Surprisingly, the debate continues to rage on about whether the SEC or the Big 12 is the toughest conference in college football. While the people on the Big 12 side of the fence use statistics to justify their position, the SEC has captured the last seven national championships, which would seemingly end the conversation.
Make no mistake about it: OSU will finish near the top of the Big 12 again this season. After all, Mike Gundy’s team returns seven starters from a unit that ranked fourth nationally in total offense. Regardless of whether its Clint Chelf or JW Walsh under center, the Cowboys will have no trouble moving the sticks with dangerous WR Josh Stewart catching passes. The running game is equally explosive with Jeremy Smith taking over as a full-time starter after averaging 5.9 yards per carry over the last three seasons.
With that said, Oklahoma State won’t beat Mississippi State this year. Although the Dawgs lost some key components from last year’s defense—including Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay—they’ll still get the job done in the season opener.
Let’s be honest: the Bulldogs have been one of the more underrated defenses in the country over the past couple of years. Sure, the D finished in the middle of the pack in total defense last season, but it finished fifth in the nation in the most important category–turnover margin. In fact, during Dan Mullen’s four seasons in Starkville, MSU has finished third or higher in the SEC in turnovers gained in three of those seasons.
That doesn’t bode well for a Cowboy team that failed to win the turnover battle in eight of its 13 contests last season.
Even if—and it’s a big if—the defense isn’t able to create any ‘defensive mayhem’ (as defensive coordinator Geoff Collins calls it), the Dawgs have enough talent on offense to win a shootout. After all, quarterback Tyler Russell has what it takes to play at the next level, throwing for over 2,800 yards in his first full season as the starter last year. Thanks to the emergence of JUCO transfer Jeremy Chappelle at receiver, he will have no trouble picking apart an OSU secondary that ranked 110th nationally in passing defense in 2012.
Mississippi State’s running game will have a big day as well. Although the Cowboys finished third in the Big 12 in rushing defense, they still allowed 4.0 yards per carry in conference play a year ago.
Why is that number important? Simple: under Mullen’s watch, the Bulldogs are 21-2 when they average at least four yards per carry and just 3-13 when they don’t.
Considering that MSU has a veteran offensive line returning—anchored by All-American candidate Gabe Jackson—and a stable of talented running backs led by LaDarius Perkins, it’s tough to envision them not eclipsing the four yard barrier in this contest. After all, the Bulldogs ran for an average of 4.2 yards per carry in SEC play last year.
To summarize, Mississippi State will defeat Oklahoma State in the season opener behind an opportunistic defense and a powerful offense. Let’s see the Big 12 statisticians try to come up with a way to try to explain that victory without confirming what everyone else knows—the SEC is the best conference in the land.