Preseason countdown: No. 27 Miss. St.
Yes, it stinks to be in the SEC West right now. It stinks to be in a division that’s full of national championship-level programs – and Ole Miss – and it stinks to be getting another very, very good team in Texas A&M to deal with.
It stinks that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen can come up with several nice recruiting classes and can upgrade the overall talent and consistency and still not come close to winning a division title, much less a conference one. It stinks that the Bulldogs finished 27th in the nation in pass defense, but were ahead of only Auburn among that category. It stinks that the defense gave up around 350 yards and 20 points per game and the team still finished 6-6 in the regular season. It stinks that most teams in college football would’ve gone 0-6 against Auburn, Georgia and Arkansas on the road, and LSU, South Carolina and Alabama at home.
It stinks that Mississippi State would be the favorite to win the Big East and would’ve been deep in the hunt for a conference title in any other BCS conference, but it’s in the SEC and it’s in the SEC West, and it’s not moving any time soon.
For good and bad, Mullen has been able to play it relatively straight and has had some decent success. The running game has been solid over the years and the defense has been tight as a drum at times, but that hard work and good coaching isn’t enough. MSU wouldn’t necessarily have more luck going the gimmick route – like Texas Tech did in an attempt to level the playing field with the Big 12 big boys – but it needs to do everything it’s been doing, only better.
Over the last four years, MSU has gone 1-15 against Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU, with the lone bright spot a 31-28 win over a mediocre Hogs team in 2008. The Bulldogs are able to beat the teams they’re supposed to and they’re not getting embarrassed on a regular basis in their losses, but now it’s time for some more oomph.
MSU should be able to give everyone more of a fight. The team is better than last year’s version, and Mullen is growing into a top coaching prospect who’ll get more and more attention from the higher-profile programs. But in the end, the Bulldogs are probably going to spend another year beating their heads against the SEC West wall.
What to watch for on offense: The passing game. It’s not like MSU didn’t throw the ball at all last year, and compared to the rest of the SEC, the passing attack was just fine despite finishing 94th in the nation. The offense had a decent balance averaging 182 passing yards per game and 175 on the ground, but it would be a huge, huge help if Tyler Russell could crank things up to around 225 passing yards per game with more big plays. MSU didn’t strength the field nearly enough averaging a pedestrian 11.9 yards per pop. The 19 touchdown passes weren’t bad, but 15 of them came in the seven wins, with four being thrown in the six losses. The receiving corps gets everyone of note back and should be far better at opening things up for the running game.
What to watch for on defense: A killer secondary. Whether the great stats came from playing against a slew of awful passing games or if they came from talent in the defensive backfield, the bottom line was a great season from a loaded secondary that should be even better. Johnthan Banks should be in the NFL as we speak – the star corner would’ve been a top 50 overall pick – while Darius Slaw and Corey Broomfield are terrific veterans in the rotation. Safety Nickoe Whitley is one of the league’s premier hitters, but he’s coming off an Achilles heel injury and still needs time. On the plus side, Dee Arrington might be the team’s most talented safety and there’s decent depth across the board to fill in the gaps. Throw in a decent pass rush, and it’ll be a shock if the Bulldogs don't finish in the top 20 in pass defense.
The team will be far better if: The running game rolls. Yes, the Mississippi State offense should be more pass-oriented with Russell under center, but last year the wins came when the ground game worked. The Bulldogs ripped apart Auburn for 333 yards on the ground and two scores in a 41-34 shootout loss, but there wasn’t any real rushing production in the other five loses. The five worst rushing performances on the year all came in those losses, with the team failing to hit the 100-yard mark against LSU, Georgia, Arkansas or Alabama, bottoming out netting just 12 yards against the Tide. It wasn’t just a 2012 problem. In 2011, the 9-4 Bulldogs’ three worst rushing days all led to losses. They lost all four of their worst rushing games of 2010, too.
The schedule: It’s a quirky schedule with just enough layups to ensure a winning season. Whether or not a good year can become a great year will depend on whether the Bulldogs can hold serve at home, including the SEC opener against Auburn and a winnable game against Tennessee. If MSU can win those two, a 7-0 start should be there for the taking. And then it’ll be time to pay. After closing out the easy part of the slate against Middle Tennessee, at trip to Alabama kicks off a fun month with Texas A&M coming to Starkville and followed up by a date at LSU and a visit from Arkansas. The regular season closes out at Ole Miss, but if MSU can win all of its home games, the Egg Bowl should be for a ten-win regular season.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Tyler Russell. Chris Relf is gone and Dylan Favre took off, so while Dak Prescott is a dangerous dual-threat option, the season will be sink-or-swim with Russell. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound pro-style passer can move a little bit, but his real worth is as a playmaker who can stretch the field better than Relf ever could. He stepped in and wasn’t bad in the middle of the year, completing 11 of 13 passes for 166 yard and three scores against UAB, and 9 of 12 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky, but he has develop into a more prolific passer and not just be a game manager.
Best defensive player: Senior CB Johnthan Banks. All the tools are there with 6-foot-2, 185-pound size, great speed, athleticism and excellent hitting ability. It was a bit of a shocker when he chose to stay in school, but now he’ll be the anchor of a terrific secondary while also being one of the SEC’s best ball hawks. A big hitter, he can come up with the ball-jarring pop long with the solid open field tackle, but more than anything else, he’s great at making the key interception with five last year including a pick six in the loss to Auburn.
Get the latest news, features, stats and more from one of the top sources of college football information.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore OT Blaine Clausell. It’s not like the line was a rock in pass protection last year, but it wasn’t awful. This year, with more of a passing element coming from Russell, the line needs to be even better at keeping the quarterback upright. With left tackle James Carmon gone, now it’ll be up to the 6-7, 305-pound Clausell, an active blocker with the right frame and make-up to be solid. However, he’s still young and he’s still learning on the fly. If he’s not great, then Russell can’t shine and the offense won’t roll.
The season will be a success if: The Bulldogs win 10 games. Forget about the road games at LSU and Alabama, but MSU should be able to win two og three at home against Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas. As long as there aren’t any gags against teams like Tennessee at home or Kentucky or Ole Miss on the road, a nine-win regular season is possible with the home of getting to double digit wins for the first time since 1999 with a bowl victory. The team should be just good enough to make it happen.
Key game: Sept. 8 vs. Auburn. Mississippi State gave the 2010 national champion one of its toughest battles of the season in a 17-14 Tigers win. The 41-34 shootout in 2011 was fun, but it was another Bulldogs loss. Including the 3-2 pitchers’ duel in 2008, Auburn has won the last four in the series and 10 of the last 11. If the Bulldogs win the home opener they’ll almost certainly be 5-0 going into the home game against Tennessee. Win that, and barring a total choke, they’ll be 7-0 before facing Alabama.