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Mississippi State is still good. Good enough to finish above the SEC West cellar, though?

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The Bulldogs have the SEC's most proven quarterback, by far. But do they have enough to surprise again in the country's toughest division?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Moving forward vs. standing still

Mississippi State has improved significantly for two consecutive seasons. It won 10 games for the first time in 15 years last fall.

The Bulldogs return the most proven quarterback in the SEC, experienced juniors at the skill positions, size in the trenches, and an experienced, physical secondary. Their returning starter total (12) is right around the national median.

Head coach Dan Mullen just hired one of the more aggressive, exciting defensive coordinators in the game.

The Bulldogs have quite a bit going for them, in other words. One thing they don't: a preseason ranking. While every team and every fanbase enjoys crying DISRESPECT!!!, MSU's claim is stronger than most.

Yeah, Mississippi State lost some players, but everybody does. The Bulldogs return plenty of last year's core that ranked No. 1 in mid-November. So what's up?

An anti-bowl bump, for starters. Just as certain teams find themselves ranking higher than they should because of an awesome bowl performance (this year's biggest bump recipient: TCU), some end up with the opposite effect. Mississippi State fell victim to crusty Paul Johnson and his Georgia Tech spread option in the Orange Bowl, allowing approximately 800 rushing yards (okay, 452). The Bulldogs' experience, along with that of the incredibly overrated and underachieving SEC West (we'll come back to that), stuck in voters' memories.

Of course, Ole Miss looked 15 times worse in its bowl and lost a starting quarterback but still landed at 15th in the preseason Coaches Poll. So that doesn't tell the whole story.

The other part is this: MSU's lack of a top 25 ranking is fair. In the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 (the college portion of which is available via $6 PDF), the Bulldogs are projected to rank 29th.

It comes down to two things: track record and recruiting. MSU's five-year F/+ ranking is 27th. The Bulldogs' five-year recruiting ranking is 29th. After playing like an elite team for the first five games of 2014, they were a top-40 team thereafter. On paper, despite last season's accomplishments, MSU feels far more like a top-30 team than a top-15 team. And it's difficult to see the Bulldogs topping last season's ratings.

One more thing: someone in the SEC West has to lose. This is still the best division in FBS. In the FOA 2015, MSU, still a top-30 team, is given a 47 percent chance of going 6-6 or worse.

After rubbing its success in the faces of foes, the SEC has earned the backlash and gleeful mockery following a disappointing bowl showing. You reap what you sow. But we still need context. Ole Miss looked horrendous in getting trounced by TCU. Mississippi State's offense was fine, but its defense got run in circles by one of the two or three best offenses in the country. LSU and Auburn lost tossup games to teams ranked lower than them.

Alabama lost by a touchdown to Ohio State, the only team better than the Tide in 2014. Arkansas looked spectacular in destroying Texas. Texas A&M was fine in disposing of West Virginia. And the inferior SEC East went 5-0, with performances ranging from fine (Florida, South Carolina) to good (Missouri), to tremendous (Georgia, Tennessee).

The SEC went 7-5 in bowls. The Big Ten, which emerged from bowl season as a RISING!! conference that is ON ITS WAY BACK!!, went 6-5. Narratives are funny.

Still, the West did go 2-5. The division we were calling perhaps the best ever last October did not live up to the hype.

Win expectancy data suggested that, given the stats of each game, Alabama, LSU and Auburn should have gone 2-1 instead of 0-3. Arkansas and Texas A&M each did their part. But Ole Miss and Mississippi State, who ranked first and third in the country in October, looked miserable, the culmination of fades that had begun in that month.

Auburn and LSU faded, too, and it was a lot harder to make the Best Ever case for the West at the end of the year. Yep, the West had to settle for Best Division of 2014 instead. (And guess who's going to be the best in 2015?)

