Game Time: Saturday, September 3, 11:00 AM CT
TV: SEC Network
Watch Online: WatchESPN
Odds: Mississippi State (-28) via OddsShark
The Mississippi State Bulldogs are picked to finish seventh in the SEC West because somebody has to finish seventh, right? And the Bulldogs are moving on from Dak Prescott, who might be the best player in school history.
Yet expecting Mississippi State to fall completely off the map might be a little much. The Bulldogs return six of their top seven tacklers from a defense that held opponents to 23.2 points per game; they also return leading receiver Fred Ross and top running back Brandon Holloway, and three starters on the offensive line.
In other words, if Dan Mullen can find a quarterback — and that’s a big if — Mississippi State can be good again.
So who IS the QB?
That’s a good question. Dan Mullen said earlier in the week that he was naming Nick Williams his starting quarterback. Nick Williams, though, doesn’t actually exists. There’s Damian Williams and there’s Nick Fitzgerald and there’s Nick Tiano, but there’s no Nick Williams.
But all three quarterbacks are probably going to play against South Alabama, because this probably won’t be a competitive game. This is a classic tune-up game: the oddsmakers have Mississippi State as a 28-point favorite and S&P+ says that Mississippi State has a 96 percent chance of winning the game. In other words, Dan Mullen can treat this as an exhibition game and have an extra week to figure out who the starter is.
Fitzgerald is a running threat — he rushed for 127 yards on 23 carries in 2015 — while Williams is more of a pocket passer. Tiano is probably going to be the third-string QB, but he’ll play some against the Jaguars as well, and while none of these guys are Dak Prescott — if Mississippi State can just get decent production out of one of them they’re probably headed for a good year.
A New Defensive Coordinator
With Manny Diaz off to join Mark Richt in Miami, Mississippi State is on its third defensive coordinator in as many years. Peter Sirmon is in his first year as a defensive coordinator anywhere, having served as the linebackers coach at USC for the last two years (and at Tennessee and Washington before that.) Like Diaz, Sirmon says he’s a believer in flexibility on the defensive side of the ball; what this probably means, in practice, is that the Bulldogs aren’t going to run a “true” 3-4 defense, but instead will probably run some kind of hybrid defense.
I kind of like the outside-the-box hire; instead of hiring a retread “proven” (mediocre) defensive coordinator, why not hire a first-time DC who’s well recommended from his previous stops? But the defense will be worth watching just because nobody’s ever seen Sirmon as a coordinator before. We don’t even know what his trademarks are.
But the Defense Probably Won’t Be Tested
Like Mississippi State, South Alabama is going to be breaking in a new quarterback and will have some kinks of their own to work out in the season opener. The Jaguars do have some experience at wide receiver and running back, but the defense likewise has a few pieces to replace.
In other words, this is an ideal team to be facing when you’re not sure who your quarterback is and your defensive coordinator has never been a coordinator before. This is basically an exhibition game. Expect Dan Mullen to get a long look at his second and third string.
So, what happens?
South Alabama played two games against Power 5 conference teams in 2015, losing to Nebraska by a score of 48-9 and NC State 63-13. Expect this game to play out similarly: Dan Mullen will probably be emptying his bench around halftime.
Prediction: Mississippi State 56, South Alabama 10.