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The big 2014 Mississippi State football guide: Fortunes have changed quickly

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Through 10 games in 2013, Mississippi State was 4-6 and Dan Mullen was on the hot seat. Three games later, the Bulldogs had hype and expectations. Are they ready to back it up?

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

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1. Pulling a Rice on Rice

It wasn't quite as extreme, but Rice's 2012 finish and Mississippi State's 2013 finish had similar dynamics.

Two years ago, Rice's once-successful head coach David Bailiff had hit a road block, going just 10-26 from 2009-11 and starting 2012 at 2-6. There was no official "he's going to get fired if he doesn't turn this season around" proclamation, but the vibe was strong. But thanks to both the schedule easing up and Rice improving dramatically, the season did turn around. The Owls won five straight, including a bowl-game romp over Air Force. Instead of getting fired, Bailiff brought a wonderfully experienced squad to the table in 2013 and lived up to decent hype, going 10-4 and winning Conference USA.

Mississippi State fans hope there are more than a few parallels, obviously. After generating lots of hot-young-coach buzz, Dan Mullen seemed to have hit a ceiling in Starkville. His Bulldogs went 9-4 in 2010 and finished 15th in the country, but they went 7-6 in 2011, and only a weak schedule allowed for an 8-5 finish in 2012 (complete with blowout losses to Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, and Ole Miss, plus a 14-point drubbing to Northwestern in the bowl).

Things weren't promising in 2013, either. Competitive early losses to Oklahoma State and Auburn were tamped down by the fact that we didn't know how good those teams were yet. A 33-point loss to LSU and far-too-narrow wins over Bowling Green and Kentucky didn't inspire confidence, and while the Bulldogs were competitive in losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, they were still 4-6, needing two late wins to become bowl eligible.

But the light switch got flipped. MSU survived Arkansas, beat Ole Miss in overtime, then, for lovely parallels, destroyed Rice in the Liberty Bowl.

Suddenly, there's buzz. Dan Mullen's no longer on the hot seat; he's expected to field a top-25-caliber team (or close to it) this time around. MSU was young last year, and if you can survive youth, it soon turns into experience. He's got an experienced offense and a potentially spectacular run defense. He's got a laughably weak non-conference slate (along with conference home games against Arkansas and Vanderbilt) that all but assures bowl eligibility, and he's only an upset or two away from his first nine-win (or better) season in four years.

That's the narrative, anyway. Are his Bulldogs ready for the expectations? This is, after all, a team that only reached bowl eligibility because of the combination of a 4-1 record in one-possession games and extreme turnovers luck (plus-4.6 points per game). This supposed top-25 team lost to top-25 (F/+) teams by an average of 16 points per game last year. And while a late surge and returning experience can often be signs of a sustained breakthrough, are we reading too much from the fact that MSU beat Arkansas and Ole Miss by a combined 14 points? Was the late-season surge anything more than the schedule easing up?

The late surge really wasn't a surge at all, and Mississippi State is absolutely benefiting from the West Virginia Effect (an overreaction to a great bowl performance) to a large degree. But considering injuries and youth, the Bulldogs weren't far away from being quite good in 2013, and they're one of the league's most experienced teams this fall.

They might be receiving too much hype, but they're not too many ifs away from living up to it.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 33
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug vs. Oklahoma State 8 3-21 L 22.9 - 28.9 L
7-Sep Alcorn State N/A 51-7 W 22.3 - 18.8 W
14-Sep at Auburn 4 20-24 L 29.7 - 22.9 W
21-Sep Troy 105 62-7 W 39.7 - 8.6 W
5-Oct LSU 17 26-59 L 41.6 - 35.5 W 8.3
12-Oct Bowling Green 47 21-20 W 40.1 - 22.8 W 12.9
24-Oct Kentucky 97 28-22 W 25.0 - 20.8 W 13.1
2-Nov at South Carolina 10 16-34 L 29.6 - 21.7 W 13.3
9-Nov at Texas A&M 23 41-51 L 33.1 - 28.9 W 7.9
16-Nov Alabama 2 7-20 L 17.7 - 17.8 L 6.7
23-Nov at Arkansas 87 24-17 W 36.7 - 27.5 W 5.1
28-Nov Ole Miss 28 17-10 W 17.5 - 16.1 W 4.6
31-Dec vs. Rice 69 44-7 W 48.5 - 9.8 W 10.7
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +2.9% 50 +12.1% 19 -2.4% 102
Points Per Game 27.7 70 23.0 33
Adj. Points Per Game 31.1 46 21.6 17

