And here comes the regression to the mean.
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
It’s not that Mississippi State is going to be bad by any stretch – head coach Dan Mullen has built up the talent level and the program to a consistently solid level – but the program resides in the SEC West. It’s the place where good teams go to die, and the Bulldogs are about to show just how tough life really is in college football’s toughest division.
It’s not like it’s total doom and gloom time, but 2014 was when it was all supposed to come together with the depth, talent and schedule in place to put together a big season. It was the cowbell’s turn after so many years of being just okay, and they came closer than you might think to being in the playoff.
At the very least, had the Bulldogs beaten Ole Miss – instead of losing 31-17 in Oxford – they would’ve had a terrific argument for getting in.
As we now know, the playoff committee valued conference champions over everyone and everything else, but if it was simply going on resume, had MSU won the Egg Bowl, it would’ve finished the season 11-1 in the greatest regular season for any division in the history of college football. The one loss was a totally acceptable 25-20 fight at Alabama, and with wins at LSU – and Ole Miss in this scenario – along with victories over Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas at home, it would’ve been a good fight.
This season, though, all those key wins last year are going to be far, far tougher to get. Auburn and LSU have improved, Arkansas should be this year’s Mississippi State, and there’s even a road trip to Missouri to throw into the mix.
The worst part is the rebuilding side. Last year’s team was loaded with veterans returning 16 starters and 57 lettermen. But six of the key senior starters, along with star junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney, are gone from a D that was suspect at times and gave up way too many passing yards. QB Dak Prescott is back to lead the offense, but seven starters are gone off that side, too.
So the trick for Mullen won’t be just to try replacing all the key parts, it’ll be trying to do that while everyone else has been building and reloading.
Can Mississippi State be one of those teams that can simply reload? Can it thrive on being the underdog again? No one will pick MSU to win the West, and it’s not a stretch to think this might be the preseason No. 7 in a seven-team division.
Despite losing three of its last four games, the program took advantage of its chance to do really, really big things. Now it has to take advantage of being under-the-radar again.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: While there’s rebuilding to be done, the offense that scored 35 points or more eight times should keep on rolling. It’s all up to the shuffling on the line that should be fine with a little bit of time, but needs to quickly develop the depth. Dak Prescott will once again be the steadying force as the leader and playmaker to work everything around, and he gets back his two top targets in De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross. The backfield lost Josh Robinson early to the NFL, but it’ll be more than fine with three excellent runners to work around to help out Prescott.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: The Bulldogs were strong against the run, great at getting into the backfield, and struggled mightily against the pass. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has a ton of work to do from a D that loses seven starters and needs help developing the depth. The line should be fine in time needing Chris Jones to rise up and shine in a full-time role with Ryan Brown a good pass rusher next to him. Even after losing Benardrick McKinney, the linebacking corps should be okay with Richie Brown ready to take over in the middle next to Beniquez Brown. Can the secondary be better after finishing 114th in the nation? It’ll have to shine with a lesser pass rush and without two key starters.
What to watch for on offense: How quickly can the line rebuild? For all the doom and gloom that’ll be out there about Mississippi State likely taking a big step back, it has – arguably – the league’s best quarterback, a terrific group of returning receivers, and more than enough talent at running back to make up for the loss of Josh Robinson. What it doesn’t have is the right combination up front, much less the depth for a steady rotation. Even with all of the losses on defense, this is the team’s biggest issue after dominating for parts of last season with the ground game. There are plenty of moving parts with Jamaal Clayborn trying to go from backup guard to center, Rufus Warren likely stepping in at left tackle and Devon Desper trying out at right guard to fill the holes. The starting five should be okay, but it just might take a little while for it all to click. MSU has one game vs. Southern Miss before it has to be ready for LSU.
What to watch for on defense: Can the pressure turn into more production? Former defensive coordinator Geoff Collins enjoyed a very deep, very experienced group last season that could attack, attack and attack some more in the backfield. However, opposing offenses were able to bomb away at will and hit on the big play without a problem. New coordinator Manny Diaz has to try getting more out of his pass defense while also keeping the same aggressiveness. The 37 sacks and 85 tackles for loss were all good, but they have to lead to more after finishing 84th in the nation in total defense and 114th in passing D.
The team will be far better if … there aren’t any misfires in the red zone. The defense made up for its issues by absolutely owning the final 20 yards, leading the nation in red zone D with teams scoring just 64% of the time. The MSU offense was effective after struggling in the red zone in the opener against Southern Miss – winning 49-0 despite scoring just one of four times. The rest of the way, the Bulldogs converted fewer than 75% of the time just twice – Alabama and Ole Miss – losing to the Crimson Tide by five after coming away empty twice and by 14 to the Rebels going 1-of-3. This year’s team can’t miss on any chances.