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 13
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug Southern Miss 110 49-0 W 97% 44.9 100%
6-Sep UAB 79 47-34 W 83% 22.0 93%
13-Sep at South Alabama 89 35-3 W 98% 47.1 100%
20-Sep at LSU 22 34-29 W 91% 31.5 97%
4-Oct Texas A&M 42 48-31 W 96% 39.8 100%
11-Oct Auburn 7 38-23 W 85% 24.0 87%
25-Oct at Kentucky 68 45-31 W 65% 9.3 74%
1-Nov Arkansas 9 17-10 W 83% 22.2 78%
8-Nov UT-Martin N/A 45-16 W 82% 21.8 100%
15-Nov at Alabama 2 20-25 L 61% 6.4 13%
22-Nov Vanderbilt 115 51-0 W 99% 51.5 100%
29-Nov at Ole Miss 5 17-31 L 39% -6.4 6%
31-Dec vs. Georgia Tech 8 34-49 L 29% -13.0 2%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 40.0 11 22.3 27
Points Per Game 36.9 17 21.7 22

2. Running out of gas

Mississippi State was a speed horse.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 5 weeks): 93% (~top 9 | avg. score: MSU 43, Opp 19)
  • Average Percentile Performance (next 4 weeks): 79% (~top 25 | avg. score: MSU 36, Opp 20)
  • Average Percentile Performance (lsat 4 weeks): 57% (~top 55 | avg. score: MSU 31, Opp 26)

The Bulldogs bolted out against a schedule that featured a trip to Baton Rouge and a visit from an undefeated Texas A&M. In their first five games, they averaged at least 7.1 yards per play four times (including 7.8 against a good LSU defense), and while the defense was glitchy against UAB, it held LSU in check while building a big early lead, and it held A&M to a far-below-average 5.7 yards per play.

MSU moved to No. 1 in the polls following a 15-point win over No. 2 Auburn, but even while they won three games at No. 1, the Bulldogs began to show cracks. After needing quite a few red zone stops to survive Auburn, they allowed 6.6 yards per play to Kentucky, then nearly tripped up against Arkansas by blowing scoring opportunities and getting dominated in field position.

More blown opportunities against Alabama ended MSU's run. And after an easy win over Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs faded, as a speed horse does. The depth just wasn't where it needed to be on defense, and the offense couldn't make up the difference.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.89 43 IsoPPP+ 132.9 12
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 49.9% 6 Succ. Rt. + 126.8 7
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 27.8 27 Def. FP+ 104.0 26
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.8 30 Redzone S&P+ 130.6 6
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 24.9 ACTUAL 23 -1.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 8 10 10 12
RUSHING 23 9 10 10
PASSING 23 12 10 13
Standard Downs 8 8 11
Passing Downs 19 19 18
Q1 Rk 33 1st Down Rk 8
Q2 Rk 14 2nd Down Rk 2
Q3 Rk 7 3rd Down Rk 77
Q4 Rk 13

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Dak Prescott 6'2, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8700 244 396 3449 27 11 61.6% 21 5.0% 8.0
Damian Williams 6'1, 228 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8218 14 23 155 3 0 60.9% 2 8.0% 5.1
Elijah Staley 6'6, 248 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8385
Nick Fitzgerald 6'5, 227 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8133
Nick Tiano 6'4, 231 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8525

3. The ultimate QB for a QB-friendly offense

In last year's Mississippi State preview, I noted how exciting Dak Prescott was and how he had yet to actually do any real damage against a good defense. He was getting a lot of hype, primarily for his bowl performance against Rice, but that didn't do much for me.

Needless to say, he swayed me against LSU. In Baton Rouge, Prescott completed 15 of 24 for 268 yards and two scores, and barring two sacks, he rushed 20 times for 117 yards. With major assists from running back Josh Robinson (16 carries, 197 yards) and receiver Jameon Lewis (five catches, 116 yards), Prescott dominated.

While he wasn't always that good, Prescott's full-season numbers were excellent. He averaged 8 yards per pass attempt (including sacks), rushed for 1,100 yards, and produced a combined 41 touchdowns. More importantly, MSU's offense was balanced and productive overall -- ninth in Rushing S&P+, 12th in Passing S&P+, eighth on standard downs, 19th on passing downs.

Mullen made John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales offensive co-coordinators in 2014, and to say the least, the arrangement worked. They crafted a QB-friendly system, passing more frequently than average on standard downs and opening up run opportunities on passing downs, and with a deep set of skill options and a mean line, Prescott thrived. He still struggled against the best defenses he faced (against Alabama and Ole Miss: 6.1 yards per pass attempt, three interceptions, 3.7 yards per non-sack carry), but, well, almost everybody struggled against them.

