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Battle of Bulldogs is Must-See TV

By Jim Johnson
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Georgia and Mississippi State square off this Saturday night in a contest that will largely clarify who the top contender to beat Alabama is, in the SEC.

Georgia and Mississippi State square off this Saturday night in a contest that will largely clarify who the top contender to beat Alabama is, in the SEC. This is arguably the biggest college football game of the week four slate (and second biggest, at worst), and the winner, with the nation watching, will catapult itself into the playoff conversation, amongst the sport’s elite.

For Mississippi State, the offense begins and ends with junior quarterback, and Georgia native, Nick Fitzgerald, who was the focal point, be it as the passer or ball carrier, on 59% of the team’s plays, last year.

So far in 2017, Fitzgerald has shown great strides as a passer, improving his completion percentage by 7.1% and his passer rating by over 30 points, and, as a result, that facet of the offense has gone from an afterthought to a strength.

Correspondingly, Donald Gray has established himself as a viable replacement to Fred Ross, as Fitzgerald’s number one option, and slot receiver Keith Mixon has emerged as rising star in the SEC. Mixon has a 70% catch rate on 10 targets, so far, and, last week, Fitzgerald had a perfect passer rating when throwing his way, going for 87 yards and a touchdown on six targets.

Currently, Dan Mullen’s group sits at ninth in the country for passing success rate (50% of necessary yardage on 1st down, 70% on second down, and 100% on 3rd and 4th downs), staying on schedule 54.7% of the time.

That said, most of the passing production is coming through shorter or more intermediate throws, with an average of 1.34 equivalent points per successful play (henceforth referred to as IsoPPP, short for isolated points per play), which is 88th in the country, 7.8 yards per attempt (50th), and only two completions for 30+ yards (102nd).

Conversely, Georgia’s pass defense has been more susceptible to short, quicker passes, allowing a 34.4% passing success rate (40th), while limiting explosive plays, holding opposing pass plays to 1.12 IsoPPP (20th), 5.5 yards per attempt (23rd), and allowing just two passes of 30+ yards (21st).

This may be by design given that Georgia’s secondary is awfully thin, especially without Malkom Parrish, who, even if he plays on Saturday, will likely have some rust to shake off. This is a schematically simpler approach, playing more off and allowing the short stuff, as opposed to trying to press, given that, with that style of play, one is more apt to getting burned over the top, and it takes elite talent and experience to get away with, anyway. Bear in mind, too, that Georgia’s secondary just may not be that great in coverage, only 17.5% of incompletions against them are on account of passes defensed (126th), but rather a product of its front seven or even inconsistent play from opposing passers.

Plus, the current approach plays into their personnel’s strengths -- Deandre Baker, for example, allowed the fewest yards after the catch out of any returning SEC cornerback last year, showcasing an innate ability to make open field tackles and keep receivers from creating plays out of thin air.

The perception may be that Georgia’s, deservedly, vaunted front seven will get after Fitzgerald and get him out of his comfort zone, but the unit, as a whole, is only ever-so-slightly above average, as far as pass rushing.

Even Georgia’s top defensive linemen, Trenton Thompson, who is one of the best in the country against the run, only had five sacks, two hits, and 19 hurries on 364 career rushes, going into this season, and has still failed to tally a sack in 2017.

The group’s 6% standard down and 7% passing down sack rates are 50th and 43rd in the country, respectively. Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s offensive line has allowed a 3.1% standard down sack rate, and hasn’t given up a single passing down sack.

That said, edge rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy have really ramped up their production, relative to years past. Carter, in particular, who came into the season with a fairly pedestrian 48 career pressures, has tallied 13 pressures in just the last two weeks, of which eight came against Notre Dame’s highly touted offensive line. One of the top recruits out of high school, it appears that Carter is finally living up to his billing, while Bellamy, a consistent, if occasionally underwhelming, producer (he had 23 pressures last year on 255 pass rushes), has continued to improve.

The marquee matchup in this showdown, though, is Mississippi State’s rushing attack against Georgia’s run defense. It’s a good, old-fashioned unstoppable force, immovable object situation.

