Previews 2019: Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M

Jul 18, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Joe Moorhead speaks to the media during SEC football media day at College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Projected record: 7-5; 3-5 (UA, AU, LSU, UT, TAM) and 5th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 6 (FL, WR, C, RG, RT, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 3 (WLB, MLB, RCB)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Av
RB: Fr LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Fr
OL: Vg ST: Av

Offense – what’s to like: The offensive line has been a strong suit for Mississippi State for years, going well back into Dan Mullen’s time here, and nothing is different this time out. The Bulldogs ranked 20th in rushing offense, much of it due to the inside push the five guys up front got. The move of Greg Eiland from left tackle to right tackle is expected to pay instant dividends. The only real question here is whether Tyre Phillips can handle left tackle for a full season.

The quarterback position has real competition now that Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens has joined junior Keytaon Thompson. MSU also has fine depth behind them, even if it is a bit young. This could quietly be one of the best QB depth charts in the conference if Stevens works out at the top of it. Both Stevens and Thompson are big bodies, but Stevens just looks the part, and Joe Moorhead recruited him heavily while Penn State’s offensive coordinator.

Offense – potential pitfalls: The running back group has been decent but not electric recently, and that continues as Kylin Hill will finally have the starting job to himself now that Aeris Williams is gone. Nick Gibson is an OK backup but there isn’t a lot of depth here, plus the signing class didn’t produce anyone really deemed game-ready as a true freshman. A bright spot is Hill’s abilities as a pass receiver.

The wide receivers have been flatly terrible for years here. Mississippi State ranked 112th in passing offense in 2018 largely because the receivers were just taking up jersey space. Rating this group “average” is pushing it and is basically on the strength of the returning experience, coupled with a scattered moments of brilliance from Osirus Mitchell and Stephen Guidry. Guidry, in particular, has always seemed to be the guy waiting to break out, but hasn’t yet. Tight end Farrod Green was expected to be a key component last year and regressed. There’s a lot here to fix.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: Experience at linebacker is solid but Mississippi State didn’t always get the production they wanted from this unit in 2018, particularly against the pass. Still, the Bulldogs were 2nd nationally against the run and they will be tough against run-first teams. Erroll Thompson, Willie Gay and Leo Lewis, along with Tim Washington, will make the entire defense go – or it simply will not.

Cornerback Cameron Dantzler has the potentia to be elite. With his 6’2”, 185-pound size, even the largest wide receivers won’t be able to physically dominate him. On special teams, PK Jace Christmann had a solid 2018 and is expected to get better.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: The defensive line was laid low by graduation and the NFL Draft. Only one holdover, DE Chauncey Rivers, really excites people up front. The rest of the line will be made up of mostly veteran role players now shoved into the limelight. A lot is going to be asked of Kendell Jones and Lee Autry inside. Marquiss Spencer led the competition at left end coming out of spring, but it’s not locked down yet.

It will be interesting to see whether MSU deviates from its base 4-2-5 to allow its experience at linebacker to get more field time. Like the defensive line and Rivers, Dantzler is the only DB that looks like he has star ability. Off-corner Maurice Smitherman will be solid, but the safety group is largely untested. For whatever reason, Mississippi State seems to have more trouble than most SEC teams when wholesale change brings up full platoons of new players. As for the special teams, a general lack of athletes doomed both return and coverage teams, plus punter Tucker Day needs to improve greatly.

Final analysis: This is the most blue-collar team in the SEC and results are going to mimic its construction. The defense almost has no choice other than to step back, which makes the passing ability of Stevens even that much more important. MSU finished 68th in scoring offense in 2018 and if they repeat that performance, the Bulldogs might not get bowl-eligible. The schedule isn’t terrible, but there is quality near the top of it and if the Bulldogs are slow to advance with new players, it could be a long season.


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