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SEC Season Preview: Mississippi State

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Head Coach: Dan Mullen – ninth year at Mississippi State and overall (61-42 overall, 29-35 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy (fourth season)

Defensive Coordinator: Todd Grantham (first season)

2016 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC); defeated Miami (OH) in St. Petersburg Bowl

Returning Starters: 13 (7 offense, 6 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – CHARLESTON SOUTHERN (4 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 9 – at Louisiana Tech (7:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN)
Sept. 16 – LSU (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 23 – at Georgia
Sept. 30 – at Auburn

Oct. 14 – BYU
Oct. 21 – KENTUCKY

Oct. 28 – at Texas A&M

Nov. 4 – MASSACHUSETTS
Nov. 11 – ALABAMA

Nov. 18 – at Arkansas
Nov. 23 – OLE MISS (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

What We Know

-The Bulldogs might have the most dangerous quarterback in the SEC. Nick Fitzgerald struggled mightily in the season-opening upset defeat to South Alabama, but started the following week and never relinquished the role. The league’s top defenses contained him, but in the November wins against Texas A&M and Ole Miss, Fitzgerald amassed nearly 800 yards of total offense, including 258 yards on the ground in the Egg Bowl. The 54 percent completion percentage needs to get better, but expect 4,000 yards of total offense from Fitzgerald. At 6’5” and 230 pounds, the Tim Tebow comparisons, who was also coached by Dan Mullen, are hard to ignore.

-The defense is going to be aggressive. Mullen generally prefers attacking defenses that are susceptible to big plays, but there’s absolutely no doubt about what this unit will look like after the hiring of former Georgia and Louisville coordinator Todd Grantham. This isn’t the standard coachspeak that comes with a new coordinator. This Bulldogs defense is truly going to be pressure-heavy. Who stars in this unit is less certain. Controversial figures, for very different reasons, tackle Jeffery Simmons and linebacker Leo Lewis are the most talented defenders, but the strength is probably in the back end.

-Speaking of the secondary, this unit should be far better than the 2016 group that allowed a whopping 59 completions of 20 yards or longer last season. Three junior starters return, and the Bulldogs get a 2015 starter back in cornerback Tolando Cleveland. The most talented player in the secondary likely won’t even start in junior safety Jamal Peters. If Peters can get his production to match his hype, this unit could thrive and prevent Grantham’s ultra-aggressiveness from backfiring.

What We Don’t Know

-Can Fitzgerald be better against the SEC West’s Big 3? Last year against Alabama, Auburn and LSU, Fitzgerald combined to complete just 39 of 97 pass attempts and run for only 89 yards (2.2 yards per carry). LSU comes to Starkville in Week 3. Last year’s 23-20 loss in Baton Rouge was misleading, as LSU controlled the game throughout before a couple of late Bulldogs scores. If Fitzgerald has All-SEC aspirations, his floor has to be raised, starting with a very winnable home game against the Tigers.

-Is there a second tailback to spell Aeris Williams? The junior had a respectable 5.3 yards per carry average as a sophomore, but shared time with the now-departed Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway. Williams now will likely have to be a 200-carry back (137 in 2016), but the smaller that number, probably the better it is for Mississippi State. Sophomore Nick Gibson had nine carries as a freshman, but newcomer Kylin Hill might ultimately be the guy who earns that No. 2 job.

-Is there a true No. 1 receiver? Probably not now that Fred Ross is gone, but there’s enough diversity in the receiving corps for this unit to still not weigh the offense down. 5’10” senior Donald Gray is the leading returner with 704 yards in 2016. No other returnee had more than 300 yards last season, including junior Malik Dear, who has one of the oddest wide receiver physiques you’ll find at 5’9” and 225 pounds. Dear’s availability is question mark after a spring knee injury. Complementing Gray and potentially Dear is 6’5” sophomore Jamal Couch, who will need to be a red zone threat with his size. Fitzgerald is terrific, but rushing touchdowns in the SEC West are often hard to come by.

X-Factor

The Offensive Line – Martinas Rankin developed into a very nice left tackle last year after taking a redshirt year after junior college to shape his body into SEC shape. Beyond Rankin, however, the offensive line is starting over. Three new starters will join Rankin and guard Deion Calhoun in protecting and opening holes for Fitzgerald. With Damian Williams transferring, there is nothing behind Fitzgerald. Obviously non-contact and downfield injuries can occur, but the fewer hits Fitzgerald takes in passing situations, the better. Defensive line play in the division should be down a notch from last year, but this unit has to avoid a similar drop.

Ranking The Units

1.   Quarterbacks
2.   Defensive Backs
3.   Running Backs
4.   Defensive Line
5.   Linebackers
6.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
7.   Offensive Line

Season Prediction

Mullen has created a floor for the Bulldogs. They’ve won at least six games in each of the last seven years, so there’s no reason to expect this team to be any worse, especially with a manageable non-conference schedule. An upset of LSU will spark a 3-0 start, but a tough SEC road slate will get the best of the Bulldogs. Mullen will improve to 6-3 in the Egg Bowl with a Thanksgiving Night win over Ole Miss before a second trip of the season to east Texas for the bowl.

Overall Record: 7-5
SEC Record: 3-5
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Texas Bowl vs. Texas

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.