Fitzgerald, Aeris Williams, and company are in the top 20, nationally, with a 51.3% rushing success rate, and seventh in the country, gaining at least five yards on 50.7% of runs. However, on the ground, they are not only efficient, but explosive, with a 1.06 IsoPPP (22nd), an average of 6.47 yards per carry (8th), and 28 rushes of ten or more yards (28th).

Williams and Fitzgerald have obviously carried the bulk of the rushing load, and with good reason, as they gain at least five yards on 47.9% and 46.7% of carries, respectively (the national average is 39.5%), but freshman Kylin Hill has been plenty reliable in his own right, gaining at least five yards on 61.9% of carries. That said, the former two are much better at gaining yards upon reaching the second level than their freshman counterpart, which may limit his value against Georgia.

Then again, and speaking of limiting value, Georgia’s run defense is otherworldly. Kirby Smart’s group has posted elite run defense efficiency numbers so far, holding opposing offenses to a 25.4% success rate (5th), and allowing five or more yards on a mere 27.1% of carries (9th).

Whilst doing so, they are still managing to keep opposing runners from breaking off big gains, giving up .72 IsoPPP (32nd), 2.32 yards per carry (6th), and six runs of 10+ yards (8th).

In spite of Trenton Thompson’s aforementioned pass rushing struggles, there’s still a case to be made that he is the best interior defensive lineman in the SEC, simply based off of his run-stopping prowess. His run stop percentage of 12.3% (tackles that are defined as a ‘win’ for the defense), in 2016, was the best in the SEC, amongst returning interior defenders. Already, through three games, he has a team high four run stuffs (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage), three of which were for a loss, and his opposing success rate is 16.7%. Thompson is the anchor and spearhead of the rush defense.

Behind him, Roquan Smith may well be the best inside linebacker in America. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s overall grade last year was tops amongst returning SEC linebackers, as was his run defense grade, and his 26 stops against 292 running plays was the fourth highest rate in the league. He is averaging one run stuff per game and his allowed success rate is 22.2%.

Davin Bellamy was one of the SEC’s top run defenders in 2016, as well, leading all returning edge defenders with 21 run stops. He has a 25% opposing success rate and two run stuffs, thus far, as does freshman Walter Grant. Additionally, D’Andre Walker has proven to be one of Georgia’s best run defending linebackers, with three tackles for loss, and an opposing success rate of 12.5%.

All in all, Georgia’s linebacking corps has the ninth highest havoc rate in college football, making a tackle for loss, defending a pass, or forcing a fumble on 6% of plays.

Even so, Georgia does not have a significant, if any notable, advantage along the line of scrimmage.

Mississippi State’s offensive line has averaged 3.46 standard down line yards per run play (this stat separates, to the extent that it’s possible, what an offensive line does from what the ball carrier does himself) which is 18th in the country, and 3.87 passing down line yards (44th). Comparatively, Georgia’s defensive front is allowing 2.25 standard down line yards (26th), and 1.95 passing down line yards (13th).

Mississippi State is also creating an excellent push up front, allowing stuffed runs on a solid 14.6% of tries (26th), and have moved the chains on every 3rd or 4th down rush, with two or fewer yards to go, including 1st and 2nd and goal rushes. Georgia’s defense picks up a run stuff on 23.5% of opposing carries (43rd), and prevents third and fourth down conversions, with two yards or fewer to go, 50% of the time (23rd).

MSU center Elgton Jenkins and right guard Deion Calhoun, especially the latter, have shown flashes of dominance in 2017. After holding their own against LSU, last week, Georgia, while still a tall task, at least feels a little more manageable.

It feels strange to say this, but, quite frankly, Mississippi State’s offensive line could bully Georgia’s defensive line in a short yardage capacity. Thompson aside, Georgia’s run defense is so scary because of the linebackers. The defensive line, relatively, has some work to do, as indicated by its 1.5% havoc rate (109th).

John Atkins has a pair of run stuffs already, but his opposing success rate is worse than the national average. Tyler Clark has a tackle for loss, and his success rate is better than Atkins’, but not great by any means. Julian Rochester, quietly, has actually been Georgia’s second best defensive lineman, with a 16.7% success rate, despite not yet tallying a single run stuff.

