Time and Date: Thursday, December 31 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Amon G. Carter Stadium — Fort Worth, TX
Spread: Tulsa (-2.5)
ESPN FPI: Tulsa has 59.9% chance to win
All-time series: No previous matchups
Tulsa Golden Hurricane outlook
Tulsa entered 2020 with only one winning season as a member of the AAC, but this season, the Golden Hurricane almost won the whole thing. They had all the makings of a team of destiny, coming back from down 18 to UCF, down to 17 to SMU, and down 14 to Tulane — thanks to a Hail Mary on the final play of regulation. Tulsa took its undefeated AAC record into the conference championship game against a Top 10 opponent in Cincinnati.
The Golden Hurricane fought hard on the road in a downpour, but a regrettable offsides penalty extended Cincinnati’s final drive and allowed the Bearcats to win with a field goal at the buzzer. Now, Tulsa must regroup in hopes of winning the Armed Forces Bowl in its first postseason appearance since 2016. When reaching the postseason, the program has been quite successful in the past with a 6-3 bowl record since 2005.
This season, Tulsa was a very defensive oriented team. The Golden Hurricane rank 23rd in scoring defense with a specialty for creating turnovers (2.0 takeaways per game). Unfortunately, the centerpiece of the defense will not suit up for the Armed Forces Bowl. Outside linebacker Zaven Collins won the Bronko Nagurski Award for the best defensive player in college football, but he opted out of the game to focus on the 2021 NFL Draft. Thus, Tulsa must replace the four interceptions, four sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles he produced in a stellar season.
Up front, the player to watch is defensive tackle Jaxon Player. With three sacks and eight tackles for loss on the season, Player will charge at the Mississippi State interior linemen to spearhead the pass rushing movement for the Golden Hurricane. But facing the air raid, the secondary will be of utmost importance.
Cornerbacks Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans both present tremendous size and physicality at the position. They’ll likely cover the edges of Mississippi State’s 4-receiver sets. Another key cog needed to contain the Bulldogs’ passing attack is nickelback Cristian Williams. With 41 tackles and three passes defended this year, he’ll shift his versatile skillset toward assisting in coverage. Williams doesn’t play man too often, usually functioning as the centerfielder in zone defense when the opponent drops back to pass.
On the offense side of the ball, quarterback Zach Smith returns to the field, hoping for a better performance after what transpired in Cincinnati. Smith’s been off the mark as of late, completing fewer than 45 percent of passes in his last three showings. But after two weeks rest, Smith can revert to the high level he played at in comebacks against UCF and SMU — combining for 598 yards and six touchdowns against those ranked opponents.
He has an array of talented wide receivers in Keylon Stokes, Josh Johnson, JuanCarlos Santana, and Sam Crawford Jr. All wideouts average 13 yards per reception, and Smith likes to target in the range of 10-20 yards downfield often. That is where Tulsa hopes to do its damage against Mississippi State’s 95th ranked pass defense.
Just like the receiving production is balanced between the four aforementioned players, the running game is handled in a similar manner. Three running backs — Corey Taylor II, Deneric Prince, and T.K. Wilkerson all have between 79 and 85 carries this year. Tulsa prefers to keep a mixed bag on the ground game with Taylor as the speedster and Prince and Wilkerson as the physical, downhill backs. While the Bulldogs haven’t shown the ability to limit the passing attack, they are quite stout in the run defense. Thus, if Tulsa can’t get a ground game established, Smith will be relied upon to carry the offense.
Mississippi State Bulldogs outlook
Mississippi State took the college football world by storm this September. The Bulldogs invaded Death Valley and upset defending national champion LSU, and Mike Leach’s new air raid system was thriving as quarterback K.J. Costello posted 623 passing yards in the opener.
Fast forward three months later and Mississippi State is 3-7 in the midst of the program’s worst season since 2006. Yet, due to unforeseen circumstances of a pandemic season, the Bulldogs extend their bowl streak to 11 straight years and will have a shot at taking down another ranked opponent.
Mississippi State in December is far different than the Bulldogs at the beginning of the season. Leach is now relying on a slew of freshmen to lead his roster, and the team is improving week by week since shifting toward the youth movement. Mississippi State lost several close ones to quality opponents such as Georgia and Auburn before turning the corner and upsetting Missouri to close the regular season. Not only did the Bulldogs defeat Missouri — their offense obliterated the Tigers by dropping 51 points behind 446 yards of offense.
The team’s leading passer, rusher, and receiver are all freshmen. Quarterback Will Rogers, the architect of the win over Missouri, is Leach’s next project in the air raid scheme. A Leach quarterback led the FBS in passing attempts and completions in four of the prior five seasons, and Rogers may follow in those footsteps come 2021. Rogers’ last four outings featured three games of 50+ passing attempts, including a career-high 61 throws in the Egg Bowl alone.
Leach often shows aversion to the run game, but perhaps the run game enters Mississippi State’s gameplan after Jo’quavious Marks posted a season-high 70 rushing yards and a touchdown on the Missouri defense two weeks ago. But even if the Bulldogs keep things aerial, Marks always plays a considerable role as the owner of a team-best 56 receptions this season. Marks is frequently utilized on screens, but when scavenging downfield, Rogers prefers Jaden Walley, who has posted four consecutive 100-yard games entering bowl season. Walley averaged 16 or more yards per reception in three of those four performances and he’ll be the deep threat Tulsa must blanket in order to prevent home run plays.
On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs plan to counter Tulsa with Erroll Thompson, who leads the 21st run defense in the FBS. Thompson leads his team with 86 tackles, finishing with double digit takedowns in six of his 10 games. While Thompson is a senior, a good portion of Mississippi State’s star talent lies within the freshman class. Another player to watch on defense is SEC All-Freshman selection Emmanuel Forbes. With four interceptions, six pass breakups, and two defensive touchdowns in 2020, Forbes is a dangerous playmaker in 1-on-1 coverage and Tulsa be wary of Forbes’ whereabouts when dropping back to pass.
But most importantly for Mississippi State, Amon G. Carter Stadium has permitted the use of cowbells in their venue for the 2020 Armed Forces Bowl. So, expect plenty of noise in the venue despite limiting the attendance to 20 percent of maximum capacity.
The AAC consistently wins games like this in the regular season, but for some reason, the conference fails to deliver in bowls nearly every year. The conference sports a 17-28 bowl record in the College Football Playoff era, although that bowl winning percentage improves to .400 when exclusively looking at games against the SEC. This year hasn’t been great, and the conference is sitting at 1-3. Conversely, the SEC is 41-28 in bowl season since 2014.
Past bowl results play well into Mississippi State’s favor. And given that Tulsa is adjusting to life without defensive standout Zaven Collins, the defense will certainly take a hit. Combine that with Mississippi State’s offense kicking it into another gear with the freshmen against Missouri, and there’s a recipe for a Bulldog victory.
The burning question is, can Tulsa’s offense generate enough production to win this game? Lately, the Golden Hurricane haven’t been as impressive on the offensive side of the ball, averaging 21.3 points in regulation in the prior three games. They’ll need another dominant day on defense to pull out the victory, but in the end, Mississippi State’s new and improved offense will light it up and the Bulldogs come out triumphant in Fort Worth.
Prediction: Mississippi State 34, Tulsa 17