1. Mike Leach, Year 1. By now, we know how Leach operates in more ways than one. How do you see things going in 2020, and do you think, on a broader scale, his system has a shot of working in the SEC in the future?
Andrew Spanel: I think it’ll be a bumpy ride highlighted by contradictions. On offense, Leach has a quarterback who can sling the football along with a great running back in Kylin Hill, but the offensive line will need to be tweaked and there hasn’t been much time to practice in the offseason. On defense, Leach has never put much emphasis on that side of the ball, but he does bring in a highly touted coordinator in Zach Arnett and has more talent on D than ever before.
Looking at the big picture, I find Leach to be an interesting case. He has a lot of experience, but I’m not sure if his air raid style of offense will translate that well to the SEC. Even the most pass heavy teams in the conference still can run the ball. His repeated losses in the Apple Cup also suggest that he has a limited ceiling. A dozen years ago, guys like him were on the cutting edge of college football, but Mississippi State might be his last major stop.
Erik Mauro: I think Leach’s system will be a different look in the SEC. It’s hard to prepare for when you only have a week. The SEC will present a challenge for Leach in that it’s the only conference he’s ever been in that plays defense. Mississippi State is one of those programs that has to be “different” in order to win. They did it with Dan Mullen. At that time, a lot of teams weren’t running the spread, and it worked for him for years. Leach is also different offensively. It’s not a standard air raid, he has a lot of motions and crossing routes with screens and basically guys just find open spots in the defense. It will be fun to see how defenses adapt to the attack, because Leach won’t change.
Julian Mitchell: I think 2020 will be rough as the offense adjusts to this new system, but they will score at times because it’s simply hard not to with an air raid scheme. In terms of how it will work in Leach’s entire tenure, I think it actually could mirror his two seasons as offensive coordinator at Kentucky under another air raid OG, Hal Mumme. Of course the conference has evolved from how it looked in 1997 and 98, but I honestly could see games playing out the same way. UK won 12 games in those two seasons because they lit up the scoreboard, but were still bullied by the Floridas, Georgias and Tennessees. Teams with better athletes can just man up to stifle the passing attack. An air raid isn’t as foreign now as it was in the 20th century. With less emphasis being put on defending, I can see his defenses getting shredded by the more athletic offenses. Plain and simple. Hopefully he realizes there’s not as many ground and pound teams in the SEC as there used to be.
2. Kylin Hill is the team’s best offensive player and, perhaps depending on your opinion of one Erroll Thompson, the team’s best player in general. What do you expect out of Hill in his senior season in Starkville?
Andrew Spanel: Actually, I don’t have as high expectations about him as some people might have. Although Hill is used to working out of spread formations, his success under former coach Joe Moorhead’s offense was the use of the read option with the quarterback. Whether that was Tommy Stevens or Nick Fitzgerald, at least they could keep defenses guessing. KJ Costello is just not that guy. He’s a pure passer, which is what Leach wants, while most running backs have been little more than an afterthought under Leach’s system. That said, he can’t afford to forget about Hill.
Erik Mauro: It’s hard to gauge how Kylin Hill will do in an air raid. Leach has never really used running backs. Not everybody is Max Borghi at Washington State. However, Hill’s production has increased every year, with 393 yards, 734, and then 1350 last year with 10 TDs. He also has 394 yards receiving in his career with five touchdowns. With a new coach coming in, Leach should rely on his experienced players for the first year before his players get into the program. Leach needs to use Hill out of the backfield, and my hunch is that he will.
Julian Mitchell: Hill will still be effective in a “palate cleanser” role in between all the passing. He’s too dynamic not to. Also, he will be one to let his voice be hard if he feels he isn’t getting enough touches. He could creep close to 1000 yards again.
3. KJ Costello was brought in as a grad transfer to be at QB. But Garrett Shrader did have plenty of reps last season. Who finishes the season with more starts in your opinion?
Andrew Spanel: Well, Shrader has been moved to receiver now, so I’m going to say Costello. But even if Shrader was still at quarterback, I’d take Costello. He’s the kind of “traditional” NFL QB who can improve his draft stock this season.
Julian Mitchell: Costello is Leach’s guy.
4. Mississippi State’s defense took some steps back last season, finishing as one of the worst pass defenses in America and they were none too better against the ground. There’s plenty of experience on this team, but can they turn it around this year?
Andrew Spanel: I think it’ll be somewhat the same again this season. The secondary will still be young and I’m not sure they can get enough pressure up front. Errol Thompson will likely have a lot of responsibility on D.
Julian Mitchell: The defense will definitely be the more polished side of the ball unless there are major scheme changes, but I’m still worried about the personnel and can’t really pinpoint a breakout player.
5. What is your prediction for State in 2020?
Andrew Spanel: 4-6
Julian Mitchell: 3-7