Of course, that won’t matter if Fitzgerald isn’t patient and consistent in the passing game. It’s going to take a successful air attack to mitigate the impact of Georgia’s linebackers against the run. UGA will be looking to eliminate big plays through the air, which is where the patience comes in. Offensively, MSU’s best bet may be to try to get Fitzgerald’s arm going with more shallow route concepts, in order to open things up on the ground.

Georgia’s offensive gameplan should probably be the opposite, consisting mostly of a heavy dose of Chubb and Michel, and even Swift, and Herrien, too, for that matter… but mostly Chubb and Michel.

Georgia’s passing attack is not a favorable matchup against Mississippi State’s pass defense. Their 37.1% success rate (90th) will not easily move the ball, or keep the offense on schedule, compared to their opponent’s 11.4% allowed passing success rate, which is the best in the country.

There is, however, a place for Fromm to show off his arm. Georgia’s pass offense, while inconsistent, provides an ever-present big play threat. Right now, they are averaging 1.7 IsoPPP (29th), and have six passes of 30+ yards, which is the national top 25. Then, whereas Mississippi State’s pass defense success rate tops everybody, their 1.78 IsoPPP is near the bottom, at 116th.

Through three games, Georgia’s receivers, while fairly inconsistent in their own right, have proven to be apt at creating big plays, as well. Terry Godwin, with a 60% catch rate, is averaging 13.4 yards per target, as is Javon Wims, on a 66.7% catch rate. And, after sitting out in week one, Riley Ridley has posted a 75% catch rate with an average of 16.3 yards per target.

Moreover, Fromm, despite the perception, is actually better suited for a downfield passing attack than Jacob Eason would have been. 37% of Fromm’s passes so far have been ten or more yards downfield to Eason’s 32% career average, his average pass attempt travels 1.6 yards further, in the air, downfield than Eason’s, and only 18% of Fromm’s throws are at or behind the line of scrimmage, 5% less than Eason.

That said, while Georgia can look to those guys for big plays, on more conservative throws, Fromm has to get Sony Michel and Isaac Nauta more involved. As a freshman, the latter was fifth in the nation, amongst returning tight ends, in yards per route run, while Michel was second among returning SEC running backs for the same stat, and second in catch rate.

As much as anything else, the problem with Georgia trying to throw consistently against Mississippi State is the pass protection. It was not very good last year and it hasn’t been much better. Their standard down allowed sack rate of 5.4% (73rd), through three games, is the same as UGA finished with in 2016, and the passing down allowed sack rate, which is incrementally better at 4%, is still only 43rd, overall.

Mississippi State’s pass rush, while hardly elite, with 6.2% standard down (48th) and 10.5% passing down (35th) sack rates, is good to enough to be disruptive against Georgia’s offensive line.

Jeffery Simmons, despite playing in the interior, leads the team with 2.5 sacks, 1.5 of which came last week against LSU, who, at least theoretically, has one of the nation’s best offensive lines. It’s strange to see the most effective pass rusher on a given team coming from the inside, although that may be for the best given that Georgia’s left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, has excelled in his new spot, entering the Samford game with the longest streak of consecutive snaps without a pressure, by an SEC tackle. Meanwhile, Lamont Gaillard, a converted guard, who was one of the best linemen in the league last year, has been underwhelming at center, and Georgia has some considerable issues to be ironed out to either side of him, although more so at left guard.

So there’s all of that, as if simply having Nick Chubb and Sony Michel weren’t reason enough to pound the rock.

Chubb, after never looking fully himself in 2016, is looking like the back everyone expected for him to be, following his freshman campaign. This is due, at least in part, to being fully healthy and able to make defenders miss at a rate never before seen in his career. As a freshman, Chubb forced 69 missed tackles, doing so on 29.1% of his touches. So far this year, he has already forced 15 missed tackles on just 44 carries, or 34.1% of the time. He’s also increased his per carry average by 1.55 yards from last season, and he is gaining at least five yards on 45.5% of runs.

Freshman D’Andre Swift is stepping up in a big way, himself, gaining at least five yards on 44.4% of carries, and has been Georgia’s most effective ball carrier, upon reaching the second level, averaging an extra 8.7 yards per carry, on runs where he gains at least five yards (or “highlight yards”), which is better than Michel’s 5.8 highlight yards, and even Chubb’s 7.1. Not to mention his 100% catch rate on five targets and 60% receiving success rate. With that in mind, and all due respect to Michel, if the senior isn’t 100%, Georgia’s offense may be doing itself a disservice by sacrificing Swift’s playing time in favor of a beaten up Michel.