The quarterback position is experiencing significant turnover in the SEC: Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Georgia, and South Carolina will field new starters, and Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky might. Only Prescott, Missouri's Maty Mauk, and Arkansas' Brandon Allen have started for full seasons. MSU's projections might not be favorable compared to the rest of the SEC West, but if a game comes down to which quarterback is making plays, that's a game MSU can win.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Josh Robinson RB
190 1203 11 6.3 6.3 44.7% 3 2
Dak Prescott QB 6'2, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8700 189 1107 14 5.9 5.0 45.0% 6 2
Ashton Shumpert RB 6'2, 218 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9189 47 274 2 5.8 5.6 42.6% 1 1
Brandon Holloway RB 5'8, 160 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8494 45 294 1 6.5 5.7 46.7% 0 0
Nick Griffin RB
39 157 1 4.0 2.5 38.5% 1 0
Damian Williams QB 6'1, 228 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8218 14 90 0 6.4 4.6 50.0% 1 0
Jameon Lewis WR
7 56 0 8.0 7.3 57.1% 0 0
Gabe Myles WR 6'0, 192 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 4 35 0 8.8 4.8 75.0% 0 0
Bennie Braswell III RB 5'9, 170 So. NR NR 4 9 0 2.3 1.5 25.0% 0 0
Aeris Williams RB 6'1, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9016
Dontavian Lee RB 6'1, 227 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8358
Nick Gibson RB 5'11, 195 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8914
Alec Murphy RB 6'0, 225 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8581







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
De'Runnya Wilson WR 6'5, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8233 80 47 680 58.8% 19.4% 57.5% 8.5 102 8.5 103.4
Jameon Lewis WR
49 32 380 65.3% 11.9% 73.5% 7.8 -6 8.1 57.8
Fred Ross WR 6'2, 207 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9187 43 30 489 69.8% 10.4% 69.8% 11.4 132 10.6 74.4
Josh Robinson RB
41 28 370 68.3% 10.0% 58.5% 9.0 35 9.0 56.2
Malcolm Johnson TE
40 28 380 70.0% 9.7% 75.0% 9.5 47 9.7 57.8
Fred Brown WR 6'1, 196 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8407 37 18 299 48.6% 9.0% 70.3% 8.1 68 8.7 45.5
Gabe Myles WR 6'0, 192 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 34 22 178 64.7% 8.3% 76.5% 5.2 -88 4.7 27.1
Robert Johnson WR
24 14 227 58.3% 5.8% 54.2% 9.5 54 9.6 34.5
Joe Morrow WR 6'4, 202 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8300 22 17 344 77.3% 5.3% 72.7% 15.6 145 14.1 52.3
Jamoral Graham WR/CB 5'10, 173 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9148 10 5 78 50.0% 2.4% 70.0% 7.8 14 10.2 11.9
Nick Griffin RB
7 3 45 42.9% 1.7% 57.1% 6.4 5 6.5 6.8
Gus Walley TE 6'4, 242 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8147 6 5 56 83.3% 1.5% 66.7% 9.3 -2 9.9 8.5
B.J. Hammond TE 6'4, 242 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8597
Darrion Hutcherson TE 6'7, 260 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8594
Jesse Jackson WR 6'2, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8867
Donald Gray WR 5'10, 193 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9131
Malik Dear WR 5'9, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9100
Deddrick Thomas WR 5'9, 184 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8708
Keith Mixon WR 5'8, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8593
Justin Johnson WR 6'3, 229 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8550

4. Few skill position worries

Skill depth was a strength. Robinson was by far the bell cow in the backfield, but when given the opportunity, Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway shined. Nine players were targeted at least 22 times, and seven averaged at least 8.5 yards per target.

The depth takes a major hit, but thanks to last year's variety, the Bulldogs still return proven pieces. De'Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross, Fred Brown, and Joe Morrow combined to catch 62 percent of their passes while averaging 16.2 yards per catch. Gabe Myles proved efficient for a freshman. And both Shumpert and Holloway averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry, 7.2 after November 1.

Prescott should have more than enough weapons, especially a young pool of freshmen and sophomores (receivers Donald Gray and Malik Dear, running backs Aeris Williams and Nick Gibson) provides an extra threat or two.

