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Mississippi State stuns No. 4 Texas A&M, shakes up playoff picture

Mississippi State upset No. 4 Texas A&M on Saturday, shaking up the College Football Playoff picture.

Remember all that debate about the College Football Playoff selection committee’s decision to rank Texas A&M No. 4 ahead of Washington? You can go ahead and forget about it now. The Aggies took matters into their own hands in the worst possible way Saturday, falling to Mississippi State 35-28 in Starkville.

Here are three thoughts on the Bulldogs’ upset:

1. Injuries really hurt Texas A&M

Defensive end Myles Garrett has spent most of the season battling an ankle injury, which he re-aggravated Saturday. Garrett played the majority of the game, but the 6’5”, 262-pounder, who can be nearly unblockable at his best, was clearly hampered.

Making matters worse, quarterback Trevor Knight injured his right shoulder diving for a touchdown late in the first quarter. The graduate transfer sat out the Aggies’ next possession before returning for most of the following two drives, both of which ended in three and outs. He didn’t return in the second half and finished the game with his arm in a sling.

Texas A&M desperately missed its best playmakers on both offense and defense. Backup quarterback Jake Hubenak moved the ball relatively effectively through the air, completing 11 of 17 passes with two touchdowns. His 54-yard strike to Christian Kirk and four-yard fade to Josh Reynolds, both in the fourth quarter, cut Mississippi State’s lead to a touchdown.

But what the Aggies really missed from Hubenak’s play was the dual-threat ability of Knight. Knight entered Saturday with 475 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground, and he added 54 yards and another score before leaving the game. Hubenak contributed almost nothing to Texas A&M’s rushing attack and the result was a team average of 3.7 yards per carry.

This cost the Aggies on critical plays, like when they ran a read-option at the Mississippi State five-yard line on third-and-one, trailing 28–14. Hubenak kept the ball and was brought down for a four-yard loss. It’s impossible to know if Knight would have gotten the first down on the play had he been in, but it was clear Hubenak posed no threat as a runner.

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On defense, the Aggies rarely made Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald uncomfortable. Texas A&M entered Saturday averaging over three sacks per game but didn’t get to Fitzgerald once. Of course, it’d be unfair to attribute this entirely to Garrett’s reduced status, but the total absence of what has typically been one of the fiercest pass rushes in the country was stark.


2. Give Mississippi State credit for capitalizing

Despite the injuries, it’s important not to lose sight of how superbly the Bulldogs played to earn the upset. Fitzgerald capitalized on a clean pocket to complete 18 of 31 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns. He also rushed for 182 yards, the second-highest total of his career, and put Texas A&M on upset alert right away with a 74-yard touchdown run on Mississippi State’s first play from scrimmage.

Fitzgerald’s success on the ground was part of a larger victory by the Bulldogs in the trenches. Mississippi State finished with 365 yards rushing on 6.3 yards per carry, as running back Aeris Williams gained 140 yards on 24 attempts.

On defense, the Bulldogs did just enough so that every time Texas A&M appeared to gain momentum, Mississippi shut it down. After Kirk returned a punt for a 93-yard touchdown just before halftime to close the gap to 28–14, the Bulldogs shut out the Aggies on their next four drives, including a sack and a forced fumble on Hubenak by defensive end Johnathan Calvin. And when Texas A&M got a late stop to get the ball back in the final minute of the game with a chance to tie, Mississippi State’s defense came up clutch one more time as defensive back Mark McLaurin intercepted Hubenak to seal the win.

3. Texas A&M’s playoff hopes are over

The Aggies’ playoff hopes were never as solid as their No. 4 ranking this week made them seem. Texas A&M didn’t control its path to the playoff because No. 5 Washington would have surely leapfrogged the Aggies if the Huskies went undefeated and won the Pac-12 championship.

Still, if Texas A&M had won out to finish 11–1, it would have had a decent shot to make the national semifinals, even if the Aggies didn’t win the SEC West. All it would have taken was a loss by Washington or some chaos in the ACC or Big Ten to potentially put Texas A&M in as the second team from the SEC.

That's no longer a realistic possibility. At 7–2 and 4–2 in SEC play, the Aggies have little left to play for other than a good bowl game. Their hopes of coming back to win the division or finish in the top four of the rankings are done. With LSU the only remaining ranked opponent on Texas A&M’s schedule, the Aggies have a good chance to finish 10–2, but that same schedule leaves them with limited opportunities to impress the selection committee.