After the 2010 BCS National Championship, a Mississippi State season ticket holder told me Dan Mullen would outlast Gene Chizik at their current jobs. The Bulldogs had just won nine games, including a 52-14 win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. It was the first time since 1999 that Mississippi State had collected that many wins.
Fast forward to 2017. Gene Chizik is a college football analyst for ESPN and Dan Mullen is entering his ninth season at Mississippi State. Despite only five wins in 2016, the Bulldogs capped off their season with a St. Petersburg Bowl win over Miami (OH).
How will that catapult the Bulldogs into the 2017 season? Last week I spoke with Matt Wyatt, former Bulldog QB and color analyst for the Mississippi State Radio Network.
Here are a few nuggets from our conversation that will shape the upcoming season.
Priority #1 for junior QB Nick Fitzgerald? Stay healthy. Fitzgerald is 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 lbs. That’s a big man. He’s a very physical runner and proved himself to be durable in 2016. He racked up 1,385 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. It’s obvious that Fitzgerald is a playmaker with his legs, but can his body hold up for another whole season? That leads us to priority #2.
Priority #2 for Fitzgerald is to transition away from an “every-down” ball carrier to an “every-down” passer. He spent the offseason with a focus on reading defenses and being willing to take what they will give. That might mean that every single play isn’t glamorous, but consistent 4-5 yard gains with short, accurate passes will move the ball down the field.
A few key spots on the offensive line remain open heading into the 2017 season. OL Coach John Hevesy has been with Mullen throughout his tenure at Mississippi State, so this is not his first rodeo. Hevesy always seems to figure out his five best players and puts them in the positions where they can play to their potential. Look for Martinas Rankin or Elgton Jenkins to start at center. Across the entire OL there is a lot of experience at guard, but right tackle remains a question mark.
- Senior wideout Donald Gray has averaged 17.7 yards per catch in his career and will be Fitzgerald’s most dangerous deep threat. Five of his seven career touchdowns have come on plays of 49+ yards and two of those were 70+ yards.
- TE Jordan Thomas, a JUCO transfer, weighs in at 295 lbs. on a 6-foot-5 frame. He will have the physical advantage in nearly every matchup he’ll see, so expect him to be another go-to receiver for Fitzgerald.
- Last but not least is sophomore wideout Keith Mixon. Mixon’s size at 5-foot-8, 175 lbs. is nothing to write home about, but his ability to elude defenders is. He will be seen in the return game, but most of his time will be in the slot receiver position. They call him “Pocket Rocket” for a reason.
New DC Todd Grantham
Mississippi State and Louisville swapped defensive coordinators at the end of the 2016 season. Last year was Peter Sirmon’s (now at Louisville) inaugural year of calling defenses. Todd Grantham (now at Mississippi State) is a veteran at calling defenses. Outside of the personality difference, Grantham brings some measure of a philosophical difference to the Bulldogs. He has a history of evaluating a player’s ability and determining where to put that guy in a package where he will be positioned to make a play. In other words, he strategizes in matchup advantages.
- Expect defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons to be even more disruptive than he was in his 12 games in 2016. Simmons was a five-star recruit and the No. 1 high school player in the state of Mississippi in 2015. The ceiling is very high for the true sophomore.
- While Leo Lewis navigates some obvious off-the-field distractions with the NCAA’s investigation of Ole Miss recruiting violations, he is nevertheless expected to have another big year at linebacker. In 2016, Lewis became Mississippi State’s first freshman All-American in the history of the program. He led all SEC freshman with 79 tackles last year; the next closest had 49.
- The addition of JUCO safety Johnathan Abram last December should help a secondary who gave up the most yards per game (281.5) in the SEC in 2016. His hard hitting ended Mississippi State’s spring game early. Johnathan Abram hit
True freshman Tucker Day was a highly touted punter coming out of high school. However, State fans should expect to see him kick field goals in 2017. The coaching staff has been pleased with his fall camp performance, noting both the ability to make longer field goals and overall consistency. NFL prospect Logan Cook has a strong leg and will handle punting and kickoff duties in his final season as a Bulldog.
Mississippi State’s schedule is gnarly, but that’s life in the SEC West. The Bulldogs will likely be 2-0 heading into Week 3 when they host LSU. If they find a way to beat the Tigers at home, State fans could reasonably expect eight (maybe even nine!) regular season wins. The worst-case scenario is a season record of 6-6 with a trip to Birmingham for a bowl game. All of that being said, expect the Bulldogs to go 8-4 with the potential to cause some chaos in the SEC West.