2018 SEASON PREVIEW — MISSISSIPPI STATE
2017 Win-Loss Record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC; won Gator Bowl)
2017 S&P+ Rankings: 28th (Overall), 63rd (Offense), 19th (Defense)
The Mississippi State Bulldogs prospered like never before under Dan Mullen. The program reached heights that would’ve been deemed unimaginable by many of those who know about college football. I mean, hey: They were #1 in the country in 2014! They got to the Orange Bowl! It’s incredible to still think about, and even those ensuing three seasons saw prosperity. They won three consecutive bowl games in the last three years, and stretching further back, they’ve gone to a bowl in eight straight seasons.
To put that into perspective, consider that before this stretch, State amounted eight bowl game appearances from 1981-2007. That includes a nine-year run where they didn’t sniff a bowl game from 1982-90. It is indisputable that Mississippi State has been enjoying the most success they’ve ever had in program history lately.
However, success does not come without consequence. The man who’s been in charge of guiding State to prosperity is now gone. Mullen agreed to become the new head coach of the Florida Gators this past offseason. He had spent his time as an offensive coordinator with the Gators before taking the job in Starkville, so it’s a reunion of sorts for him. State had to make sure that they hired the right guy to fill his shoes, and they may very well have.
New head coach Jim Moorhead may not have an FBS HC job under his belt, but what he does have is some pretty prominent years in State College behind him. Moorhead was the offensive coordinator for the Penn State Nittany Lions for the past couple seasons, and you should probably know how much success they’ve had, as well. PSU has had one of the best offenses in the country, led by the likes of Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, among others. Moorhead will now try to translate his success in the Big Ten to the SEC, and the offense he has around him may well give him ample opportunity to do so.
The aforementioned offense of the Bulldogs is quite loaded. They boast one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in Nick Fitzgerald. There’s senior running back Aeris Williams who’ll be sharing time with sophomore tailback Kylin Hill. A majority of the talent from a season ago in the receiving corp is back, as Deddrick Thomas, Jesse Jackson, Keith Mixon and Jamal Couch are all around. There’s tight ends Farrod Green and Justin Johnson, as well. Moorhead will have no shortage of high-end talent to work with, this much is certain.
It will be intriguing to see how Nick Fitzgerald rebounds. Fitzgerald, as you may remember, saw his season come to an end in the annual Egg Bowl, this after suffering an ankle injury. Keytaon Thompson did more than enough in limited time, but Fitz is the guy at State. He’s a dual-threat signal caller who has been known to be a playmaker both while throwing the ball and while tucking and running with it. He did hit a bit of a regression of sort from starring as a sophomore, but will likely have an uptick in Moorhead’s offense.
Someone else who may see their numbers balloon is running back Aeris Williams. He might not come to mind when discussing the best running backs in the SEC. But make no mistake, Williams is a talented back. He’s coming on the heels of a 1,000-yard season, piling up 1,107 yards on the ground as a junior. He scored six touchdowns and flashed some ability as a pass-catcher, pulling in 16 receptions a year ago. Moorhead utilized Saquon Barkley as both a runner and a pass-catcher, and Barkley, of course, flashed an innumerable amount of talent doing so. Expecting Williams to be utilized in that kind of role is probably expected. So you should see Aeris getting plenty of opportunities for plenty of touches this year.
There is a little bit of “mystery” when it comes to the receivers. Nobody in the receiving corp amassed more than 276 yards last season. The man who did that was wideout Jesse Jackson, who’s back for his senior season. Jackson didn’t even amass a TD reception, and State only piled up 19 receiving TDs on the year. That number should billow out this year with a healthy Fitzgerald and a new offensive system. But there’s certainly a bit of reason to be uncertain about the receivers and their playmaking abilities.
The Mississippi State offensive line is certainly one of the more experienced units out there. And that’s even without the presence of 2017 First Team All-SEC tackle Martinas Rankin, who’s now with the Houston Texans. Senior linemen Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins will be anchoring at guard and center. Fellow guard Darryl Williams, a junior, should also see plenty of playing time, as should sophomore tackle Stewart Reese. Who fills the void left by Rankin is yet to be seen, and who’s tabbed as the fifth O-Lineman is, too. It may likely be sophomore tackle Greg Eiland, but time will tell. Regardless, this is a stout unit that should provide protection for Fitzgerald and opportunity for Williams and Hill, among others.
In a conference that has prided itself on stout defense over the past decade+, Mississippi State will own that to a tee heading into this season with new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop at the helm.
