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Opponent Preview - Mississippi State

There’s a new sheriff in town and some high expectations in Starkville in 2018.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Louisville vs Mississippi State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Our opponent preview continues today with the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

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For the first time in nine years, Dan Mullen won’t be scowling from the Mississippi State sidelines. The Bulldogs 2nd winningest coach packed his bags and moved to Gainesville after a disappointing end to the 2017 season. Mullen went an impressive 69-46 in his time in Starkville including one 10 win season that resulted in a trip to the Orange Bowl.

State went 9-4 in his final campaign including a big time win over Lamar Jackson’s Louisville Cardinals in the Gator Bowl but I have a feeling last season left a lot of Bulldog fans dreaming of what could have been. After getting thumped by Georgia and Auburn in back to back weeks, Mississippi State rallied to win four straight and took a lead over Alabama into the 4th quarter. However, they couldn’t hold it and Jalen Hurts hit DeVonta Smith for a 26 yard touchdown pass with only 44 seconds left in the game.

But the real gut punch came in the Egg Bowl when a 5-6 Ole Miss team knocked off the Bulldogs in Starkville thanks in large part to a nasty injury to Nick Fitzgerald. So while a 9-4 season ain’t a bad year at all by Mississippi State standards, losing to your hated rival while also feeling like you blew a chance at upsetting the #1 team in the country puts a bit of a damper on Mullen’s final year.

But Mississippi State fans are looking towards the future and rightfully so. While most SEC coaching searches were circuses or wild dumpster fires (looking at you Rocky Top), it took Mississippi State only a week to tab Penn State’s offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead as their new head honcho.

NCAA Football: Penn State Blue-White Game Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Moorhead basically saved James Franklin’s job when he arrived Happy Valley in 2016. Before Moorhead’s arrival, Penn State had put together back to back 7-6 seasons that ranked 112nd and 62nd in offensive S&P+. But the last two years the Nittany Lions have turned into one of the most explosive offenses on the planet and it’s helped James Franklin’s squad compile an impressive 22-5 record and capture a 2016 Big Ten Championship.

This also isn’t Moorhead’s first head coaching again. Before joining Franklin’s staff, Moorhead was shredding the FCS at Fordham. He went 6-5 in his first season as the Rams head coach in 2012 but went 32-8 over the next three years. So not only does he bring a proven offensive system but he brings leadership experience as well. No wonder there’s so much excitement this offseason in Starkville.

OFFENSE

Mullen did not leave the pantry bare when it comes to offensive talent. Moorhead inherits one of the most talented quarterbacks in the SEC in Nick Fitzgerald. The 6’5” 230 lb QB threw for 1,786 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for 984 yards and a team high 14 touchdowns. He did have 11 interceptions though and his numbers overall weren’t as good as his 2016 breakout season but there’s no doubt Fitzgerald is one of the more exciting players in the country heading in 2018. He suffered an awful leg injury in the Egg Bowl but should be good to go come kickoff. The big question though is who does he throw to?

The Bulldogs leading receiver last season was Jesse Jackson who caught 27 passes for 276 yards. Yikes. Injuries played a big role in some of the WR struggles but overall this group was just not great last year. The good news for State is they signed two very talented WR prospects in their 2018 class in 4* Devonta Jason and JUCO 4* Stephen Guidry. However, the jewel of their class, 4* Malik Heath, did not qualify and will be taking the JUCO route this fall. Still, Jason and Guidry could give this WR core the boost it needs in 2018 to be more effective.

Running back is a different story. Mississippi State’s leading rusher Aeris Williams returns after rushing for 1,107 yards and 6 touchdowns last year. The Bulldogs also return their #2 back, Kylin Hill, who looks like a guy poised to have a breakout campaign in 2018. Moorhead turned Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley into one of the most unstoppable duos in the country last year. Could he do the same with Fitzgerald/Williams?

Up front, the Bulldogs lose their stud left tackle Martinas Rankin but return everybody else. That returning experience up front coupled with the Bulldogs returning their star QB, leading rusher and almost their whole receiving corps is a big reason why State is the sexy darkhorse pick of the SEC West this offseason.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

DEFENSE

Moorhead’s most interesting hire this offseason was grabbing former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Before his stint at Rocky Top, Shoop was considered one of the top defensive minds in the country. He worked with James Franklin at both Vanderbilt and Penn State, producing some stout defenses known for being aggressive and stuffing the run.

