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Season Preview: Mississippi State

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2022 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

2022 SEC Season Preview: Mississippi State
Head Coach: Mike Leach – third season at Mississippi State; 21st season overall (7-11 SEC, 150-103 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Leach
Defensive Coordinator: Zach Arnett (third season)
2021 Recap: 7-6 (4-4 SEC); lost to Texas Tech in Liberty Bowl
2021 was the usual Mike Leach mixed bag of highs and lows, topped by a road upset of Texas A&M and a comeback win from 28-3 down at Auburn. There were some duds, however, including a 49-9 defeat to Alabama, a bad loss to Memphis, and a 34-7 no-show in the bowl game. Sophomore Will Rogers topped 500 completions on the season to set a school record, while coordinator Zach Arnett again succeeded in the difficult task of pairing a defense with a Leach offense. 7-6 seems to be right about the line of demarcation between success and failure for Leach in Starkville.

2022 Schedule
Sept. 3 – MEMPHIS (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 10 – at Arizona (11 p.m. ET, FS1)
Sept. 17 – at LSU (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Oct. 1 – TEXAS A&M
Oct. 15 – at Kentucky
Oct. 22 – at Alabama
Nov. 5 – AUBURN
Nov. 12 – GEORGIA
Nov. 24 – at Ole Miss (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Under Center
Rogers was thrown to the fire as a true freshman in 2020 after K.J. Costello had both health and performance issues. Improvement was expected in 2021, and Rogers delivered in increasing his yards per completion from just over eight to 9.5 and his completion percentage from 69 percent to 74 percent as a sophomore. He’s a tough kid who gets hit a lot when dropping back more than 50 times per game, but he has struggled against the league’s better defenses.

Rogers’ completion percentage is about maxed out at three-fourths of his passes, so the ask of him as a junior will again be to create more big plays. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC in passes of 20 yards or longer, but ranked just No. 11 in passes of 30 yards or longer, as only 30 percent of their completions for 20 or more yards also went for at least 30 yards. SEC defenses are too good for offenses to have to consistently produce long scoring drives. Behind Rogers is redshirt freshman Sawyer Robertson, who has a name fitting of a Leach gun-slinger.

In The Trenches
When you’re a program like Mississippi State, replacing a top-10 NFL Draft pick is a guaranteed challenge. The Bulldogs face that issue this year with left tackle Charles Cross selected No. 9 by the Seattle Seahawks. They’ll likely turn to a junior college transfer in 360-pound Percy Lewis. I’m always skeptical of junior college additions making immediate impacts, particularly in the trenches, so I have my concerns here. The good news is that three of the other four 2021 starters are back, a major plus in the unique Leach offense, as well as running backs Dillon Johnson and Jo’quavious Marks.

Arnett flies under the radar a bit as a defensive coordinator because his boss is such a big media personality. He’s built up the Bullies defense very nicely, and this season could have the biggest payoff with an experienced front seven. There’s no Jeffery Simmons or Montez Sweat, but Jaden Crumedy is a stout nose tackle and Tyrus Wheat is one of the league’s best pass rushers. The top two tackles are also back at inside linebacker in Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson. This group should keep Mississippi State in every game aside from Alabama.

On The Edge
Jaden Walley had a breakout end to the 2020 season, but it was California transfer Makai Polk who emerged as the top target for Rogers in 2021. Polk is gone, so now Walley joins fifth-year senior Austin Williams and speedy Lideatrick Griffin as the anchors of the receiving corps. If Walley steps up to become a star, this unit will be just fine, but on paper, it’s hard to put it at the level of a year ago without Polk.

Explosive plays were a problem last year for the Bulldogs, allowing 20 completions of 30 yards or longer (No. 12 in the SEC) and 13 of 40 yards or longer (last in the SEC). Returning both starting safeties in Collin Duncan and Jalen Green could help that issue. Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes is a future NFL player after starting for the past two seasons, with the spot opposite Forbes up for grabs during preseason camp.

Ranking The Units
1. Defensive Line
2. Quarterbacks
3. Running Backs
4. Linebackers
5. Receivers
6. Defensive Backs
7. Offensive Line

Schedule Analysis
Goodness, me. September isn’t too bad for the Bulldogs, but going out west has been a challenge for all SEC teams, so the Week 2 date at Arizona shouldn’t be overlooked despite the Wildcats winning just one game in the past two seasons. After that comes another road trip to Baton Rouge. If Mississippi State is not 4-0, reaching a bowl game could be a challenge, as the ensuing six-game stretch is probably the toughest any team will face all year. Georgia replaces Vanderbilt as the rotating game, essentially trading a win for a loss right out of the chute. One positive is playing an FCS opponent before the short week leading into the Egg Bowl, while Ole Miss has to travel to Arkansas. The week off comes at a good time after back-to-back road games at Kentucky and Alabama. The Bullies should rue the SEC offices giving them a pair of back-to-back road games.

Season Prediction
Like their friends up the road in Oxford, I expect a fast start followed by a lot of losses late in the season. I’ll call for another September upset at LSU to spark a 4-0 start, but a four-game losing streak will send the season spiraling downward. A potential season-saving game at Ole Miss will not go the Bulldogs’ way, leaving Mississippi State with a disappointing 6-6 mark. Considering they went 7-5 a year ago and swapped Vanderbilt for Georgia, 6-6 isn’t really a step back, but it may seem that way.

For the third time in six seasons, it’ll be a postseason contest against Louisville for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs won in Jacksonville in 2017 before the Cardinals evened the score in Nashville in 2019. The rubber match will come at lovely Protective Stadium in Birmingham. Leach will be back in 2023 with a senior quarterback and a friendlier schedule, but there could be some moans and groans, especially if he falls to 0-3 in Egg Bowls.

Record: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
Bowl: Birmingham Bowl vs. Louisville

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.