Mississippi State Bulldogs
Location: Starkville, MS (tourism slogan: “200 miles and 20 years away from everywhere!”)
2016 record: 6-7, 3-5 SEC (But beat Ole Miss 55-20 in the Egg Bowl. Just ask any MSU fan, they’ll tell you all about it. They have videos and made a cool collage to mark the occasion).
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (61-42 overall, 9thseason)
Fun Fact: While many of his novels are set at least partially in Oxford (where he earned a law degree), Mississippi novelist John Grisham actually earned his undergraduate degree at Mississippi State. Ole Miss alums will tell you there is deep, Faulknerian psychological meaning here.
How is Dan Mullen gonna screw this one up?
Mississippi State fans are winding down a relaxing summer of watching the neighbor they don’t like burning his house down from the inside. Really, when the story of Dan Mullin’s career in Starkville is written it should be Hugh Freeze and Ross Bjork who get a special shout out in the foreword. Because their incompetence and/or hubris is what may end up gift wrapping the entire Magnolia State to Mullen for the foreseeable future. The NCAA isn’t going to give the Rebels the death penalty, despite MSU fans’ most fervent dreams and urgent emails. But there is a real chance that the gang in Indianapolis smites the Oxfordians in such a way as to do long term, lasting damage to their football program. This will be a boon to Mullen, if he doesn’t mess it up.
“You misspelled Mark Richt.”
Overlooked by some in the brouhaha over how much Laremy Tunsil was paid, by whom, and how many fellow employees he had is the fact that in 2016 Dan Mullen may have cemented his status as Mississippi State’s best football coach in the post-World War II era. To be fair, it ain’t that damn high a bar. Mullen has finished with a winning record in six of his eight seasons in Starkganistan. Even the two losing seasons weren’t, by Bizarro Bulldog standards, particularly disastrous: 5-7 in his initial, 2009 campaign and 6-7 in 2016.
And most importantly, he beat Ole Miss both years. Dapper Dan has taken his charges to seven straight bowl games, something no other MSU coach can claim. Jackie Sherrell, believed by many to be the best coach in school history, finished with a losing mark in six of thirteen seasons, as a time when the SEC West was good, but not close to being a buzzsaw.
All of which is to say that Dan Mullen has the boys from Starkvenia punching above their historical weight. But at some point Bulldog fans in the West, like Bulldog fans in the east, are going to want to move up a weight class. This year is goong to be a tough one to start that climb.
The Trek of the Nicholas Fitzgerald
Dan Mullen got his current job in no small part because of his reputation as a quarterback whisperer of some skill. Alex Smith at Utah, Tim Tebow in Gainesville, and most recently Dak Prescott all helped burnish the resume of a man who looks like Clark Griswold’s Nevada desert-dwelling in-law but in fact may actually know a thing or two about coaching dual-threat signal callers.
Mullen’s latest pupil is actually a Peach State native. Former Richmond Hill standout Nick Fitzgerald is an O’Brien Award watch lister and a real candidate to be the SEC’s top QB by year’s end if he gets a little help from his friends (more on that in a moment). Fitzgerald’s 2016 passing numbers are okay, if not gaudy: 2423 yards, a 54.3% completion percentage, and 21 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions. But he keeps opposing defenses awake at night with his legs. Fitzgerald had 1375 rushing yards (second in the SEC only to LSU’s Derrius Guice with 1387) on 196 attempts (7.05 per carry) last season. He also found the endzone on the ground 16 times.
On non-sack plays, Fitzie averaged an unbelievable 8.0 yards per carry, and over 100 yards per game. Frankly, one wonders if opposing defenses fully realized that Fitzgerald was a threat to run, as if they thought with the graduation of Dak Prescott Mullen might begin cranking out drop back passers. If Fitzgerald snuck up on opposing defenses in 2016, that is highly unlikely in 2017. But I suspect what we saw was a guy who’s good enough throwing to keep the safeties back and to gash defenses through the air if he gets the right look, but who’s also been trained to take what the defense gives him on the ground. SEC defenses remain prone to not accounting for the quarterback in the run game, and Dan Mullen has darn near made a career out of this fact.
In short, Fitzgerald is the prototypical Mullen dual threat. He was relatively efficient passing last season. When he wasn’t, the Bizarro Bulldogs struggled offensively. If he’s moreso in this, his junior season, the Bulldog attack will be heck to stop. That will depend in part of Fitzgerald’s supporting cast, a largely veteran group. Running back Aeris Williams returns as a steady if not flashy back. Williams ran for 720 yards on 137 carries in 2016, yielding a solid 5.26 yards per carry. While he’s not much of a big play back, Williams provides the tough yards inside the tackles that can open up the passing game or (as was often the case in 2016) the outside running lanes for Fitzgerald.
2016’s leading receiver Fred Ross (72 catches, 917 yards) is gone, but the other five of Missy State’s six top pass catchers from last season are back. Donald Gray (41 rec., 709 yards) and Malik Dear (22 catches, 265 yards) return to leas the receiving corps. Sophomores Keith Mixon and Jamal Couch return following productive freshman campaigns. And the top three guys on the tight end depth chart are back as well. Redshirt freshman receiver Reggie Todd is also a candidate to crack the receiver rotation. While there is not a surefire, unstoppable receiving threat in the group there is depth and experience in Mullen’s offense.
