Outback Bowl Preview: How will Iowa solve the Bulldogs' sensational defense?
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Outback Bowl
Who: No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten)
When: Tuesday, Jan. 1, Noon ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TV: ESPN2
Odds: Iowa +7
Over/Under: 42.5

Tale of the Tape

2018 STATS MSU Iowa
Points Per Game 29.1 (65) 31.5 (46)
Points Allowed/Game 12.0 (1) 17.4 (11)
Rush Yards/Game 226.4 (21) 162.0 (77)
Pass Yards/Game 175.6 (111) 227.7 (68)
Total Yards/Game 402.0 (65) 389.7 (76)
Rush Yards Allowed/Game 104.3 (10) 102.8 (7)
Pass Yards Allowed/Game 164.2 (6) 186.8 (23)
Total Yards Allowed/Game 268.4 (3) 289.6 (7)
Third-Down Offense 42.9% (T-36) 45.6% (20)
Third-Down Defense 27.7% (5) 34.8% (31)
Red-Zone Offense 89.7% (15) 84.9% (56)
Red-Zone Defense 71.9% (T-5) 80.8% (41)
Team Sacks/Game 3.00 (T-10) 2.83 (T-22)
Turnover Differential +8 (T-16) +8 (T-16)

(Division I rank in parentheses)

Season in review

Mississippi State

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Expectations were high going into 2018. Joe Moorhead was expected to stroll in, pick up where Dan Mullen left off, and push the Bulldogs to their best season since the '40s.

It didn't quite work out that way. Moorhead took a while getting his feet under him and figuring out his personnel, while the limitations of Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback meant the offense became somewhat stilted early in the year.

Fitzgerald is a run-only weapon. Moorhead relies on his quarterback consistently hitting deep shots to help clear out the box for all his new-fangled rushing concepts. But Fitzgerald doesn't play with much rhythm or bounce. His accuracy wanes and the offense gets bogged down when he's pushed into a third-and-medium-or-further throw.

Moorhead eventually adapted and the offense took off.

The first-year Bulldogs bench boss sold out solely to the running game. He didn't rely quite as much on tempo. He did more with his pre-snap movement to tweak alignments and discombobulate defenses. That little set-motion he's become infamous for - the running back taking a couple steps to re-jig the strength of the formation - was ever present. So, too, were more extreme motions and shifts.

It helps to have a complimentary defense. In Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat, and Leo Lewis (yes, that one), Mississippi State has as much top-line talent as any front around. The Bulldogs finished sixth in defensive S&P+. They held 10 opponents under 10 points. Only two teams scored more than 20 points on them all season. Two. One of them was Alabama.

This defense plays fierce. Swarming linebackers, lockdown corners, and an utterly overwhelming defensive line - it's the perfect recipe for success.

Iowa

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What else did you expect from Iowa? An 8-4 season, a bunch of one-score losses, a stout defense, and a methodical offense is right on brand. Of the team's four losses, only one - Wisconsin at home - was by more than a touchdown. It's almost cliche for a Kirk Ferentz team.

Some of the results have been downright weird, like pitching shutouts against Illinois and Maryland to win by a combined 89-0. Iowa isn't supposed to drill anyone. It plays in slugfests; it lives to drag opponents down into the mud.

All of Iowa's success this season has come thanks to its defense, the hallmark of which is stopping big plays. The Hawkeyes conceded a play of 20 yards or more on only 4.1 percent of their plays, the best mark in the country.

Mississippi State will provide an intriguing test: can this robust Hawkeyes defense stand up to Moorhead's fun and games?

Players to watch

Mississippi State DL Jeffery Simmons

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How do you block a 300-pound man with a super-charged get-off? You don't.

Simmons' first step is ridiculous. He gets to the backfield at will. His reflexes, paired with his uncommon burst, are like a glitch in the matrix. He moves so fast you're convinced the tape is sped up or he must be offside:

He's not offside. That's just how fast he moves. Simmons was so dominant in MSU's game against Kansas State that one actually began to feel sorry for K-State's center. It was mean.

Everything great about Simmons' game was on display: explosiveness, run-game nuance, inside hands, leverage, and that unnatural ability to sink his hips until he's almost parallel to the floor.

Seriously, what are you supposed to do against this?

Hold on for dear life and hope for the best. It's all you can do. The only other answer is to send help, and that's old hat for Simmons now.

His pass-rushing arsenal is coming along. He no longer relies solely on his initial movement to unnerve blockers. There are countermoves and even a savvy spin move. When Simmons is at his best there isn't an offensive lineman in the country who can stop him. He's going to be great for a long, long time.

Iowa DE Anthony Nelson

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It might be hard to take your eyes off Anthony Nelson. The Hawkeyes edge rusher is one of the tallest, thickest non-quarterbacks in college football. He looks a little like a science experiment gone wrong.

The footballing mutant has already racked up 11 TFLs, 9.5 sacks, and 12.5 run stuffs this season - mostly because he can land a hand on a blocker from what feels like several streets away.

Biggest mismatch

Mississippi State's defensive line vs. Iowa's offensive line

OK, this isn't a mismatch. But it will be the most enjoyable and decisive battle in an otherwise pedestrian matchup.

Mississippi State's defense ranks 19th in sack rate and eighth in stuff rate. Iowa's offensive line ranks eighth in sack rate and 16th in stuff rate.

This is truly a clash of the titans. Whoever wins the line of scrimmage on that side of the ball will likely control the game.

Mississippi State's key to victory

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Stay out of third-and-medium: MSU never moves backward when it's running the ball. Powerful and skippy running backs paired with Fitzgerald's size and athleticism form a potent 1-2 punch. Issues arise, however, when Fitzgerald is forced to convert an intermediate timing throw.

Get him in third-and-medium and he falls to pieces. His footwork gets lost. Double clutches become a constant. The team's sack rate balloons to 119th in the nation. That’s almost impossibly bad for an SEC school.

Iowa's keys to victory

Force takeaways: MSU averages less than a giveaway a game. Only nine other teams in the country can match that. The Bulldogs' offense isn't prolific enough to gift away drives or leave points on the board, not to mention maintain a high time of possession to give its defense a break. Barfing up turnovers is the quickest way to gas out an all-world defense. Two takeaways should be enough for Iowa to flip the script of the game.

Isolate safeties in space: Iowa had one of the best two-man tight end tandems in the nation entering the postseason: Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. The pair has combined for 85 catches, 1,236 yards, and 13 touchdowns. Hockenson’s catch rate is over 75 percent.

Now Fant is gone, declaring early for the NFL Draft and leaving the program ahead of bowl preparations.

Hockenson will be the main man (some would argue he was already) as he shifts all across the offensive formation. He will line up in-line as a traditional tight end, in the backfield, in the slot, or split out as a wide receiver. Doing so allows Iowa to isolate and attack opposing safeties in space.

If the Hawkeyes are to have success against this Bulldogs defense, they will need Hockensen to pull in a couple big grabs. Matching him up on one of MSU's starting safeties - Cameron Dantzler or Johnathan Abram - will be their best shot.

Prediction

Mississippi State 28, Iowa 21

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Outback Bowl Preview: How will Iowa solve the Bulldogs' sensational defense?
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