2. Schedule matters

Perhaps no team in the country experienced more of a turnaround in schedule strength than MSU did from 2012 to 2013. In 2012, the Bulldogs beat eight teams ranked 57th or worse in the F/+ rankings (average score: MSU 38, Opponent 14), lost to everybody better than that (average score: Opponent 38, MSU 16), and finished 8-5. Despite life in the SEC West, they managed to face five teams ranked 96th or worse and took full advantage.

In 2013, we saw a similar balance. Top-25 teams beat MSU by an average score of 35-19, while MSU beat all teams below that bar by an average score of 35-13. MSU indeed improved -- the better-than/worse-than bar got moved up to the top 25, after all -- by there was still a clear dividing line against good and less-good opponents. A better team took on a much harder schedule and barely survived. MSU even played a decent non-conference schedule, playing Oklahoma State on a neutral field and taking on one of the best Bowling Green teams in recent years.

And no, bowl game aside, the late "surge" really wasn't much of a surge at all.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): MSU 25.0, Opponent 23.5 (plus-1.5)
    (actual record: 1-2)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 6 games): MSU 34.9, Opponent 23.1 (plus-11.8)
    (actual record: 3-3)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): MSU 24.0, Opponent 20.5 (plus-3.5)
    (actual record: 2-1)

In hindsight, the last-minute loss to Auburn and the tight win over Bowling Green each seems more impressive now that we know how good those teams turned out to be. And before quarterback Dak Prescott -- who originally saw the field thanks to injuries to starter Tyler Russell -- injured his elbow in November, the offense seemed to be finding some traction. That the Bulldogs won late in the year despite quarterback injuries could be one of the bigger reasons for optimism.

(And yes, it feels downright anti-social to tamp down "surge" talks, point out significant turnovers luck ... and then talk up the Bulldogs anyway.)

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.16 52 IsoPPP+ 102.9 47
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.2% 55 Succ. Rt. + 103.0 47
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.1 30 Def. FP+ 101.4 41
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 93 Redzone S&P+ 101.0 58
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.3 ACTUAL 18 -7.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 42 52 48 34
RUSHING 43 53 72 36
PASSING 54 46 25 42
Standard Downs 53 52 48
Passing Downs 43 49 59
Q1 Rk 27 1st Down Rk 44
Q2 Rk 37 2nd Down Rk 38
Q3 Rk 63 3rd Down Rk 46
Q4 Rk 87

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Dak Prescott 6'2, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 156 267 1940 10 7 58.4% 8 2.9% 6.8
Tyler Russell 71 109 875 5 3 65.1% 9 7.6% 6.9
Damian Williams 6'1, 225 So. 3 stars (5.6) 23 47 279 0 2 48.9% 5 9.6% 4.9

3. The Dak Show

Looking at full-season numbers, Mississippi State was neither particularly good nor bad at much of anything in 2013. The Bulldogs were pretty efficient throwing the ball (again, an amazing thing to say considering the rotating, banged-up quarterbacks) and showed solid big-play potential on the ground, but a lack of big pass plays and efficient running canceled that out to an extent.

Because of the spectacular bowl performance, there's a pretty clear vision for MSU's offense in 2014, and it centers around quarterback Dak Prescott. He certainly did trounce Rice: 17-for-28 passing for 283 yards and three touchdowns, 14 carries for 78 yards. MSU averaged 7.0 yards per play against the Owls, rushing for 239 yards and passing for 294. It was a balanced, dominant performance ... against a defense ranked 75th in Def. F/+.

The keys for Prescott in 2014 are obvious: stay healthy, and do something against actually good defenses. He was nagged by a foot injury early in 2013 and an elbow injury late, but he was also nagged by the fact that good defenses completely shut him down. He completed 63 percent of his passes at 16.3 yards per completion against Troy and Alcorn State, and he completed 65 percent at 13.8 yards per completion against Kentucky and Rice. In those four games, he had eight touchdown passes and no picks. And he rushed for a combined 293 yards against Bowling Green and Texas A&M as well.

