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Take Two: Ole Miss D or Miss. State O?

10/20/2014

The Magnolia State is home to the No. 1- and No. 3-ranked teams in the country.

If you haven't found time to let that fact soak in, you should do so. It's been a crazy football season, but nothing better illustrates how upside down things have gotten than the transcendence of Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Don't let the novelty of the rankings fool you, though. Neither program is a fluke. Their rise hasn't been due to smoke and mirrors. These are two solidly built football teams.

Which brings us to today's Take Two debate: Would you rather have Ole Miss' defense or Mississippi State's offense?

Alex Scarborough: Five years ago, this would have been a simple answer. I would have taken Ole Miss' Landshark defense and been on my merry way.

But this isn't years past. This is a new SEC that thrives on offense.

For that reason, give me Mississippi State's offense. Give me Dak Prescott's mobility and arm strength. Give me Ben Beckwith at guard, Josh Robinson at tailback and De'Runnya Wilson at receiver. I don't care who you have, that's a hard bunch to stop. And I didn't even mention Jameon Lewis, Brandon Holloway and Malcolm Johnson.

The Bulldogs might not have the brand-name cache of others in the SEC, but those guys can put up points in a hurry. They lead the league in yards per game (529.7) and rank second in points per game (41.9). They're balanced, too, with 5.5 yards per rush and 9.1 yards per pass attempt. More than 23 percent of their plays go for 10 yards or more.

And they have the one thing no defense can account for: a star quarterback.

As long as they have Prescott under center, they have a chance. He wears No. 15 for a reason, and like Tim Tebow, he can will his team to victory. I won't even bother with Prescott's eye-popping statistics (you can find a Heisman Trophy tracker if you must know) because it's his leadership that's the most invaluable part of his game. Good luck stopping that.

Sam Khan: I hear you, Alex. I hear you loud and clear. And honestly, it's hard for me to pick against Prescott and Mississippi State because I, too, believe in the power of a star quarterback, and nobody has been better than Prescott this season.

But Ole Miss' defense has a nickname (the Landsharks) for a reason. It's that good.

The numbers speak for themselves. No. 1 in the nation in points allowed per game (10.6) and goal-to-go efficiency (25 percent). No. 3 nationally in yards per play (4.15) and red zone efficiency (33.3 percent). No. 5 in turnover margin (plus-10). No. 12 in third-down conversion rate (29.6 percent). I could go on, but you get the picture.

There's a reason for the old adage "defense wins championships." It's cliché and simplistic, but it's true. A team can't beat you if it can't score, and nobody's better at keeping opponents out of the end zone than the Rebels. And that scoring average should be lower, considering seven of those points are the result of an Alabama fumble return.

I'll take Robert Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Marquis Haynes and that defensive front. I'll take the heart of a player like linebacker D.T. Shackelford. I'll take a secondary with players such as Tony Conner, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt. Speed, tackling, a good mix of youth and experience. Give me the Landsharks. Fins up.

Scarborough: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But here's the question I'd pose to you: When the Egg Bowl does roll around on Nov. 29, do you think Ole Miss will be able to stop Mississippi State offensively? Would the Rebs keep the Bulldogs under, say, 28 points? Because I'm not sure they will.

Wilson, at 6-foot-5, is a matchup nightmare. Pair that size with the speedy Lewis underneath and you're talking about a headache for any secondary. And it's not like you can focus on just the passing game, either. Robinson's ability to pound between the tackles would negate Ole Miss' pass-rush and demand a safety play closer to the line of scrimmage. He and Prescott running the read-option is dangerous because neither is easy to bring down.

While I think it would be a close contest and a ton of fun to watch, I think Prescott & Co. would put up points on the Rebs. Prescott's dual-threat ability and State's balance offensively is the difference, to me.

Khan: I do think the Rebels have what it takes to keep the Bulldogs' offense in check come Egg Bowl time. This defense is versatile enough to stop just about anything. They shut down a traditional offense, like Alabama's, save for one drive when the Crimson Tide mostly ran behind Cam Robinson. But that was the only touchdown the Rebels' defense yielded that day.

Against a talented spread team, like Texas A&M, the Rebels had answers there, too. The Aggies tried to run it and couldn't (1.5 yards per carry). They tried to throw it and couldn't do that either. And they put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to wreak havoc and force errant throws, which leads to turnovers. I think the Auburn game in a couple of weeks will be another good barometer for the Ole Miss defense.

Wilson is pretty talented. So is this guy -- you might have heard of him -- named Amari Cooper. When the Crimson Tide came to Oxford, he had a nice day (nine catches, 91 yards) but no touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon had 123 yards rushing, but again no touchdowns, and the Rebels kept Derrick Henry in check.

The Rebels haven't allowed more than 20 points in a game this season (that came on the road, to Texas A&M and, mind you, the final six came as time expired when the game was out of hand). I'd like their chances at keeping Mississippi State under that 28-point benchmark. When the time comes, it'll be entertaining to watch those two units go head-to-head, that's for sure.