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 116.7 3.32 3.25 44.7% 77.1% 18.4% 109.5 3.2% 8.4%
Rank 12 17 67 17 12 51 53 26 81
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Ben Beckwith RG 25 2014 1st All-SEC
Dillon Day C
46
Blaine Clausell LT
42
Justin Malone LG 6'7, 320 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8400 16
Justin Senior RT 6'5, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8130 14
Devon Desper RG 6'4, 305 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8694 2
Archie Muniz C
1
Damien Robinson RT 6'8, 330 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9469 0
Rufus Warren LT 6'9, 299 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8300 0
Jocquell Johnson C 6'4, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8503 0
Cole Carter LT 6'6, 299 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8317 0
Jamaal Clayborn C 6'4, 315 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8342 0
Jake Thomas LG 6'5, 320 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8835 0
Deion Calhoun RG 6'3, 303 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8106
Martinas Rankin RT 6'5, 302 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9125
Darryl Williams OL 6'2, 305 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8758

5. It's all on the line

Granted, MSU's line was a little too nasty at times -- center Dillon Day got suspended for some cheap shots against LSU -- but it did its job. The Bulldogs were lights-out in short-yardage situations and created plenty of open-field opportunities for their backs.

Prescott had quite a bit to do with that, because of his strength and run threat. Still, the numbers were strong. And now MSU must replace an all-SEC guard (Ben Beckwith) and two players who started for more than three seasons (Day, Blaine Clausell).

There's still plenty of experience. Three players have combined for 32 starts, and there could be as many as six juniors and three seniors on the two-deep. And goodness knows the Bulldogs have all the size they need: the 10 returnees listed above average 6'6, 309. But turnover could result in regression, and with three huge games (LSU, at Auburn, at Texas A&M) among their first five, the Bulldogs cannot afford dropoff.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.85 67 IsoPPP+ 109.3 44
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.3% 40 Succ. Rt. + 118.6 16
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.1 90 Off. FP+ 101.0 51
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.6 8 Redzone S&P+ 120.8 16
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 27.5 ACTUAL 23.0 -4.5
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 86 31 20 44
RUSHING 44 56 29 76
PASSING 117 13 23 13
Standard Downs 47 31 60
Passing Downs 13 10 16
Q1 Rk 16 1st Down Rk 50
Q2 Rk 26 2nd Down Rk 55
Q3 Rk 52 3rd Down Rk 42
Q4 Rk 86

6. Hello again, Manny

Diaz is also a proven coordinator. According to Def. S&P+, over his last five full seasons, he has produced a top-50 defense at Middle Tennessee (in 2009), a top-35 defense at Mississippi State (2010), a top-10 defense at Texas (2011), and a top-25 defense at Louisiana Tech.

Diaz's Bulldogs were absurdly aggressive, ranking third in Havoc Rate (21.3 percent), second in tackles for loss (114), first in passes defensed (92), 11th in Stuff Rate (24.6 percent), and 24th in Adj. Sack Rate. Tech ranked 12th in Rushing S&P+, 22nd in Passing S&P+, and 25th in points allowed per scoring opportunity. No matter what you wanted to do, two Tech defenders were there to stop you.

-- The 2015 Louisiana Tech guide

In five years, Diaz has gone from rising star to failure to rising star.

His stint at Texas did not end well (after a No. 7 ranking in Def. S&P+ in 2011, his Longhorns fell to 40th in 2012, and he was sent packing two games into 2013), but it didn't take him long to rebound.

He took over Skip Holtz's Louisiana Tech defense last year and engineered stunning improvement. Tech improved from 109th to 24th in Def. S&P+, three spots higher than Mississippi State's defense. So when Geoff Collins left Starkville to take the Florida D.C. position, Mullen called up an old friend.

How MSU's new defense works

Diaz returns to Starkville after a successful season there in 2010. While he inherits a defense that might struggle from a depth perspective -- MSU was far worse in the second halves of games and must now replace four of its top eight linemen and three of five linebackers -- his D should have a strong backbone.

Tackles Chris Jones, Nelson Adams, and Nick James, linebackers Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown, and safeties Kendrick Market, Kivon Coleman, and Deontay Evans assure that MSU has experience, size, and potential up the middle. That could give Diaz some leeway if he cannot find excellent weapons on the edges.