The schedule: The Bulldogs will know where they stand early on in the SEC West with LSU, at Auburn and at Texas A&M by October 3rd. Go 2-1 against those three, and they’ll be in the mix for big things over the second half of the season. The back-to-back games against Auburn and A&M will make or break the season.
– The games against Kentucky and at Missouri from the East aren’t all that bad considering the date with the two-time defending East champ – Mizzou – comes after a week off.
– The non-conference schedule is a nice and breezy. Louisiana Tech might be solid, but going to Southern Miss is no big deal, and Northwestern State and Troy are layups.
– With three straight home games in the middle of the season, and the Alabama game at home, MSU goes from October 10th to November 21st with just one road game – at Missouri.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The brutal finishing kick. Going to Missouri and Arkansas, wrapped around the Alabama game, won’t be easy before closing out with Ole Miss.
Best offensive player: Senior QB Dak Prescott. He’s an NFL quarterback prospect like Tim Tebow is an NFL quarterback prospect, but can he be that type of college player and carry the team on his back? Last season, Prescott was the leader of a veteran group that was able to crank up the production time and time again. This season he’ll have to try to stay in one piece, will have to be an even sharper passer, and has to make everyone around him even better. The Heisman is way too lofty a goal considering the team that’s returning, but if MSU surprises everyone and is great, Prescott will be the reason.
Best defensive player: Junior DT Chris Jones. Call this a projection considering the talent to go along with now having enough experience to live up to his immense hype. Versatile enough to play inside or out, he needs to be the star up front he was projected to be as a top high school prospect. Young LB Richie Brown is about to be a star, and corner Taveze Calhoun should turn into one of the SEC’s better defensive backs, but the rebuilding is going to have to center around the 6-5, 308-pounder up front.
Key player to a successful season: Senior OT Rufus Warren. The former tight end has the athleticism, and he has the bulk getting up to 295 pounds on his 6-7 frame. A right tackle throughout last season, he’s being tried out on the left side in place of Blaine Causell as the guy who has to keep Dak Prescott in one piece. If he works out, the rest of the pieces up front should fall into place – although there will be some scrambling if Jamaal Clayborn struggles at center in place of Dillon Day. If Warren has problems, then right tackle Justin Senior will have to move over. No matter what, write the preseason offensive line depth chart in pencil.
The season will be a success if … Mississippi State wins nine games. This might be a huge stretch with four nasty SEC road games to go along with home dates against LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss, and it’ll take a bowl win to get that ninth win, but it would be a huge statement for Dan Mullen’s program if it could just be one game worse in a massive rebuilding year. This is more like a seven-win team, so anything more than that would be gravy.
Key game: Sept. 12 vs. LSU. Mississippi State, do you want to show the world early on that 2014 wasn’t a fluke? Do you want to set the early tone? Last year’s win over LSU in Death Valley was the true jumping off point to the great season, but this year a win might simply be for survival. Lose this home game, and then the Bulldogs have to try rallying in SEC play on the road at Auburn and Texas A&M. Win it, and with a slew of winnable games following the two-game road trip, MSU could, be looking at 6-2 – or 7-1 with a split of the Tigers and Aggies – before going to Mizzou.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Red Zone Scores: Miss State 50-of-61 (82%) – Opponents 28-of-44 (64%)
– 1st Quarter Scoring: Miss State 106 – Opponents 49
– Sacks: Miss State 37 for 225 yards – Opponents 23 for 148 yards
Players You Need To Know
1. QB Dak Prescott, Sr.
The hope was for Prescott to be ready to take his game to a whole other level as a junior, and he did that and more. It’s not like he was bad in 2013, taking over the gig and becoming too good to keep off the field as he grew into a sharper, stronger passer to go along with his rushing skills. And then the 6-2, 230-pounder grabbed the leadership role by the horns as the exact type of Face of the Program guy that Mississippi State needed. A great athlete, he was wanted by other SEC schools, but not necessarily as a quarterback. MSU gave him the chance to be one, and he turned into a Heisman-caliber performer.
There was some thought that he might turn pro early, but his throwing motion needs a ton of work and he’s not an NFL passer – he’s more of a do-it-all type of playmaker who’ll do whatever is needed to keep the offense moving. There was some question mark about his accuracy, and he hit 62% of his passes for 3,449 yards and 27 touchdowns with 11 picks. A blaster of a runner with good enough speed to come up big in the open field, he ran for 986 yards and 14 touchdowns averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He even caught two passes for 35 yards and a score. He carried the ball less and less over the second half of the season – partly because of the SEC slate and partly for self-preservation – and he ramped up the passing running for 200 yards or more in every game buy the blowout win over Vandy. With so many key parts missing on both sides of the ball, this year he’ll do even more for the offense and the school.
