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SEC Preview: Mississippi State

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Head Coach: Mike Leach (first season at Mississippi State, 19th season overall); 139-90 overall
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Leach (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Zach Arnett (first season)
2019 Recap: 6-6 (3-5 SEC); lost to Louisville in Music City Bowl
Joe Moorhead and Starkville never clicked, and Moorhead was dismissed after two disappointing seasons with a 14-12 record. The Bulldogs never settled on a quarterback, as Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens and freshman Garrett Shrader rotated in and out of the lineup. Kylin Hill had a great season taking over the No. 1 running back role, but the passing game was inconsistent. There was plenty of talent on defense, but it was down a notch or two from the 2018 unit that led the nation in points allowed. Big plays burnt them far too often a year ago. It looked like Moorhead would be retained after squeaking out a second straight win over Ole Miss, but some locker room issues and an ugly bowl loss caused athletic director John Coen to pull the plug on Moorhead after the turn of the year.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – at LSU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Oct. 3 – ARKANSAS (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alternate)
Oct. 10 – at Kentucky
Oct. 17 – TEXAS A&M
Oct. 24 – Idle
Oct. 31 – at Alabama (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Nov. 7 – VANDERBILT
Nov. 14 – AUBURN
Nov. 21 – at Georgia
Nov. 28 – at Ole Miss
Dec.  5 – MISSOURI

Under Center
Stevens departs, but Shrader is back to compete with Stanford graduate transfer K.J. Costello, who joins Mike Leach in migrating from the West Coast to the Deep South. Costello played the majority of two seasons in Palo Alto before battling injuries and losing his job to freshman Davis Mills during a forgettable 2019 campaign for the Cardinal. He’s certainly the more polished passer of the two, but Leach quarterbacks are often a unique breed.

More than anything else, Shrader is a fearless player. That might work with Leach, but he needs to be a more accurate passer after connecting on just 58 percent of his passes last season. Anthony Gordon, Leach’s quarterback at Washington State in 2019, completed 72 percent of throws. It’s easy to just hand the job to Costello given he was hand-picked by Leach, but some quarterbacks simply don’t connect with Leach’s unique way of coaching and preparing them.

In The Trenches
There’s a moderate amount of experience returning, although the Bulldogs did lose multi-year starter Stewart Reese to former head coach Dan Mullen at Florida. The biggest concern doesn’t come with experience. It’s with the schematic change that comes from going from two run-heavy systems with Mullen and Moorhead to Leach’s Air Raid and wide splits. With no spring, there has been limited time to put the pieces together before the season begins.

Mullen’s big recruiting wins late in his tenure in Starkville have now began to exhaust their eligibility, and the Bulldogs may continue to slide back with their front seven production. The defensive line is a pretty good mix of experience and young talent though, led by senior end Marquiss Spencer and sophomore tackle Nathan Pickering. The linebacking corps loses both Leo Lewis and Willie Gay, but Erroll Thompson returns in the middle of the new 3-3-5 defense as a third-year starter.

On The Edge
Leach has made stars out of wide receivers without a great recruiting pedigree. He’ll have to do the same early on at Mississippi State, as four of the top five targets from 2019 are gone. Senior Osirus Mitchell leads the way. Getting Hill back after he initially elected to turn pro was a major coup. He’s a do-it-all back who should expand his role in the passing game after just 18 receptions as a junior.

Like the other two units on defense, the secondary takes some hits as well with top cornerback Cameron Dantzler going to the NFL. The move to a 3-3-5 should help reduce the number of big plays that were a problem last season, but with only one starter returning, new coordinator Zach Arnett is basically starting from scratch at the back end.

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

Schedule Analysis
Drawing Georgia stinks, but Vanderbilt was the second additional game, so it’s mostly a wash. The Bullies miss both Florida and Tennessee. Getting both the Commodores and Arkansas in Starkville should mean two guaranteed wins. Beyond that, the last two games against Ole Miss and Missouri are the next best chances for victories. Other than playing Auburn and Georgia in consecutive weeks, there aren’t many nasty back-to-back games.

Season Prediction
This is a major schematic overhaul after a hijacked offseason. Wins will be hard to come by. I see Mississippi State has having three certain losses, three likely losses, two near-certain wins, and two toss-ups. I’m not calling for an upset in any of three likely loss games, but an upset of Auburn or Texas A&M is possible, as is a win at Kentucky in Leach’s first trip back to the place where he first made his name coaching under Hal Mumme in the late ‘90s. I’ll call for the trend of road teams wins (four of the last five) to continue in the Egg Bowl, giving Bulldogs fans a shining moment in an otherwise forgettable season.

Record: 3-7
CFP Ranking: NR

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.