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Sneak Peek: The Mississippi State Bulldogs

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The Pirate is in the SEC

Washington State v Oregon Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be taking a quick look at every Auburn opponent on the 2020 schedule.

2019 Record: 6-7 (3-5)

2020 Signing Class: 28th (10th SEC)

Head Coach: Mike Leach (1st Season)

Key Departures:

  • QB Tommy Stevens - 97/161 (60.2%) 1,155 yds 11 TD 5 INT 83 carries 381 yds 4.6 avg 4 TD
  • WR Deddrick Thomas - 30 rec 401 yds 13.4 avg 2 TD
  • WR Stephen Guidry - 30 rec 387 yds 12.9 avg 5 TD
  • OL Stewart Reese - 37 game starter (Transferred to Florida
  • DE Chauncey Rivers - 43 tackles 8.0 TFL 5.0 sacks 2 PBU FF
  • DT Fabien Lovett - 19 tackles 2.5 TFL sack (Transferred to FSU)
  • LB Leo Lewis - 65 tackles 5.5 TFL sack 3 PBU 2 FR FF
  • CB Cam Dantzler - 40 tackles 2.0 TFL 0.5 sacks 2 INT 8 PBU FR FR
  • CB Jarian Jones - 12 tackles 2 PBU FR (Transferred to FSU)
  • S Jaquarius Landrews - 77 tackles 0.5 TFL INT 8 PBU
  • S Brian Cole - 67 tackles 7.5 TFL 2.0 sacks INT 2 PBU 2 FR FF

Key Returners:

  • QB K.J. Costello (GS) - 269/413 (65.1%) 3,540 yds 29 TD 11 INT
  • QB Garrett Shrader (So) - 88/153 (57.5%) 1,170 yds 8 TD 5 INT 113 carries 587 yds 5.2 avg 6 TD
  • RB Kylin Hill (Sr) - 242 carries 1,350 yds 5.6 avg 10 TD 18 rec 180 yds 10.0 avg TD
  • WR Osirus Mitchell (Sr) - 29 rec 430 yds 14.8 avg 6 TD
  • DE Kobe Jones (Sr) - 30 tackles 7.0 TFL 4.0 sacks
  • DL Nathan Pickering (So) - 30 tackles 7.0 TFL 4.0 sacks
  • LB Erroll Thompson (Sr) - 84 tackles 3.5 TFL 0.5 sacks 2 PBU FR FF

Preview

Your school has not technically started a coaching search until Mike Leach is linked to it. Over the past few years, it seemed every single major head coaching opportunity that came available included the Pirate amongst its top candidates. There was even major smoke that Tennessee had closed the deal but the AD at the time was fired before it could be completed and Phillip Fulmer chose Jeremy Pruitt instead. But this offseason it finally happened. Mike Leach is now in the SEC.

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for Leach to make waves. In attempt at making a joke about his wife being stuck at home with him for an extended period of time due to COVID-19, Leach tweeted out an image of a woman making a noose. Turns out that type of imagery isn’t a great look for someone as the new head coach at a school in the state of Mississippi. That tweet was used as the impetus for starting defensive tackle Fabian Lovett to transfer away. Later, Jones joined him in the portal and both landed in Tallahassee.

Interestingly, they wanted to transfer to Ole Miss with Jones even tweeting his commitment to the Rebels at one point. However, the move was nixed reportedly due to concerns over tampering. It should be noted that two former State coaches are now on the Ole Miss staff and both happen to be the players former position coaches.

No rivalry does a better job of just flat out hating each other like those two Mississippi schools.

However, arguably the most important transfer for State this offseason is not who left Starkville but who decided to transfer in. Leach’s Air Raid system is predicated on having quick trigger man at QB who operates best throwing the ball 40+ times a game. That man is not Garrett Shrader who was forced into starting action last season where he showed the ability to hurt defenses with his legs but threw some absolute ducks from the pocket. That’s why Leach’s signing of K.J. Costello is so important.

Costello started for Stanford in 2017, 2018 and the start of 2019 before a leg injury sidelined him for the year. He was incredibly productive in 2018 throwing for over 3,500 yards while posting a QB rating of 155. He will have the opportunity to put up video game numbers under Leach while allowing Shrader to redshirt and develop more as a passer. This State team was in danger of winning maybe 1 conference game in 2020 before landing Costello in my pretend expert opinion. Probably the most important offseason pickup in the conference.

The other major win for Mississippi State this offseason was the return of Kylin Hill. A thousand yard rusher in 2019, Hill elected to return to Starville for one more season instead of taking his talents to the NFL. Under Leach, he will have a chance to demonstrate his ability as a pass protector and receiver both of which are highly valued skills for RBs in the NFL these days.

Even with Costello and Hill in Mississippi State’s backfield, I am very skeptical Mississippi State’s offense will be any good this fall. Three of the Bulldogs top four receivers are gone. Osirus Mitchell is the lone returner and while he has a nice skillset he’s far from a proven commodity in the SEC. Two other offseason additions in Alabama transfer Tyrell Shavers and JUCO signee Malik Heath should give the Bulldogs a boost at wideout but this is a major question mark for Leach’s offense hading into 2020.

Just two years ago, Mississippi State had the #1 defense in the country per SP+. But pretty much every major contributor to that unit over the past two seasons is gone. Plus Mississippi State is breaking in a new defensive scheme. Long time San Diego State assistant Zach Arnett is set to bring Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 scheme to Starkville. That’s not going to be an easy transition considering the lack of spring ball. Even more so considering the amount of talent that has departed.

The good news is Mississippi State has recruited well at defensive line in recent cycles. Starter Kobe Jones returns a long with a host of talented youngsters. Nathan Pickering, a former top 100 prospect in the 2019 class, looks set to have a breakout sophomore campaign. He was 3rd on the team in sacks despite only seeing a limited number of snaps last fall.

At the 2nd level of Arnett’s defense, Mississippi State returns their leading tackler from 2019 in Erroll Thompson. The Alabama native will have a chance to shine in this new 3-3-5 system though there are questions about who will play beside him. In the secondary, a bunch of new faces are expected to step up with the departures of Cam Dantzler, Jarian Jones, Jaquarius Landrews and Brian Cole.

I don’t think Mississippi State will be very good in 2020. They could surprise me especially if Costello lives up to the hype and some of these new WR additions prove to be impact players. But State is undergoing some major scheme restructures on both sides of the ball and doing so without the benefit of spring practice. Throw in the amount of proven production that is no longer on the roster, it’s just hard to image the Bulldogs being all that scary this fall. However, I got a feeling this trip to Starkville is going to be MUCH more concerning in 2022 when Leach has had time to restructure this roster to his liking. No matter what though Mississippi State will at least be interesting to watch this fall with the Pirate walking the sidelines.

War Eagle!