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 104.6 2.84 3.87 39.0% 71.7% 19.1% 111.5 7.0% 6.8%
Rank 44 53 119 65 93 69 38 23 78
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Preston Smith DE
13 35.0 4.7% 15.0 9.0 2 3 2 0
Ryan Brown DE 6'6, 266 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8485 13 28.0 3.7% 7.0 3.5 0 0 0 0
Kaleb Eulls DT
13 22.0 2.9% 3.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
A.J. Jefferson DE 6'3, 277 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8874 13 21.0 2.8% 7.0 2.5 0 0 2 0
P.J. Jones DT
13 19.5 2.6% 1.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Chris Jones DT 6'6, 308 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9912 13 17.5 2.3% 3.5 3.0 0 2 0 0
Nelson Adams DT 6'3, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8547 13 12.5 1.7% 2.0 1.5 0 1 0 0
Curtis Virges DT
13 10.0 1.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nick James DT 6'5, 325 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9246 13 7.5 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Torrey Dale DE 6'6, 252 Jr. NR 0.8376 11 3.0 0.4% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Will Coleman DE 6'5, 250 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8610
Cory Thomas DT 6'5, 301 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631
Grant Harris DT 6'3, 273 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8454
Braxton Hoyett DT 6'3, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7985
Jonathan Calvin DE 6'3, 263 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656
Fletcher Adams DE 6'2, 267 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9234
Kendell Jones DE 6'4, 265 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8595








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Benardrick McKinney LB
13 53.0 7.1% 8.0 3.0 0 4 1 1
Beniquez Brown LB 6'1, 238 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9126 13 46.0 6.1% 7.0 2.0 2 2 0 0
Christian Holmes LB
13 43.5 5.8% 2.0 0.0 0 1 2 1
Richie Brown LB 6'2, 245 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8865 13 37.0 4.9% 1.0 0.0 3 3 0 0
Matthew Wells LB
13 35.0 4.7% 8.5 4.0 0 8 1 0
Zach Jackson LB 6'2, 212 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600 12 27.0 3.6% 1.0 0.5 0 1 1 0
Dezmond Harris LB 6'4, 239 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8144 6 8.0 1.1% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
J.T. Gray LB 6'0, 196 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590 6 6.5 0.9% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Quadry Antoine LB
9 4.5 0.6% 1.0 1.0 0 1 1 0
Gerri Green LB 6'4, 243 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8981
Traver Jung LB 6'3, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8762
Leo Lewis LB 6'2, 240 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9674
Tim Washington LB 6'3, 198 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8838
Keith Joseph Jr. LB 6'3, 233 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8634








7. The run defense was already shaky

Despite size, experience, and variety (six players with at least seven tackles for loss), MSU was mediocre against ground games. Granted, Georgia Tech did a lot of damage by itself, but other teams found success, too. Auburn's Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne combined for 177 rushing yards, Arkansas' Alex Colins rushed 16 times for 93, and Ole Miss' Jaylen Walton had 14 carries for 148, including a 91-yarder that all but iced the game.

Walton's run was the most telling. MSU's run efficiency numbers were fine, but the Bulldogs gave up too many big plays. They allowed 64 rushes of 10-plus yards (59th in FBS) and six of 40-plus (83rd). Geoff Collins wanted MSU to be as aggressive as possible, and that had an occasional downside.

And now MSU has to do with lesser depth in the front seven. The 2015 signing class could throw the defense a lifeline -- JUCO transfers Jonathan Calvin (DE) and Traver Jung (LB) join the jewels of the 2015 class, Fletcher Adams (DE) and Leo Lewis (LB). But if the newcomers don't click, then MSU could have a seasoned starting seven and complete unknowns on the second string.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Will Redmond CB 6'0, 186 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8976 12 44.0 5.9% 3 0 3 5 0 0
Taveze Calhoun CB 6'1, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8500 13 44.0 5.9% 3.5 0 1 9 1 0
Kendrick Market FS 5'10, 196 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8700 12 39.0 5.2% 1.5 0 0 1 0 0
Kivon Coman SS 6'3, 196 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8317 13 29.5 3.9% 1 0 0 6 0 0
Deontay Evans FS 5'10, 204 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8472 13 28.0 3.7% 1 0 0 3 0 0
Jamerson Love CB
13 25.5 3.4% 3 0.5 0 9 0 0
Tolando Cleveland CB 6'0, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8268 13 25.0 3.3% 2 0.5 2 7 0 0
Jay Hughes SS
13 20.5 2.7% 0 0 2 0 0 0
Justin Cox FS
9 18.0 2.4% 0.5 0 1 4 0 0
Jahmere Irvin-Sills CB
9 7.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Cedric Jiles CB 5'10, 182 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8559
Jamoral Graham CB 5'10, 173 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9148
Brandon Bryant SS 5'11, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8640
Jamal Peters S 6'2, 206 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9720
Maurice Smitherman CB 5'9, 178 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8807
Chris Stamps CB 6'0, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8670
Mark McLaurin DB 6'2, 210 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8598