If there’s a weakness to this offense, it’s up front, where three starters from a strong 2016 unit must be replaced. UGA fans know as well as anyone that all the backfield talent in the world is useless without the horses up front. The good news for Mullen is that his attack is largely designed to minimize this flaw. The guys from Starkvegas will attempt to use quickness and angles where possible.
That being said, a lot of what was revolutionary when Mullen used it at Florida a decade ago is now commonplace in the league, and defenses are more agile. At this point I cannot tell whether the experience in the backfield and on the perimeter will make up for inexperience up front.
There’s also the matter of what happens if Fitzgerald takes off running and suffers a serious injury. The 6’5, 230 pounder is big enough to take a beating. But if he can’t go the only other scholarship QB on the roster is true freshman Keytaon Thompson. The notion of starting a true freshman against the teeth of the SEC West slate should be what keeps Dan Mullen up nights.
Defensive objective #1: Don’t choke.
The Bizarro Bulldogs are hopping on the Todd Train ™, bringing in former Georgia and Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to repair a defense that was, shall we say, marginal in 2016. Let’s be honest here. Grantham, for all his interpersonal shortcomings, is a helluva defensive football coach and coordinator. It has been seven seasons since he came to Athens amid questions about whether his 3-4 system could be adapted successfully to the college game. Since then he has never fielded a defense ranked outside the top 45 in total defense. His three Louisville squads finished 6th, 18th, and 14th in total defense.
So I think Mullen got the better of the coordinator swap that sent former Bulldog DC Peter Sirmon to Louisville and brought the Toddler to Starkmenistan. But there’s a real chance that the results in 2017 will not be much better, and could on paper look worse. That would actually be an accomplishment, given that Mississippi State was 110th in total defense in 2016, giving up a gut-wrenching 459 yards per game.
But Grantham may find the same problem in his new stop that he found in his first season in Athens: the unique personnel for his attacking 3-4 defense isn’t found on college rosters that haven’t recruited specifically for it.
There’s not a mammoth Kwame Geathers/John Jenkins-type nose tackle hanging around Starkville, though 6’4, 310 pound sophomore Jeffery Simmons is neither a Smurf nor a slouch. The 2016 SEC All-Freshman team selection should help anchor a defensive front that loses five of the eight players from last season’s two deep. 6’5, 313 pound junior Cory Thomas returns with Simmons to give some veteran presence, having played in all thirteen games last season and tallying 25 total tackles (5.5 TFL). Sophomore Marquiss Spencer didn’t start in 2016 but was productive in a reserve role with 17 tackles and a sack.
Second-leading tackler (and Ole Miss tormentor) Leo Lewis will hold down one linebacker spot while senior J.T. Gray likely has another spoken for. As it often does, Missy State raided the JUCO ranks to fill some recruiting holes, and it’s hard to say how those guys will perform and how long it will take them to get up to speed. The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the ultimate success of Grantham’s unit.
In the secondary junior safeties Brandon Bryant and Michael McLaurin return along with reserve junior corner Jamal Peters, a former four star recruit. But starting corners Cedric Jiles and Jamoral Graham do not. Reversion to the mean would lead one to believe that even without experience on the outsides MSU is unlikely to give up the same raft of big plays that were their downfall in 2016. Here as well Mullen went the JUCO route, signing a trio of junior college defensive backs.
My experience has been that JUCO DBs are far less likely to make an immediate impact than some other position groups. But if you’re Dan Mullen you frankly don’t have much of a choice. MSU has to get better on defense. Now. If not, expect to see the Bizarro Bulldogs play in some real point-a-minute extravaganzas that will give their fans constant indigestion.
We’re all special in our own way.
The special teams units from Starknarnia are a little tough to judge. The kicking game was bad in 2016. Like, 119th in the nation in field goal percentage (57.9%) and 104th in punting (a full seventeen slots ahead of Georgia, but still tragi-terri-awful). There’s an open battle going on now for both the kicking and punting jobs, with Brentwood, Tennessee freshman Tucker Day likely to figure in some configuration of job duties. There’s also (stop me if you’re sensing a pattern) JUCO transfer Jordan Lawless contending for kicking duties. Logan Cooke had been slated to handle kicking duties last season but his injury likely contributed to the chaos. If he’s 100%, he’s probably got the inside track to the punting duties.
Some combination of receivers Keith Mixon and Donald Gray will likely sub for the departed Fred Ross at kick returner, with Mixon handling punt return duties. all in all, while not an explicit strength I don't think the special teams will be worse. Statistically, such an outcome appears almost impossible.
The Bottom Line
Mississippi State will field a 2017 unit that is at once brilliantly talented in some spots and young and inexperienced in others. They’ll come to Athens on September 23rd off what should be a bruising, emotionally draining night home game against LSU on the 16th. Georgia meanwhile will welcome the visitors from Starkwarts School of Witchcraft and Animal Husbandry after taking on FCS foe Samford. While it’s possible that things will already be clicking for the MSU defense in game four, I rather doubt it.
The Georgia defense will give up the type of big plays that Nick Fitzgerald was born to create, and that will be maddening. But ultimately I doubt the Bizarro Bulldogs have what it takes to pull off the road upset in 2017. Final score prediction: UGA 38, MSU 31. Until later...