When the 2021 Liberty Bowl kicks off, a Big 12/SEC matchup between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and Mississippi State Bulldogs will look and feel like any other bowl game. However, there are going to be plenty of mixed feels by Red Raider fans. Not to mention, Bulldogs’ head coach Mike Leach has approximately 2.4 million reasons why he would love to run this score up.
Texas Tech Searching For Marquee Victory
It has been quite a ride for Texas Tech this 2021 football season. There were some tremendous highs to celebrate. There were also equal amounts of nausea-inducing defeats to suffer. One thing has escaped this team this year though. A true headlining victory. The biggest win the Red Raiders have had all season was against a 7-5 team that finished fourth in the Big 12. An argument could be made that it was against an 11-2 AAC runner-up, but with that happening in week one against a team that was not projected to have such a successful season, it was overlooked all year.
But the Red Raiders now get a crack at a quality SEC team in the 2021 Liberty Bowl. The Texas Tech passing defense will get its toughest test of the season. The passing defense is ranked 118th in passing yards allowed per game. It’s very possible Mississippi State may not attempt to run the ball one time in this game. It also doesn’t help that Texas Tech has not been able to generate pressure on quarterbacks all season.
The Red Raiders were ranked tied 117th in team sacks, only averaging just over one sack per game. But Mississippi State will be without its best offensive linemen, Charles Cross, as he has opted out to prepare for the NFL draft. However, the Texas Tech passing game can make things interesting. For as good as the Mississippi State game is overall, the defense does struggle against the pass. It ranks 61st nationally in pass yards allowed per game. If Texas Tech is going to win this game, the Red Raiders are likely going to have to win a shootout.
Who Are Texas Tech Fans Going To Root For?
This might seem like a silly question. It has been over a decade since Leach has roamed the sidelines as the head pirate for Texas Tech. And while Leach will continue to fight for what he believes is money still owed to him, many Red Raider fans are very conflicted with their rooting interests. There is an overwhelming portion of this fan base that believes Leach was fired more for political reasons than the actual Adam James situation. It was no secret that Leach’s relationship with former athletic director Gerald Meyers was not the most cordial.
After all, heading into the 2009 season after reaching historical heights for the program, Meyers and Leach were unable to come to an agreement on a new long-term extension. Combine this with James’ famous father, Craig. He used his then role as a national college football media member at ESPN to create a media storm over his son’s situation that aided in Leach’s firing, many believe the program has been cursed ever since the firing.
So much so, a large percentage of the fan base has expressed that until Leach is paid, Texas Tech will never be able to climb out of the bottom-tier of the Big 12. The numbers also reflect a major downturn in the program since he left. Leach never won less than seven games in his ten seasons. Since he was fired, they have only won seven games four times in 12 seasons. Don’t be surprised if there are Red Raider fans celebrating a Mississippi State win.
Bulldogs Are Much More Than The Air Raid
Yes, the Air Raid is on full display when Mississippi State takes the field. The Bulldogs are dead last, 130th in the nation, in rushing yards per game. This means the passing attack must be doing well, and it is. Mississippi State is ranked third nationally in passing averaging 386 yards per game. But Leach isn’t winning games 54-49 these days. He has a stout defense for the first time in his coaching career. Mississippi State is ranked 21st nationally in total defense.
Mississippi State has been an up-and-down team to finish with a 7-5 record. The Bulldogs finished the season with three wins against teams who finished the season ranked in the top 25. But they also lost to a 6-6 Memphis team and a 6-6 LSU team. If Mississippi State plays a solid game, similar to performance against NC State/Texas A&M/Kentucky, the Bulldogs should handle Texas Tech fairly easily. They have the better team.
But Leach teams, whether it was at Texas Tech, Washington State, or Mississippi State, have a history of performance that are head-scratching. There are games where the offense never gets in a rhythm. When the offense goes three-and-out on consecutive drives, Leach teams have shown to the propensity of getting stuck in first gear and never getting out of it all game. No telling which team will show up for the 2021 Liberty Bowl.
Players To Watch
QB Donovan Smith, Texas Tech: New head coach Joey McGuire has got to love his potential quarterback room heading into the 2022 season. Due to injuries, Smith has gotten a chance to reveal his potential as the full-time starter. All the raw skills and physical size are there with Smith but needs to develop more consistency. He had moments of brilliance all season, and if Texas Tech is going to beat Mississippi State, Smith will need to play his best game this season.
LB Colin Schooler, Texas Tech: The Arizona transfer has made a tremendous impact in his two seasons with the Red Raiders. He led the team this season with 97 tackles this season with five-and-a-half tackles for loss. The All-Big 12 performer will be found around the ball all game.
QB Will Rogers, Mississippi State: No surprise, Leach’s offense needs a talented quarterback to conduct its train. On the season, Rodgers completed 75% of his throws for 4,451 yards and 35 touchdowns with just eight picks.
WR Makai Polk, Mississippi State: The Air Raid oftentimes gets misinterpreted as a downfield passing attack. It is more so about spreading the defense out and utilizing midrange throws and keeping things moving. Polk has developed into Rodgers’ perfect target in this offense. He leads the team with 98 catches for 989 yards and nine scores.
2021 Liberty Bowl Prediction
Mississippi State has not scored less than 21 points all season. Even in its down games this year (outside of Alabama) the Bulldogs have played everyone close. Texas Tech is playing a game with both its offensive and defense coordinators coaching their last games with the Red Raiders. Both have taken head coaching positions for the 2022 season. All signs point to a convincing Mississippi State win in the Liberty Bowl.
But bowl season often produces weird results. This Red Raider team has really railed around Sonny Cumbie, and the program seems to have been energized with the hire of McGuire. In a wild shootout, only fitting between Leach and one of his former quarterbacks, Texas Tech springs the upset.
Texas Tech 52, Mississippi State 49