Meanwhile, against Oklahoma State, LSU, and South Carolina, he completed 55 percent of his passes at 9.8 yards per completion with no touchdowns and five interceptions.

He did rush for 103 yards against LSU and 133 against Auburn; his legs are a clear threat. And he's clearly tough enough, as proven when he led a comeback against Ole Miss with a wonky elbow. But we're seeing some "dark horse Heisman!" hype for Prescott, and that won't be justified until he does something, anything, against a good pass defense.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
LaDarius Perkins RB 137 542 2 4.0 5.1 29.9%
Dak Prescott QB 6'2, 235 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 126 897 13 7.1 6.3 50.0%
Josh Robinson RB 5'9, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 78 459 3 5.9 5.6 44.9%
Ashton Shumpert RB 6'2, 218 So. 3 stars (5.7) 46 190 3 4.1 2.7 34.8%
Damian Williams QB 6'1, 225 So. 3 stars (5.6) 32 135 1 4.2 4.0 34.4%
Nick Griffin RB 6'0, 226 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 24 96 1 4.0 1.9 41.7%
Tyler Russell QB 17 71 0 4.2 3.7 41.2%
Derrick Milton RB 13 69 2 5.3 3.7 38.5%
Jameon Lewis WR 5'9, 183 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 117 3 9.0 9.8 53.8%
Brandon Holloway RB 5'8, 160 So. 3 stars (5.6) 8 38 0 4.8 4.6 37.5%
Aeris Williams RB 6'1, 200 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)




Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Jameon Lewis WR 5'9, 183 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 101 64 923 63.4% 24.6% 49.4% 9.1 142 8.9 114.9
Robert Johnson WR 6'1, 211 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 58 34 389 58.6% 14.1% 61.2% 6.7 -43 7.0 48.4
De'Runnya Wilson WR 6'5, 215 So. 3 stars (5.5) 48 26 351 54.2% 11.7% 61.8% 7.3 6 6.9 43.7
Malcolm Johnson TE 6'2, 231 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 48 30 391 62.5% 11.7% 50.0% 8.1 22 7.9 48.7
LaDarius Perkins RB 36 27 248 75.0% 8.8% 38.2% 6.9 -56 6.2 30.9
Joe Morrow WR 6'4, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 32 18 211 56.3% 7.8% 50.0% 6.6 -23 6.0 26.3
Josh Robinson RB 5'9, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 18 12 115 66.7% 4.4% 60.0% 6.4 -28 5.6 14.3
Brandon Holloway RB 5'8, 160 So. 3 stars (5.6) 14 7 77 50.0% 3.4% 100.0% 5.5 -20 1.2 9.6
Fred Ross WR 6'2, 205 So. 4 stars (5.8) 14 9 115 64.3% 3.4% 66.7% 8.2 6 8.8 14.3
Fred Brown WR 6'1, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 9 5 74 55.6% 2.2% 50.0% 8.2 9 7.7 9.2
Jeremey Chappelle WR 9 4 45 44.4% 2.2% 0.0% 5.0 -14 2.9 5.6
B.J. Hammond WR 6'4, 235 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Gabe Myles WR 6'0, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Shelby Christy WR 6'3, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Brandon Wells WR 6'2, 191 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Darrion Hutcherson TE 6'7, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Jamoral Graham WR 5'10, 165 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Ravion Pierce TE 6'4, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

4. An underrated supporting cast ... I think

Looking at full-season averages, there's a lot to like about the skill position lineup. LaDarius Perkins is gone, but he didn't really light the world aflame as a senior. Junior Josh Robinson was both more efficient and explosive than Perkins, and in theory, he could benefit from a full season of Prescott's run threat. (That's if Prescott stays healthy, of course. Yes, backup quarterback Damian Williams has dual-threat potential, but Prescott's clearly more proven.)

At receiver, Jameon Lewis emerged as a lovely No. 1 target, combining decent efficiency (63 percent catch rate) with decent explosiveness (14.4 yards per catch). And of the 10 players to catch at least five passes, nine are back and will be joined by an exciting batch of freshmen (including four-star Jamoral Graham) and redshirt freshmen.