2. WR De’Runnya Wilson, Jr.
Very, very big and very, very talented, Wilson grew into Dak Prescott’s No. 1 target catching 47 passes for 680 yards and nine touchdowns. The 6-5, 225-pounder was good throughout the season before rolling over the final few games hitting the 100-yard mark against Ole Miss and Georgia Tech with 17 catches and three scores in the two games. The Birmingham native was an interesting recruit partly because he could’ve played college basketball, leading his high school team to the Alabama state championship. Now he brings that athleticism and skill to the field.
3. DT Chris Jones, Jr.
The nation’s second-ranked defensive end prospect and a phenomenal get for the program three years ago, he showed off right away what all the fuss was about with 32 tackles, three sacks and seven tackles for loss with a team-leading ten quarterback hurries as a true freshman. Last year he was okay, but he didn’t blow up as expected with 26 tackles and three sacks as part of the rotation. This year, though, he has to make the line his. An elite athlete who flies off the snap in a blur, he might need some polish, but he bulked up in a big way to get up to 308 pounds on his 6-5 frame. He has rare skills with NFL upside, and now he can show it off working inside or out. Wanted by everyone including all of the top SEC schools, he’s one of the nation’s most promising interior pass rushers and can hold up well against the run.
4. LB Beniquez Brown, Jr.
The veteran of a rebuilding linebacking corps, the 6-1, 235-pound Brown did a nice job on the outside next to Benardrick McKinney doing a little of everything making 62 tackles and two picks. Also a good pass rusher and player behind the line, he came up with two sacks and seven tackles for loss doing a decent job of being steady all season long. A big, athletic hitter who can do a little of everything, the former high school running back can really move and really get around, finishing second on the team in stops. Can he grow into an all-star as well as a statistical star? He might need to.
5. CB Taveze Calhoun, Sr.
A great tackler, the corner finished fourth on the team with 53 tackles with nine broken up passes doing a wonderful job in the open field and holding up well against the run. At 6-1 and 184 pounds, he’s built like a safety and can hit like one, but he’s an athletic and smart corner, earning academic all-star honors in each of his three years so far. He might not be a true blazer, but he’s fast enough and has the size to beat up SEC receivers.
6. LB Richie Brown, Jr.
Is it possible to possibly fill in for Benardrick McKinney? No, Richie Brown isn’t going to be the same leader and star, but he’s a very smart, very talented option who appears ready to take over the gig on the inside. At 6-2 and 235 pounds, he has the right size and has earned his stripes with a good first two seasons in the mix. With the talent to produce big numbers in a full-time role, he was a Parade All-American and top recruit for the program who finished sixth on the team with 50 tackles and three picks despite mostly working as a backup. Expect massive numbers.
7. DE Ryan Brown, Sr.
At 6-6 and 262 pounds, Brown is a big, long end who holds the honor of being the only returning starter. He’s not all that fast off the ball, but he’s a good all-around athlete who’s more of a tough end against the run than a pure pass rusher. He came up with 39 tackles with 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in a steady year. He’s a smart, tough lineman who might not be the type of defender to build around, but he can hold his own.
8. WR Fred Ross, Jr.
The big veteran speedster saw a little time as a punt returner and ended up second on the team in receiving yards coming up with 30 catches for 489 yards and five scores, averaging 16.3 yards per grab. Great at making things happen with the ball in his hands, he came up with 107 yards against Arkansas and 102 more against Georgia Tech – he wasn’t steady, but he was explosive. He has the right size and the quickness to be terrific with a bigger role.
9. PK Evan Sobiesk, Jr.
While he didn’t show off a huge leg, he was a big reason why the Bulldogs were so great in the red zone. He tops out at around 45 yards – that was his long last season, but he was terrific once he grabbed ahold of the gig. Granted, six of his field goals were under 30 yards, but he cleaned them up hitting 12-of-14 chances.
10. RB Ashton Shumpert, Jr.
The Bulldogs have plenty of options ready to rise up and take over for Josh Robinson. Aeris Williams might be the most talented option on the lot, Brandon Holloway is a smallish scooter, and Shumpert is a big 6-2, 218-pound thumper who can hit and hit some more. Great in pass protection and with the hands to come up with a few big plays here and there in the passing game, he ran for 274 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 18 yards. He has the workhorse ability to be the grinder in the tough SEC games.