8. A potentially nasty secondary

Last year's pass defense (13th in Passing S&P+) was negated by glitchy run defense (56th in Rushing S&P+). Unless Diaz and some newcomers can make a positive impact with the front seven, we could see a more extreme version.

The front seven may be thinner, but the secondary is loaded. The top three safeties return, and more importantly, so do three explosive corners.

Will Redmond, Taveze Calhoun, and Tolando Cleveland combined for 8.5 tackles for loss, six interceptions, and 21 break-ups, and all three return. Exciting sophomore Jamoral Graham makes the switch from receiver to cornerback, as well. Granted, quite a few backups are gone, meaning the second string could be just as young as it is in the front seven, but that only might be a problem. You never know how injuries are going to affect you, but if the defense stays reasonably healthy, Diaz will have some fun pieces to deploy.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Devon Bell 6'2, 190 Sr. 50 43.2 5 16 18 68.0%
Logan Cooke 6'5, 216 So. 10 41.4 0 6 2 80.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Logan Cooke 6'5, 216 So. 54 61.7 15 2 27.8%
Devon Bell 6'2, 190 Sr. 29 63.8 11 0 37.9%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Evan Sobiesk 56-59 11-12 91.7% 1-2 50.0%
Westin Graves 6'0, 163 So. 4-5 0-0 N/A 0-1 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Robert Johnson KR 12 17.8 0
Brandon Holloway KR 5'8, 160 Jr. 8 19.9 0
Jamoral Graham PR 5'10, 173 So. 14 4.8 0
Fred Ross PR 6'2, 207 Jr. 7 10.7 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 47
Field Goal Efficiency 77
Punt Return Efficiency 104
Kick Return Efficiency 41
Punt Efficiency 47
Kickoff Efficiency 9
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 33

9. Got a return man?

MSU's kicking, punting, and coverage were strengths in 2014, but the team's overall special teams efficiency ratings were dinged a bit by shaky kicking (three missed PATs) and almost nonexistent returns. The Bulldogs ranked 85th in kick return average and 97th in punt return average, and while most of last year's return men are back, they need to produce. Fred Ross showed promise late in the year as a punt returner, though, so maybe a turnaround is on the way.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep at Southern Miss 108
12-Sep LSU 8
19-Sep Northwestern State NR
26-Sep at Auburn 5
3-Oct at Texas A&M 22
10-Oct Troy 124
17-Oct Louisiana Tech 50
24-Oct Kentucky 52
5-Nov at Missouri 23
14-Nov Alabama 1
21-Nov at Arkansas 12
28-Nov Ole Miss 6
Five-Year F/+ Rk 21.1% (27)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 29 / 29
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 2.7
2014 TO Luck/Game -1.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 9.5 (0.5)

10. MSU should be pretty good (and it might not matter)

Scouting the enemy

Mississippi State has a good quarterback, good skill position guys, a good secondary, and potentially exciting answers in less proven units (offensive line, defensive line, linebacker). Mullen's seventh squad should be tough.

But as I found myself saying in my Pac-12 previews, someone has to lose these games. Every team in the SEC West has top-15 potential and is likely to rank in the top-30 or top-40 at worst.

Texas A&M's defense has big questions, and injuries could change the prognosis for any of these teams, but the bottom line is, MSU looks like a team destined for the No. 21-30 range. That could make the Bulldogs No. 6 or so in the West. Hosting Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU is a good thing, but trips to Auburn, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Arkansas loom.

This is a rugged conference slate, and while a weak non-conference (headlined by a visit from Diaz's last team, Louisiana Tech) should ensure a bowl trip, matching last year's 10-win prowess will be awfully difficult.