But again, MSU struggled drastically in moving the ball against good defenses, which means these receivers were probably part of the problem. Lewis caught 13 passes for 351 yards (27.0 per catch) against Alcorn State, Troy, and Rice and 51 for 572 (11.2) against everybody else. He caught seven for 111 against LSU, and lord knows having a different quarteback every week didn't help matters.

There's potential here, and the wide array of experience will help. But with the wide disparity of performances between good and bad defenses, it's hard to say how high the ceiling actually is.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 100 3.03 3.04 40.4% 71.1% 21.2% 113.1 4.1% 5.4%
Rank 75 51 83 56 48 92 54 51 46
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Gabe Jackson LG 52 1st All-SEC
Dillon Day C 6'4, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 34
Blaine Clausell LT 6'7, 315 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 29
Charles Siddoway RT 26
Ben Beckwith RG 6'3, 305 Sr. NR 12
Justin Malone RT 6'7, 320 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 5
Justin Senior LT 6'5, 280 So. 3 stars (5.6) 1
Dylan Holley C 1
Damien Robinson RT 6'8, 320 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Archie Muniz C 6'5, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Devon Desper RG 6'3, 300 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Jamaal Clayborn LG 6'4, 315 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Cole Carter LT 6'6, 302 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0
Jake Thomas RT 6'5, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Kent Flowers LG 6'5, 298 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5)
Jocquell Johnson OL 6'4, 305 Jr. 3 stars (5.7)

5. Big, deep, experienced, and not particularly successful

Mississippi State has never lacked for beef under Mullen. This year is no exception. The Bulldogs return five players with starting experience up front (a healthy 81 career starts), and those five players average 6'5, 304, and that's with 280-pound Justin Senior dragging the averages down.

With all-conference guard (and four-year starter) Gabe Jackson leading the way, this line passed the eyeball test. It also saw its line stats fall from 30th in Adj. Line Yards and 29th in Adj. Sack Rate to 75th and 54th, respectively.

The spinning wheel of quarterbacks didn't help. Tyler Russell and Damian Williams were particularly sack-prone; the fact that freshmen and sophomores accounted for more than 20 carries per game didn't help the run stats, either.

Still, the line wasn't nearly as successful as expected last season, and that was with Jackson and LaDarius Perkins. (Was the line the cause for Perkins' mediocre efficiency? Did he just have an off year?) This unit has a bit to prove in 2014.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.16 71 IsoPPP+ 106.5 35
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.3% 51 Succ. Rt. + 116.0 14
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.9 51 Off. FP+ 105.6 8
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.3 79 Redzone S&P+ 109.0 27
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.3 ACTUAL 25.0 +4.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 18 14 14 9
RUSHING 38 10 4 8
PASSING 22 18 49 15
Standard Downs 32 29 69
Passing Downs 2 2 2
Q1 Rk 23 1st Down Rk 35
Q2 Rk 2 2nd Down Rk 3
Q3 Rk 30 3rd Down Rk 15
Q4 Rk 9

6. One hell of a D

I'm not really buying the hype on MSU's offense. But it's still easy for me to talk myself into the Bulldogs, because the defense is going to be awesome.

The Bulldogs ranked 19th in Def. F/+, 10th in Rushing S&P+, 18th in Passing S&P+, and second in Passing Downs S&P+ last year, and they return eight of their top nine linemen, five of their top six linebackers, and 10 of 11 defensive backs. Three starters are gone, but the second string returns fully intact. Last season saw the best MSU defense of the Mullen era, and barring a wave of injuries, the Bulldogs will probably have an even better unit this year.

Then again, injuries might not have a significant impact with such proven depth. This defense got better in the second and fourth quarter in 2013, and the depth has only improved this time around.