However, he did not find similar success at Tennessee. The Volunteers ranked 68th in Defensive S&P+ last season and gave up over 40 points FIVE times last year. Injuries no doubt played a role along with the fact that Butch Jones coached teams in Knoxville were allergic to playing good football. Shoop will hope to capture some of his pre Tennessee magic next season and he’s been left plenty of talent to do just that.

That talent starts up front. The Bulldogs return one of best defensive lines in the SEC next year including Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons and Gerri Green. The trio combined for 28.5 TFL and 20.5 sacks last season. State also return key pieces in Cory Thomas, Braxton Hoyett and Kobe Jones who all saw action last year as well. A name to keep an eye on is Chauncey Rivers. He originally signed with Georgia out of high school before being dismissed due to multiple marijuana charges. He was expected to play a big role in Todd Grantham’s defense last year but the day before the start of last season he learned that he was ineligible for the 2017 due to an academic issue. Rivers should be good to go this year and could provide another pass rushing threat on the outside.

The Bulldogs return plenty of talent at linebacker too in 2018. The infamous Leo Lewis returns along with Erroll Thompson as State’s likely starting linebackers. Both tallied 46 tackles last year and will be counted on to play a lot of snaps this season. The former #70 ranked player in the country, Willie Gay, got some playing time last season as a true freshman but will probably be asked to do more in 2018. He’s got plenty of talent and could be a breakout candidate in 2018 for Shoop’s unit.

Mississippi State could have a sneaky good secondary in 2018 especially at safety. The Bulldogs’ top two tacklers from last season return at safety. Mark McLaurin lead the team in tackles (79) and interceptions (6) last season. His partner in crime, Jonathan Abram, was 2nd on the team in tackles (72) while also being disruptive behind the line of scrimmage with 5.0 TFL. Cornerback is a bit more of a tossup right now but keep an eye on Jamal Peters. The 6’2” 220 lb senior has an NFL frame and flashed some big time potential last year.

Shoop will be Mississippi State’s 7th defensive coordinator in 10 years. Understandably, that type of turnover has resulted in up & down performances for this unit over the past decade. But last year Todd Grantham laid a solid foundation for the Bulldogs to build on. Shoop has produced some talented defensive units in the past and I have a feeling you will see more of that in the future now that he’s no longer working with Butch Jones.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

MATCHUP WITH AUBURN

From 2012-2015, Mississippi State went 3-1 vs the Tigers which is one of the best runs they’ve had against Auburn since winning 4 straight from 1997-2000. But the last two meetings have been bloodbaths. In 2016, Kamryn Pettway had his coming out party as the Tigers thrashed the Bulldogs in Davis Wade Stadium 38-14. It was even worse in Jordan-Hare last year where the Tigers put a 49-10 beatdown on the Bulldogs, crushing any hopes of them being a true SEC contender in 2017. So while I expect the Bulldogs to be a tough out in 2018, they are going to have to figure some things out if they hope to knock the Tigers off in 2018.

Nick Fitzgerald has struggled against Auburn’s front 7 the last two seasons going only 20-67 (29.9%) for 338 yards 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, one going for a TD last year. In fact, Auburn has scored a defensive touchdown in the last two meetings. If State is going to win in 2018 they need their star QB to raise his game this season but he’s going to need some help too. On the defensive side of the ball, State is going to have to find an answer for Auburn’s rushing attack. Both Pettway and Kerryon Johnson rushed for 100+ yards and 3 TDs against State the last two seasons. That success on the ground allowed Auburn to be very efficient through the air with Sean White and Jarrett Stidham combining to throw for 468 yards on only 34 attempts and 3 touchdowns.

Personally, I think Mississippi State made the strongest hire of the offseason and are my pick to finish 3rd in the SEC West. I think they could have one of the most explosive offenses in the SEC next season and I expect a much closer contest between these two schools in 2018. But until Fitzgerald proves he can make big time throws against big time defenses and until the Bulldogs defense shows it can slow down Auburn’s offense, I have a hard time seeing Mississippi State pull this game off. However, if they can, they will set themselves up for a potential SEC West title clash later in the season against Alabama. With the veteran talent and outstanding coaching this team possesses, I expect the Mississippi State Bulldogs to be a team to reckon with in 2018.