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2019 SEC Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about the 2019 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Head Coach: Joe Moorhead – second year at Mississippi State; sixth year overall (46-18 overall, 4-4 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Luke Getsy (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Bob Shoop (second season)

2018 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC); lost to Iowa in Outback Bowl

Returning Starters: 9 (6 offense, 3 defense)

2019 Schedule

Aug. 31 – vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (New Orleans) (Noon ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 7 – SOUTHERN MISS (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Sept. 14 – KANSAS STATE (Noon ET, ESPN/ESPN2)
Sept. 21 – KENTUCKY
Sept. 28 – at Auburn

Oct. 12 – at Tennessee
Oct. 19 – LSU
Oct. 26 – at Texas A&M

Nov. 2 – at Arkansas
Nov. 16 – ALABAMA
Nov. 23 – ALCORN STATE
Nov. 28 – OLE MISS (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

What We Know

-The defensive line is going to regress. Mississippi State lost two first-round NFL Draft picks up front from the top scoring defense in college football last season. This isn’t Alabama, where five-star recruits simply slide in. This group is going to be a combination of 2018 backups, freshmen, and transfers. Chauncey Rivers is a fifth-year senior and the most experienced in the unit, having played at Georgia in 2015, in junior college in 2016, and for the Bulldogs last season. True freshman and Magnolia State native Nathan Pickering is going to play early. There’s no ifs, and, or buts. This group is going to take a major step back.

-This linebacking corps is as good as any in the SEC. Juniors Willie Gay and Eroll Thompson and senior Leo Lewis are high-pedigree guys that have also been developed by both former coordinator Todd Grantham and now Bob Shoop. Thompson is the team’s top returning tackler, but also finished second on the team in sacks last season. That’s incredible versatility. The challenge will be not having Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat in front of them this season, but this unit can help mask many of the deficiencies up front.

-The receiving corps is in the spotlight. Joe Moorhead spent talking season bemoaning the team’s lack of explosive plays in the passing game last season. Nick Fitzgerald wasn’t a good downfield passer, but sometimes receivers just have to make plays. That didn’t happen often enough a year ago, as Mississippi State had just 16 passing plays of 30 yards or more. The Bulldogs do bring back their top three receivers from last season. Senior Stephen Guidry is the big-play threat, as he hopes to become a more reliable target in his second season after arriving from junior college. 

What We Don’t Know

-Is Kylin Hill a true No. 1 running back? Aeris Williams is gone, and the Bulldogs certainly aren’t going to get the 221 carries from their quarterback like Fitzgerald did a year ago. Hill can be electrifying with the ball in his hands, but now he has to be a workhorse. Mississippi State does add in Michigan transfer Kareem Walker, but proceed with caution whenever relying on a junior college transfer. The Bullies can no longer rely on Fitzgerald to grind out tough yards. Someone has to fill that void.

-The secondary isn’t quite as green as the defensive line, but it’s also starting over. Johnathan Abram was Mississippi State’s third player to go in the first round of April’s NFL Draft, but the Bulldogs also lose to other multi-year starters. The good news is that’s there is some experience behind them. Senior cornerback Maurice Smitherman has played in all but three games in three seasons, and junior safety C.J. Morgan started three games in 2018. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler will be an NFL Draft pick in 2020 or 2021. There will be a step back, but it may not be to the level of the defensive line.

-So, who’s the quarterback? Joe Moorhead bringing in former Penn State pupil Tommy Stevens doesn’t bode well for Keytaon Thompson, but Thompson has filled in admirably in a backup role over the past two seasons. Stevens was not around for the spring, so winning over a locker room that will be in Thompson’s corner is as important as how he looks on the field. Stevens is the better passer and has the edge, but both quarterbacks could and should play.
 
Ranking The Units

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

Schedule Analysis

National Ranking: 29
SEC Ranking: 8
Swing Game: Oct. 12 at Tennessee
Trap Game: Nov. 2 at Arkansas

It’s not a bad slate, beginning with two capable Group of Five opponents that will provide a bit of a push before a rebuilding Kansas State team comes to Starkville. The season will probably be defined in the ensuing three games, when the Bulldogs host Kentucky before going to Auburn and Tennessee. Win two of those games, and another 8-4 campaign becomes well within reach. Go 0-3, and even getting to a bowl game becomes in doubt. Mississippi State only plays one opponent after an idle week (Ole Miss), but it gets an FCS opponent the week before. A week off before Alabama probably won’t be that helpful, as that’s not a winnable game, but the extra rest before going to Knoxville could be huge.

Season Prediction

Moorhead is as nice of a guy as there is in college football coaching, but I think he took what should have been a 10-2 team last season and led them to an 8-5 season. That’s concerning heading into a season with a much more questionable roster than the one he had a year ago. I’m not writing him off as a successful SEC head coach, but 2019 feels like a spin of the tires. A 3-0 start will be followed by three straight defeats before an out-of-the-blue upset of LSU, but that will be the team’s only SEC win of the season. The Bulldogs catch Arkansas in the second of back-to-back road trips, which seems dangerous. A battle of 5-6 teams in the Egg Bowl will go the way of Ole Miss, and Moorhead will face a long nine months before a career-defining third season in 2020.

Overall Record: 5-7
SEC Record: 1-7
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: None

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.