The pass rush could stand to improve, but this defense's ability to read, react, and swarm last year was fantastic. Can't wait to see what the Bulldogs have in store defensively.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 113.1 2.92 3.13 34.1% 64.1% 18.6% 87.6 4.1% 6.2%
Rank 25 60 45 20 43 73 85 72 78
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Preston Smith DE 6'6, 267 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 12 36.5 5.4% 6.5 2.5 0 3 1 0
Chris Jones DT 6'5, 300 So. 5 stars (6.1) 13 24.5 3.6% 7.0 3.0 0 3 0 0
Denico Autry DE 13 22.5 3.3% 6.5 2.0 0 3 1 0
Kaleb Eulls DT 6'4, 295 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 17.5 2.6% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
P.J. Jones DT 6'3, 296 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 11 17.0 2.5% 3.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Jefferson DE 6'3, 265 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 15.5 2.3% 4.0 2.0 0 1 1 0
Ryan Brown DE 6'6, 260 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 9.5 1.4% 2.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Nelson Adams DT 6'3, 295 So. 3 stars (5.5) 13 7.0 1.0% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Curtis Virges DT 6'3, 315 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 11 5.5 0.8% 2.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Quay Evans DT 5 2.0 0.3% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Torrey Dale DE 6'6, 250 So. NR 2 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Will Coleman DE 6'5, 248 Jr. 3 stars (5.6)
Cory Thomas DL 6'5, 273 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)







Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Benardrick McKinney LB 6'5, 245 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 13 56.0 8.2% 7.0 3.5 0 0 0 1
Deontae Skinner LB 11 48.5 7.1% 4.5 1.0 1 2 0 0
Matthew Wells LB 6'2, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 39.0 5.7% 6.0 1.0 0 2 1 0
Beniquez Brown LB 6'1, 235 So. 3 stars (5.7) 13 27.5 4.0% 4.5 0.0 0 0 0 1
Richie Brown LB 6'2, 235 So. 4 stars (5.8) 13 27.0 4.0% 3.0 2.0 1 0 0 0
Zach Jackson LB 6'2, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 24.5 3.6% 2.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Ivan Muniz LB 2 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dezmond Harris LB 6'4, 230 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4)
Gerri Green LB 6'4, 221 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)








7. No big plays for you or them

Alabama's defense has built a well-earned reputation for dominance, but the Crimson Tide don't actually make that many big plays behind the line of scrimmage. They just hold you to countless two-yard gains, dogpile your ball-carrier, and wear you down with constant third-and-6s and big hits.

MSU runs a 4-3 defense and doesn't feature nearly as many four- and five-star athletes, but you can see some of the same principles at play here. The Bulldogs had a top-10 run defense despite ranking 73rd in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line), and they had the second-best passing downs defense in the country despite ranking just 78th in Passing Downs Sack Rate. They let you make the first move, then react aggressively and violently.

We should see the same phenomenon this year, especially considering the spine. A defense's backbone consists of its tackles, middle linebacker, and safety. Losing Nickoe Whitley is a blow for the latter, but the tackle position is absolutely loaded, with blue-chip sophomore Chris Jones and seniors Kaleb Eulis and P.J. Jones splitting time. And Benardrick McKinney might be the SEC's best middle linebacker.

Returning linebackers Matthew Wells and Beniquez Brown did show some play-making potential against the run (9.5 non-sack tackles for loss), and the end position isn't bereft of talent. But the middle of this defense is as good as it gets.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kendrick Market SS 5'10, 188 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 52.5 7.7% 1.5 0 0 1 1 0
Nickoe Whitley FS 11 46.5 6.8% 1 0 5 2 2 1
Taveze Calhoun CB 6'1, 184 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 12 39.0 5.7% 1.5 0 3 4 1 0
Justin Cox FS 6'3, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 13 27.0 4.0% 0.5 0 1 3 0 0
Jamerson Love CB 5'10, 175 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 11 24.5 3.6% 1 0 3 7 0 0
Will Redmond CB 6'0, 182 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 8 18.5 2.7% 2.5 0 0 2 0 0
Cedric Jiles CB 5'10, 180 So. 3 stars (5.7) 11 17.0 2.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Deontay Evans FS 5'10, 205 So. 3 stars (5.6) 13 15.0 2.2% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Kivon Coman SS 6'3, 195 So. 3 stars (5.5) 12 14.0 2.1% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Dee Arrington FS 6'1, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 3 8.0 1.2% 1 0 0 1 1 0
Tolando Cleveland DB 6'0, 176 So. 3 stars (5.6) 12 8.0 1.2% 0.5 0 0 1 2 0
Quadry Antoine FS 5'10, 225 So. 3 stars (5.5)
Jay Hughes SS 5'11, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6)
Jahmere Irvin-Sills DB 5'10, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Brandon Bryant DB 5'11, 194 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)
J.T. Gray DB 6'0, 196 Fr. 3 stars (5.7)

8. All sorts of depth in the back

Over the course of 119 team previews, I've probably said it at least 25 times: injuries hurt in the present tense and help in the future tense. MSU dealt with all sorts of shuffling in the defensive backfield; 10 players averaged at least 1.0 tackle per game (a decent sign of a rotation regular), and only three of them played in all 13 games. Star Nickoe Whitley missed two games, and the top four cornerbacks combined to miss 10.

