2017 TaxSlayer Bowl Preview: Louisville vs. Mississippi State

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2017 TaxSlayer Bowl
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In what might be the final game of Lamar Jackson‘s outstanding college career, the Louisville Cardinals (8-4, 4-4 ACC) look to send him out with a victory against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4 SEC) in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl.

With both teams having identical records, the winner moves to nine wins on the season.

Kickoff: Saturday, December 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisville -6.5

Continuity vs. Change

Under head coach Bobby Petrino, Louisville has won at least eight games in the last three years.

Louisville’s Offense

Led by 2016 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jackson, the Cardinals have one of the best offenses in college football. They rank third in the nation in total offense averaging 561 yards per game and are tied for first in yards per rush with 6.6.

In 10 of their 12 games played this year, Lousiville has scored over 30 points. Only Clemson and North Carolina State held the Cardinals from reaching that mark.

This explosive offense will look to continue its ground game dominance against a Bulldogs defense that blew leads in two of their last three games.

Jackson, a junior who’s considered a potential first-round NFL draft pick, picked up where he left off last season. He’s passed for 3,489 yards with 25 TDs and added 1,443 rushing yards with 17 TDs so far this year.

His favorite targets through the air are junior Jaylen Smith, redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick, and sophomore Seth Dawkins. On the season, Smith has 53 receptions for 873 yards and six touchdowns; Fitzpatrick has 45 catches for 699 yards and nine touchdowns; and Dawkins has 39 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns.

While Jackson has progressed as a passer, not looking to run as often, he still leads the Cardinals vaunted rushing attack. Seniors Malik Williams and Reggie Bonnafon complement Louisville’s best player as they’ve combined to rush for nearly 1,000 yards and over 10 touchdowns.

As Mississippi State will key on Jackson to ensure he doesn’t win the game by himself, it’s up to Louisville’s other playmakers to take advantage of their match ups.

The Cardinals offense is the most potent group the Bulldogs defense will face all year. If Jackson has his way with Mississippi State, this game could get ugly fast.

Mississippi State’s Offense

Before Dan Mullen decided to leave for Florida, he turned Mississippi State into a respectable program in a tough SEC conference. He went 69-46 in his nine seasons in Starkville and brought the Bulldogs to eight consecutive bowl games.

Mississippi State hired former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to replace Mullen, but running backs coach and special teams coordinator Greg Knox will be the interim head coach for this game.

In the midst of a program upheaval, the Bulldogs will look to tune out the distractions and finish their season with a win.

They’ll have to do so, however, without junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. He suffered a dislocated ankle in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss in the last game of the season. Before the injury, Fitzgerald passed for over 1,700 yards and 15 touchdowns along with rushing for over 1,000 yards and five touchdowns.

Freshman quarterback Keytaon Thompson gets the start with Fitzgerald out. He has 261 passing yards with two touchdowns while adding almost 300 rushing yards and three touchdowns this year.

The Bulldogs will rely heavily on their 14th-ranked rushing attack to open the play-action passing game for Thompson. Junior running back Aeris Williams leads Mississippi State on the ground with 1,019 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

Through the air, Mississippi State doesn’t have a true #1 receiver. Instead, they depend on several players to contribute. With the 110th-ranked passing offense in the country, the Bulldogs must have success running the ball.

As the Bulldogs have faced tough competition all season, they’ll be ready for whatever Louisville throws their way.

If Mississippi State can help Thompson by controlling the clock and pounding the rock, the Bulldogs can prevail.

Holding the Line

Louisville’s Defense

Although Louisville has a winning record this season and most of their games have been shootouts.

The Cardinals defense has been a disappointment to say the least. They’ve dropped in every major statistical category this year: total defense (11th to 59th), pass defense (38th to 79th), rush defense (10th to 52nd), and points allowed (34th to 71st).

To make matters worse, star junior cornerback Jaire Alexander and senior linebacker James Hearns will both sit out the bowl game to prepare for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Alexander is recognized as one of the best cornerbacks in college football; while Hearns is tied for the most sacks on the Cardinals defense.

Senior linebackers Stacy Thomas and Trevon Young will be tasked with leading Louisville’s defense.

Thomas has 60 tackles, with six and a half tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception, three pass deflections, and one fumble recovery. While Young has 52 tackles, with nine tackles for loss, three and a half sacks, five pass deflections, and one fumble recovery.

If the Cardinals defense can shut down Mississippi State’s running game, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to make plays against a freshman quarterback.

Mississippi State’s Defense

The SEC is known for its great defenses. Although Alabama and LSU share the defensive spotlight, Mississippi State has a solid defense in its own right.

Coming into the game, the Bulldogs rank 10th in the nation in total defense allowing 302 yards per game. They also rank in the top 25 in pass defense, rush defense, and points allowed.

Led by junior defensive end Montez Sweat and sophomore defensive end Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State will have their hands full trying to slow down Jackson and the Louisville offense.

Sweat leads the Bulldogs with nine and a half sacks and 12 and a half tackles for loss this year.

Simmons, a former five-star recruit, has 57 tackles, with 11 tackles for loss, and four and a half sacks this season.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham followed Mullen to Gainesville, so safeties coach Ron English will call plays for the defense in this game.

Expect Mississippi State to be aggressive on defense. They hope to force Jackson into making bad decisions that’ll lead to turnovers.

Jackson is the best player Mississippi State’s defense will see all season. With the offense missing Fitzgerald, it’s on the defense to prevent Jackson from adding them to his highlight reel.

Prediction

In the sixth TaxSlayer Bowl, Louisville and Mississippi State is a game worth watching.

With Mississippi State starting a freshman quarterback, the Bulldogs will lean on Williams to lead the offense. If the Bulldogs play like they did against #4 Alabama, they should win this game.

The only problem, however, is Alabama doesn’t have a Lamar Jackson on its roster. Look for Jackson to shine in his final collegiate game showcasing his superior talent as Louisville extends its current winning streak to four.

Louisville 41, Mississippi State 24

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