Memphis or Alcorn State.
The Bulldogs run the ball more than they pass, and while the QB duo of Chris Relf and Tyler Russell has shown some playmaking ability through the air, they have also proven mistake-prone. MSU has thrown at least one interception in every contest this year, including the LSU game, in which Bulldog quarterbacks completed half as many passes (five) to Tiger players as LSU did (ten). If the visiting team can impose its will on the ground, and avoid the turnover bug on Saturday, it could be a long day for the Houston faithful.
While the Coogs are yet to take a kick to the house this season, it seems like only a matter of time, with Patrick Edwards (14.7 yards per return) fielding punts, and Tyron Carrier (five career return TDs) handling kickoffs. Freshman punter Richie Leone has looked like a keeper, averaging 45.8 yards per punt, with four of his 11 punts traveling over 50 yards. Leone and Jordan Mannisto have sent over a third of Houston kickoffs deep for touchbacks, surrendering an average opponents' starting field position of the 23-yard line, a 7-yard improvement over a year ago. Matt Hogan has connected on four of five field goals, missing only a 47-yarder against Tulane. The extra point continues to be a thorn in the Coogs' side, as three freebies have already been missed this year.
Mississippi State's playmakers in the return game are Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry, who scored a 97-yard return against Alcorn State. Punter Heath Hutchins has been solid, if not spectacular, averaging just over 40 yards per punt, but seeing half of his punts fair caught. The Bulldogs have connected on all of their extra point attempts, but are just one-for-three on field goals.
The Bottom Line
Even with the off-week, and even with plenty of talent at receiver and running back, I don't think Houston has the offensive firepower to put up big numbers against a very good Mississippi State defense. And while I applaud the job done by first-year defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, I'm still unconvinced that Houston's defense can win games.
Mississippi State 28
I hope like heck I'm wrong.