Constant juggling didn't prevent MSU from dominating on passing downs, and now nine of those 10 regulars return. Whitley, star of the Egg Bowl who played most of the season with a torn ACL, was an inspirational figure who will be missed. But when he's the only guy you have to replace, it's a lot easier. This secondary is loaded.

This defense is loaded. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins should have plenty of fun with this group.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Baker Swedenburg 25 42.5 3 7 6 52.0%
Devon Bell 6'2, 185 Jr. 24 41.3 2 9 14 95.8%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Devon Bell 6'2, 185 Jr. 66 61.6 25 1 37.9%
Taylor Earhart 3 57.3 0 0 0.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Devon Bell 6'2, 195 Jr. 25-26 5-9 55.6% 1-5 20.0%
Evan Sobiesk 5'8, 188 So. 15-16 3-5 60.0% 0-1 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Jameon Lewis KR 5'9, 183 Sr. 19 23.5 0
Robert Johnson KR 6'1, 211 Sr. 4 10.3 0
Jameon Lewis PR 5'9, 183 Sr. 22 2.3 0
Brandon Holloway PR 5'8, 160 So. 2 18.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 102
Field Goal Efficiency 122
Punt Return Efficiency 107
Kick Return Efficiency 54
Punt Efficiency 66
Kickoff Efficiency 23
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 109

9. Leaky special teams

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

First, the positives: Devon Bell and the coverage team made kickoffs a strength for MSU.

The negatives: pretty much everything else.

The Bulldogs were somewhere between average and awful in most special teams categories, with non-existent punt returns, average kick returns, and some of the worst place-kicking in the country. Never mind that Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk went 1-for-6 on field goals over 40 yards, though that's bad enough; that they barely made 50 percent of their kicks under 40 yards is terrifying.

When you live in the SEC West, and you don't recruit like Alabama, LSU, or Texas A&M, you have to mind your Ps and Qs on the little details -- field position, finishing drives, etc. Despite a wonderfully efficient defense and solid kickofs, special teams were detrimental to the cause. That can't happen again if MSU wants to approach nine-plus wins.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug Southern Miss 114
6-Sep UAB 116
13-Sep at South Alabama 87
20-Sep at LSU 12
4-Oct Texas A&M 11
11-Oct Auburn 8
25-Oct at Kentucky 75
1-Nov Arkansas 53
8-Nov UT-Martin NR
15-Nov at Alabama 2
22-Nov Vanderbilt 61
29-Nov at Ole Miss 24
Five-Year F/+ Rk 5.8% (44)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 34
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 7 / -5.0
TO Luck/Game +4.6
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)

10. A three-game schedule

It will take some upsets for MSU not to start 3-0 or finish 4-2. Sure, the Bulldogs could get upset at South Alabama (which could have a hell of a defense) or knock off Ole Miss again, but the odds of a combined 7-2 in those two spans of time are pretty high.

So that leaves the three significant contests in the middle. MSU could be every bit of a top-25 team and still lose at LSU and at home to Texas A&M and Auburn, but if the Bulldogs want to make a huge splash this year, they'll need to figure out how to go at least 1-2 in that stretch (which would give them a shot at nine wins in the bowl), preferably 2-1.

That's ... not likely. I don't trust the offense nearly enough to think the Bulldogs can pull that off, and special teams aren't likely to provide an overt amount of assistance. There will be pressure on the defense to play at a top-10 level, and while it might very well do that, I think 8-4 is still about the peak for this team. The path for a special season is clear -- beat A&M and Auburn at home, and you're heading to Tuscaloosa at 8-1 -- but unless the Dak Prescott of the Rice game is the one we'll see in every game regardless of opponent, that's probably not going to happen.