It is easier to run block than pass block, and since Georgia hasn’t proven itself capable, at least at a high level, of doing either, it might as well keep things simple. Through three games, on run plays, they are averaging 2.92 stand down line yards (68th), 2.68 passing down line yards (97th), and are allowing 25.5% of their carries to be stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage (120th).

Simmons, and that Mississippi State defensive front, are allowing an incredible 1.65 standard down line yards, which is sixth in the country. Now, they are giving up 3.83 line yards on passing downs, but that’s just not as big of a deal if their opponents are already in passing situations, and their 21.9% stuff rate, 61st in the country, could see to improve if Georgia’s run blocking doesn’t.

Simmons entered the year with the second highest run stop percentage among returning SEC interior defenders, only trailing Georgia’s Trenton Thompson, and has been solid, so far, posting a 35.3% opposing success rate. However, where he has really shined as a pass rusher, it’s his fellow linemen that have really stood out against the run. Sophomore Fletcher Adams has already racked up five run stuffs and 1.5 tackles for loss with a 25% opposing success rate, while junior Tre Brown, who also has a 25% opposing success rate, and freshman Kobe Jones have three stuffs each, with 1.5 TFLs for Brown and 2.5 for Jones.

Junior edge rusher Gerri Green is finally blossoming into the player many expected him to be, as well, with three run stuffs of his own, on top of two forced fumbles, in 2017.

According to SB Nation writer Bill Connelly’s research, the outcome of football games are decided by five factors. His empirical evidence would show that whichever team wins the explosiveness battle wins the game 86% of the time, the efficiency battle 83% of the time, the drive-finishing battle 75% of the time, the field position battle 72% of the time, and the turnover battle 73% of the time -- give or take a few points in either direction, in any given year.

Neither of these team’s offenses are as explosive as the respective defenses are at limiting big plays. Mississippi State’s offense is highly efficient, but Georgia’s defense is too. Beyond that, however is where the matchup problems start to emerge.

Mississippi State’s allowed success rate of 31.1% (19th) is much better than Georgia’s offensive success rate of 40.3% (83rd).

Now, the turnover battle is incredibly hard to predict, but MSU’s +.67 turnovers per game margin would have to be considered an advantage, at least until the ball is actually kicked off, between the hedges, over Georgia’s -.67 turnovers per game margin.

The drive finishing battle also favors Dan Mullen’s squad. On trips inside the 40 yard line, Mississippi State is averaging 5.08 points per possession (42nd) and allowing only 3 points per trip inside the 40 (19th). Georgia is finishing offensive drives at a slightly higher rate, averaging 5.17 points per trip inside the 40 (35th), but is allowing 3.91 points per possessions in that range (58th).

Mississippi State, for a variety of reasons, including special teams as well as offensive and defensive drive stopping, has also been the beneficiary of better average starting field position, on both sides of the ball, than Georgia. Fitzgerald and the offense, on average, get rolling at the 33.8 yard line (26th), while Simmons and the defense take the field with the opposing offense on its own 24.6 (14th). Georgia, though, on average, starts its offensive drives at the 31.8 (48th) and its average starting field position on defense is 28.2 (62nd).

Once could argue, that Mississippi State has had a lighter workload on each side of the ball with shorter fields on offense, and more ground for opposing offenses to cover. However, if this is an advantage that MSU can maintain against Georgia, it is a significant one.

All things considered, Mississippi State has a few slight matchup edges, where Georgia’s only real edge is its rushing attack, although that advantage is as slim as all the others. Ultimately, while the numbers can provide great insight into how things might shake out, especially when it comes to certain matchups within the matchup, it’s impossible to measure the impact of a home crowd, or, even more pertinently, how a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds will perform on any given Saturday.

The only thing that the numbers prove without a shadow of a doubt is that this is an absolute must watch game, and that whoever emerges victorious will be the primary contender to Alabama’s SEC throne… until next week, that is.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP