The college football season can’t come soon enough. With every season comes new faces and possibilities. Who will be the teams to watch out for this season? This will be the 10th of many posts covering the top 25 teams in the country and will cover no. 16 Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Joe Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen as head coach of the Bulldogs. This will be his first crack at being the man in charge, but luckily he has a talented team to work with. They went 9-4 last year and have 15 starters coming back to Starkville. Even with a new coach, Mississippi State should expect to have another good season.
The offense was solid last season, ranking 41st in scoring and 11th in rushing. They were one of the worst passing offenses in the country though, ranking 112th in the country, which will need to improve. With eight players from the first team offense returning, the Bulldogs have a lot to be hopeful for on this side of the ball. That paired with the presence of Moorhead, who was a great offensive coordinator at Penn State, means improvement is coming in 2018.
Nick Fitzgerald is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but needs to work on his passing. He completed 55.6% of his passes for 1,782 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2017. This was on 6.2 yards per attempt, which is not the greatest. His running ability is what makes him dynamic, as he ran for 984 yards and 14 touchdowns. If Fitzgerald can mature as a thrower, the offense could be one of the best in the country.
Helping Fitzgerald on the ground will be running back Aeris Williams. He rushed for 1,107 yards and six scores last season. Williams, along with Fitzgerald, is a bruising runner that is hard to bring down. Kylin Hill will also be in the backfield at times to change the pace and provide more speed.
Not much experience returns at receiver, so new faces will need to make an impact. Jesse Jackson is a senior who finished with 276 receiving yards last year. At tight end, Farrod Green had 179 receiving yards, but no touchdowns. Fitzgerald needs to progress at quarterback, but his weapons also need to be better moving forward.
The offensive line did lose Martinas Rankin to the NFL, but returns four starters. They should make up a solid unit that both protects Fitzgerald on passing plays and opens up holes in the running game.
With Fitzgerald at the helm, there has to be confidence for the Bulldogs’ offense heading into 2018. His progression as a passer is a key for the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State’s defense has a chance to be one of the best in the country this season. They tied for 26th in points per game allowed, were 28th against the run and 12th against the pass. Seven starters return from last year’s team, meaning improvements should be seen in multiple areas, even though the scheme has changed to include four down linemen.
All four defensive linemen will be familiar with each other, as they started last season. Montez Sweat and Gerri Green will man the end positions. Sweat had 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season and is a contender to be All-SEC. Green added five sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Braxton Hoyett and Jeffery Simmons will play defensive tackle. Both are solid, but Simmons put up better numbers with five sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
There will be questions at linebacker, but Leo Lewis and Erroll Thompson are both solid. Lewis had 46 total tackles as a first-unit player in 2017. Big things are expected from Thompson who had 46 tackles as well last season as a freshman.
The secondary is where the biggest question mark is. Cornerback was an area of talent last season, but now young players need to show they are worthy of a starting spot. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, the safeties playing behind their corners are great. Johnathan Abram and Mark McLaurin are both some of the most talented safeties in the SEC. They were the top two tacklers on the team last season.
Cornerback play could be an issue, but the rest of the defense should be strong. If the offense controls the clock and lets the defense play fresh, this is a dangerous team.
Outside of the SEC, Mississippi State plays Stephen F. Austin (home), Kansas State (away), Louisiana (home) and Louisiana Tech (home). Kansas State will be the only true test and Mississippi State will likely still win that game with relative ease.
Playing in the SEC West is never easy. The Bulldogs play Auburn (home), LSU (away), Texas A&M (home) and Alabama (away), which is tough. Their crossovers from the SEC East features two teams that will likely be bowl eligible in Florida and Kentucky.
There shouldn’t be any issues outside of the SEC and Mississippi State should be expected to be 4-0 out of conference. In conference, they could drop anywhere between two and four games. Eight to 10 wins are in the cards for the Bulldogs this season.
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