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SEC Season Preview: Mississippi State

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith takes an in-depth look at the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

SEC Season Preview: Mississippi State
Head Coach: Mike Leach – second season at Mississippi State; 20th season overall (3-7 SEC, 143-97 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Leach
Defensive Coordinator: Zach Arnett (second season)

2020 Recap: 4-7 (3-7 SEC); defeated Tulsa in Armed Forces Bowl
Mississippi State was the story of the nation after Week 1, as the Bulldogs went to Baton Rouge and stunned defending national champion LSU with 623 passing yards from K.J. Costello in Mike Leach’s SEC head-coaching debut. That buzz lasted all of seven days, when a four-game losing streak began with a home loss to Arkansas. After an ugly win over Vanderbilt and some time off, Will Rogers became the starting quarterback, and the Bulldogs were improved down the SEC home stretch, winning just once against Missouri, but losing competitive games at Georgia and at Ole Miss. A brawl marred the 28-26 bowl win over Tulsa, but it did allow Mississippi State to finish the season with consecutive wins for the first time since 2016.

2021 Schedule
Sept. 4 – LOUISIANA TECH (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 11 – N.C. STATE (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/U)
Sept. 18 – at Memphis (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Sept. 25 - LSU
Oct. 2 – at Texas A&M
Oct. 16 – ALABAMA
Oct. 23 – at Vanderbilt
Oct. 30 – KENTUCKY
Nov. 6 – at Arkansas
Nov. 13 – at Auburn
Nov. 20 – TENNESSEE STATE
Nov. 25 – OLE MISS (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Under Center
Rogers was thrown to the fire as a true freshman after Costello had both health and performance issues. He averaged only eight per yards per completion, which should be considered a disclaimer on his 69 percent completion percentage. Rogers was efficient and busy however, throwing more than 50 passes in three straight games, all losses, as the running game managed just 80 total yards in those three contests. Rogers was signed by Leach, and the pairing appears to be a good one after a season. There will need to be more big plays, but Rogers displays many of the traits previous quarterbacks who have had success with Leach have possessed.

Having a chance to put some pressure on Rogers is Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham, who, having grown up in Oxford, will now have lived in all three cities in Mississippi State that have FBS programs. The senior played in 27 games with the Golden Eagles, throwing 41 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. This isn’t a 50-50 competition, but Abraham has a chance to make some noise during camp and force Leach into a decision.

In The Trenches
The biggest concern with Leach’s arrival, especially with no spring practice in 2020, was the offensive line adjusting to the wider Air Raid splits and having to predominantly move backwards, not forwards or laterally. This unit was somewhat competent last season, but the inability to find anything in the run game hampered the passing game and left the offense in a funk for most of the season. Sophomore running backs Jo’Quavius Marks and Dillon Johnson have promise as a speed back and power back respectively, but the front needs to be more physical.

Coordinating a defense for Leach is no easy task, but Zach Arnett had a strong first season in 2020. The Bulldogs were stout against the run, ranking fourth in the SEC. There are some losses, but nose tackle Jaden Crumedy is going to be a problem for opposing offenses. He’s an active player for an interior defensive lineman, producing the occasional sack and pass breakup. At linebacker, Erroll Thompson, who played for three head coaches, is a huge loss, but Aaron Brule and Tyrus Wheat are back after leading the team in sacks.

On The Edge
Jaden Walley was wallying around for the first half of his freshman season, averaging fewer than 30 receiving yards over the first six games. That all changed after an idle week, as Walley lit up the final four SEC opponents for 520 yards and a pair of touchdowns to finish as the team’s leading receiver. He’ll lead a unit that has three of its top four back from last year, losing only Osirus Mitchell. A pair of former Pac-12 receivers, Jahmire Calvin (Washington State) and Makai Polk (California) add depth out of the transfer portal.

The back end of the defense looks like a strength, as the Bulldogs get every key contributor back after a solid 2020 season. Cornerback Emmanuel Forbes led the SEC with five interceptions last season and earned second-team all-SEC honors. Martin Emerson mans the other side of the field after registering 11 pass breakups as a sophomore in 2020. There’s no Darius Slay or Cameron Dantzler here, but this is the team’s deepest unit and should be a playmaking group.

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

Schedule Analysis
SEC Rank: 7
National Rank: 25
The Bulldogs season will be defined by a pair of tricky stretches. After what should be a season-opening win over Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State will host N.C. State and then visit Memphis. A 3-0 start is possible, but so is a 1-2 start. With LSU, Texas A&M and Alabama the next three opponents, starting 1-2 would likely derail any bowl hopes. Later in the season, a visit from Kentucky precedes consecutive road games at Arkansas and at Auburn. Much like the two September games, these three games feel like toss-ups. Getting Vanderbilt from the SEC East is a huge break, but with a couple tricky non-conference games and the annual rigor of playing in the SEC West, this is a very challenging slate.

Season Prediction
Leach’s history suggests that Mississippi State will surprise this season. He’s had a full offseason to rework the offensive line to his system, and Rogers looks like a quarterback who can thrive with Leach. Arnett’s defense had some pretty good moments, and even with some notable losses, I don’t expect much of a dip, so the Leach-Arnett marriage seems like it’ll work.

The SEC West will go 27-1 in non-conference games, but the Bulldogs will take the league’s only loss, dropping a home game to N.C. State. They’ll rebound to knock off Memphis and upset LSU, while also registering SEC wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt to earn a bowl appearance. It’ll be the usual Leach rollercoaster ride with a couple of curious duds, but the end result will be pretty solid.
Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)
CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Texas Bowl vs. TCU

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.