As the great Bill Connelly wrote over on the dotcom, it’s fairly possible that State possesses the best defensive line in the country, unless you’re the Clemson Tigers. Taking a glance at the line, it’s easy to see why that statement can be made with pure sincerity. We can start by looking at the two premier players on the line. Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat were selected as Preseason All-SEC First Teamers by the coaches of the conference, and that thought is probably a lot more widespread.
Simmons racked up 12 TFL and 5.0 sacks a season ago. Sweat, meanwhile, is a former 3-star JUCO talent who landed at State. All he did was lead the team in TFL and sacks with 15.5 and 10.5, respectively. This dynamite duo will only look to improve, but they aren’t the only ones, either.
Defensive end Gerri Green was no slouch, himself. The soon-to-be senior picked up five sacks season ago and finished third in TFL with 11. He also had an interception to his name as well as three forced fumbles and pass breakups. To say that Green did a little bit of everything would be selling his efforts from 2017 short. Braxton Hoyett was also solid in spots, as the soon-to-be senior defensive tackle picked up 2.5 TFL and 21 tackles a season ago.
Dezmond Harris is gone, but the glut of linebackers the team had going into last year are all returning. That includes juniors Leo Lewis and Tim Washington and sophomores Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay Jr. The unit should be better on the whole with another year of experience under their belt, especially the sophomores in Thompson and Gay.
Ballhawking safety Mark McLaurin returns as a senior after a fantastic junior year. McLaurin reeled in a team-high six interceptions, and it should be noted that the rest of the secondary only amounted five... total. McLaurin should remain a threat at the back end of the defense and quarterbacks ought to beware throwing his way. Fellow safety Johnathan Abram was solid himself last year, amounting 57 tackles and five TFL, with two sacks to boot.
The team returns three of the five cornerbacks who played the most games a season ago in Cameron Dantzler, Jamal Peters and Chris Rayford. Peters and Rayford are seniors while Dantzler is heading into his sophomore season. Cameron was pretty stout a year ago, picking up 2 TFL and three PBU over the course of the season. They will have to shore themselves up in defending the pass though, as they were pretty shoddy in 2017.
|1||Stephen F. Austin|
|2||at Kansas State|
|13||at Ole Miss|
The Bulldogs will open up the season against Stephen F. Austin of the FCS. The Lumberjacks likely won’t present much of a threat to State, so Joe Moorhead likely won’t have to wait very long for his first victory as an FBS head coach. Then, the team will travel up to Manhattan, Kansas, “The Little Apple,” to play the Kansas State Wildcats. While KSU went 8-5 a season ago, their QB situation is a bit murky and the Wildcats have new coordinators that have to settle their way in. The same can’t really be said for Mississippi State, so they should pick up a road win.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns probably won’t pose much of a threat to State, either. The preseason S&P+ rankings had UL Lafayette at 121st out of 130, so the Sun Belt rep will almost surely be dusted by the Bulldogs. Thus, Mississippi State should be 3-0 heading into Lexington for their SEC opener against the Kentucky Wildcats. Their SEC slate starts with two winnable games against both the Wildcats and retooling Florida. It’s very possible that MSU is 5-0 heading into a titanic showdown against the Auburn Tigers.
It won’t get much easier even with a bye week afterward. State must head to Death Valley to play aforementioned LSU down in Baton Rouge. From there, it’s two home games against the Texas A&M Aggies and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (a return matchup in their home-and-home series) before the biggest game of the season. That, of course, being a trip to Tuscaloosa to face the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide on November 10. After that, they’ll round out the season against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and head to Oxford for their annual battle against the Ole Miss Rebels.
This is a bit of a tough slate as they don’t have the luxury of playing many of their premier opponents at home. The only one is against Auburn, but trips to Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa could very well end sourly. That doesn’t even include the trip to Oxford, which may turn wacky if they aren’t careful.
With that being said, Stephen F. Austin, K-State, UL, Kentucky, Florida, A&M, LaTech and Arkansas are all very beatable opponents for this MSU team. It will be the remaining quartet — Auburn, LSU, Alabama & Ole Miss — that really decides their season. A split would give them a 10-2 season, one that could vault them into a New Year’s Day bowl. Going 3-1 would put this team in New Year’s Six position, while inverting that would make a 10-win season in reach. But, of course, they’d have to win their bowl game to do it. And going undefeated? Well... hey, crazier things have happened, right?
On the whole, there’s really a lot to be enamored with when it comes to this MSU team. Their defense should be fierce, especially up front. The offense looks electric, although they’ll certainly need some help from their receivers this year. Fitzgerald and Williams are so dynamic though and should thrive in Moorhead’s offense. State hit it out of the park with their coaching hire and I would suspect that this turns out well for them this year.
Prediction: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)