Preview 2017: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Previewing and looking ahead at the Mississippi State season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Mississippi State Offense
Explosive over the second half of the season – Alabama loss aside – the Bulldogs should be ready to blow up with eight starters returning led by a budding superstar at quarterback.
Nick Fitzgerald looks like a pro-style passer, but he’s most dangerous getting on the move. Now it’s about honing the passing skills a bit more to go along with the slippery running ability. Keeping him in one piece is a must with likely backup Keytaon Thompson – as good as he is – a true freshman.
The backs are in place to play a bigger role with a strong rotation in place, but they need the O line to come through. The front five will be a work in progress, but Fitzgerald is sharp enough and mobile enough to overcome a leaky line – at least for a little while.
Donald Gray should be the team’s most dangerous target again, but the rest of the receiving corps is a bit iffy. It’s going to need some time to get a few more weapons involved now that top No. 2 option Malik Dear has a torn ACL. Until then, the tight ends should play a bigger role.
Biggest Key To The Mississippi State Offense
A running back has to give Mr. Fitzgerald some more help. It’s great to have a quarterback who can dominate with his legs, but it’s not a plus when he’s the star of the show and he’s taking as many shots as Fitzgerald did. Aeris Williams ran the ball 137 times, and the backs did their part, but Fitzgerald can’t/shouldn’t run 195 times again.
Okay, okay, okay, Dak Prescott ran 210 times in 2014 and turned out fine, but the more help from the backs, the better. With the rotation the Bulldogs have, Williams and the rest of the backfield should take the pressure off.
What You Need To Know About The Mississippi State Defense
It’s the Todd Grantham show, as the new defensive coordinator will change some things up to crank up the production for a D that finished 110th in the nation, hurt mostly by a miserable pass defense.
Grantham’s 3-4 alignment has a strong-looking front three, starting with Jeffrey Simmons on the nose and enough talent around him to get creating. There will be plenty of 4-3 looks to get the best players on the field.
Richie Brown is gone from the linebacking corps, but Leo Lewis and J.T. Gray are star hitters with a little bit of versatility. Gray will see time as a hybrid safety, while Lewis should lead the team in tackles from his spot inside.
The secondary has the upside to be far better, especially if Gray really does stick as more of a defensive back. The corners are deep – there are options – and the safeties have tacklers in Mark McLaurin and Brandon Bryant, but still, the…
Biggest Key To The Mississippi State Defense
The secondary has to show up. The Bulldogs showed they could do just fine when the pass defense stunk – they game up 273 yards per game in the big 2014 season. Last season, though, was a problem when the rest of the team wasn’t as good, getting hit hard for 200 yards or more against everyone but BYU and allowing close to 282 yards per game.
There’s hope, though, with enough experience and enough pop to expect for a massive change that needs to happen right away with Louisiana Tech coming up in the second week.
Mississippi State Will Be Far Better If …
The special teams are a whole lot stronger. Westin Graves hit just 11-of-19 field goals, the punting game averaged under 39 yards per kick, the return games were awful and the punt coverage team was worse. Beyond that, everything else was fantastic. MSU isn’t good enough to crank up mediocre special teams.
Best Mississippi State Offensive Player
QB Nick Fitzgerald, Jr. – There’s no replacing Dak Prescott and what he brought to Mississippi State as a leader and star, but Fitzgerald is on the verge of coming awfully close – and he’s been even better in some ways.
At 6-5 and 230 pounds, he’s a big passer who threw for 2,423 yards and 21 scores, while rushing for a team-high 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. While he’s not the most accurate thrower, and he gave up ten picks, he cranked up eight 100-yard rushing games highlighted by a 258-yard effort against Ole Miss to become bowl eligible.
2. OT/C Martinas Rankin, Sr.
3. WR Donald Gray, Sr.
4. RB Aeris Williams, Jr.
5. RB Kylin Hill, Fr.
Best Mississippi State Defensive Player
LB/S J.T. Gray Sr. – Where is he going to play and what’s his role going to be? An undersized linebacker last year – for the most part – the 6-0, 197-pounder finished third on the team with 71 tackles and a sack with eight tackles for loss. Now he’ll be more of a hybrid type, working as both a safety and linebacker, depending on the alignment following a steady season with eight tackles five times. Leo Lewis might end up as the team’s leading tackler, but for what he needs to do in a variety of ways, Gray should be the more vital cog.
2. LB Leo Lewis, Soph.
3. DT Jeffery Simmons, Soph.
4. S Brandon Bryant, Jr.
5. DE Fletcher Adams, Soph.
Key Player To A Successful Season
QB Nick Fitzgerald, Jr. – There may be no more valuable player in college football. Yeah, he set a slew of records for total yards, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Bulldogs need to spread around the wealth a bit, but Fitzgerald is too good in all phases not to keep handling most of the O by himself. Considering he accounted for 3,798 of the team’s 5,723 yards, and the top backup option is a true freshman, if he goes down, there goes 2017.
The Mississippi State Season Will Be A Success If …
The Bulldogs comes up with eight wins. It’s not an easy slate, with five tough road games along with the Egg Bowl vs. Ole Miss, and Alabama game, and another tough battle against LSU. Last year, MSU struggled just to get to six wins – needing the break of getting into a bowl game on a technicality – but this time around, if it can beat Charleston Southern, BYU, Kentucky and UMass, all it’ll take is three more wins to get to seven. That might not be aiming a bit low for a team with higher expectations, but it’ll still take a few upsets to pull off a winning campaign.
Key Game To The Mississippi State Season
Sept. 16 vs. LSU – The SEC opener will show what kind of team Mississippi State is. Last year it battled the Tigers hard, but lost in a 23-20 fight. With road trips to Georgia and Auburn up next, and this the lone home oasis in a rough stretch of away dates, the Bulldogs need to pull this off to realistically have any shot at making any noise in the SEC West.
2016 Mississippi State Fun Stats
– 4th Down Conversions: Opponents 19-of-28 (68%) – Mississippi State 14-of-28 (50%)
– MSU was outscored in every quarter but the 3rd, outscoring opponents 110-82
– Punt Return Average: Opponents 14.8 yards – Mississippi State 4.0 yards