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Dan Mullen is as good at coaching Mississippi State as he is bad at public relations

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Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have the task of carrying on Dak Prescott's legacy.

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. Roster Management 101

Dan Mullen hasn't had the most enjoyable offseason.

The eighth-year Mississippi State head coach has won 19 games over the last two years and 50 over the last six but has had to deal with some doom-and-gloom forecasts. Now that quarterback Dak Prescott is gone, conventional wisdom says his Bulldogs are supposed to sink back toward the bottom of the rugged SEC West.

Granted, this means he's been able to fill the "DISRESPECT!!!" coffers for his players. But even if this is bad news disguised as good news, Mullen has also had a PR nightmare of his own doing. Mississippi State suspended Jeffery Simmons, blue-chip freshman and bellcow of the 2016 signing class, for one game for punching a woman, and then Mullen failed to explain his program's decision when confronted at SEC Media Days.

We can talk about the missing context of that statement -- Simmons was trying to break up a fight, he was defending his family, etc. -- but even by college football's mostly awful standards, a one-game suspension is pretty pathetic. He received the same punishment for blowing a gasket as he might have for blowing a class. The school quite clearly played favorites, not wanting a potential star to lose much time or instead attend a rival university. Athletic director Scott Stricklin basically admitted the latter part.

So yeah, Mullen deserved to have a frustrating offseason, whether he was directly or indirectly involved in the announced punishment.

This came after another winter with Mullen in the coaching carousel. He was tied to seemingly every vacant power-conference job, and while that was perhaps as much an attempt at gaining leverage with his own university, it was also a reminder of MSU's perceived placement in college football's pecking order.

Now MSU will soon take the field, where Mullen's engineered a remarkable run. Here's a list of the eight teams that have finished in the S&P+ top 20 each of the last three years: Alabama, Baylor, Clemson, LSU, Mississippi State, Ohio State, Stanford, and (just barely) USC.

Five of the eight are recruiting powers, Baylor has (had?) built the best offensive powerhouse in the country, and Stanford is nearly an elite recruiter. But with a five-year recruiting ranking of just 27th and a rotating cast of characters at defensive coordinator (Mullen's now on his third in three years), MSU has sustained a high level of play, perhaps its highest since before World War II. While Prescott played a huge role in that, he wasn't the only one.

Mullen has mastered the art of roster balance. Just about every unit has experienced upperclassmen and exciting underclassmen. Like Stanford's David Shaw, he seems to go out of his way to get a lot of guys experience, and he has been able to replace important talent with guys of a similar stature from year to year.

Now comes the ultimate test. If you ignore quarterback, MSU appears loaded with depth and intriguing talent once again. The top four running backs are back, joined by a four-star redshirt freshman. Four of the top six wideouts are back, joined by two four-star true freshmen. Five offensive linemen return with starting experience -- three seniors and two sophomores.

On defense, it's the same story. The star of the line (A.J. Jefferson) returns and is joined by five players who made at least 7.5 tackles last year, a four-star redshirt freshman, and, yes, Simmons. The quarterback of the linebacking corps (Richie Brown) is back alongside three contributors and a pair of four-star freshmen. The top three tacklers in the secondary are back, along with four other contributors, two of whom are sophomores.

This is a Mississippi State team, in other words.

But now we find out exactly how much Prescott was worth. Can depth offset the loss of your biggest star? MSU is stocked with potential replacements -- junior Damian Williams, sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, redshirt freshman Nick Tiano -- but with almost certain drop-off at the most important position, can that carry MSU?

This is Bill C's daily preview series, working its way through every 2016 team. Catch up on the SEC so far!

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 16 | Final S&P+ Rk: 16
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep at Southern Miss 56 34-16 W 87% 84% -1.7 -3.0
12-Sep LSU 10 19-21 L 41% 8% +2.1 +3.0
19-Sep Northwestern State N/A 62-13 W 95% 100% +4.9
26-Sep at Auburn 33 17-9 W 84% 91% +7.0 +9.5
3-Oct at Texas A&M 34 17-30 L 24% 1% -2.4 -6.0
10-Oct Troy 90 45-17 W 98% 100% +8.0 -2.5
17-Oct Louisiana Tech 57 45-20 W 91% 92% +25.0 +11.5
24-Oct Kentucky 91 42-16 W 95% 100% +11.6 +14.5
5-Nov at Missouri 75 31-13 W 90% 99% +5.5 +10.5
14-Nov Alabama 1 6-31 L 30% 0% -18.6 -17.5
21-Nov at Arkansas 11 51-50 W 76% 63% +4.5 +4.5
28-Nov Ole Miss 5 27-38 L 40% 3% -9.3 -10.0
30-Dec vs. NC State 49 51-28 W 92% 97% +21.1 +17.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 39.2 16 24.2 40
Points Per Game 34.4 33 23.2 36

2. A late defensive fade

There was quite a bit of turnover in the defensive front seven heading into 2015. Both the line and linebacking corps had to replace three of their top five tacklers, and while the Bulldogs were pretty lucky there from an injuries perspective, iffy depth up front and a couple of key losses in the secondary seemed to spark some late-season issues.

  • First 9 games:
    Record: 7-2 | Average percentile performance: 78% (~top 30) | Yards per play: MSU 6.6, Opp 4.9 (+1.7)
  • Last 4 games:
    Record: 2-2 | Average percentile performance: 60% (~top 50) | Yards per play: Opp 6.5, MSU 6.1 (-0.4)

Playing Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss will probably prompt some defensive breakdowns, but the difference in quality was stark. Manny Diaz's defense looked the part for a little while, then very much did not.

In a way, this was only so costly. MSU was going to lose to Alabama anyway and managed to pull off a win in an incredible back-and-forth contest in Fayetteville. But the Ole Miss game would have perhaps flipped in MSU's favor had the Bulldogs allowed, say, 6.2 yards per play instead of 7.2.

Diaz is gone, but the front seven doesn't lose quite as much this offseason. The defense will likely need to improve to offset offensive regression, but with three top-30 Def. S&P+ performances in the last five years, that is at least a possibility.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.27 63 IsoPPP+ 121.0 17
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 46.2% 20 Succ. Rt. + 118.7 11
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 28.3 39 Def. FP+ 27.9 34
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 5.2 11 Redzone S&P+ 123.8 6
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 26.9 ACTUAL 18 -8.9
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 31 13 11 17
RUSHING 101 37 28 47
PASSING 14 12 10 13
Standard Downs 16 15 22
Passing Downs 13 13 15
Q1 Rk 7 1st Down Rk 12
Q2 Rk 13 2nd Down Rk 23
Q3 Rk 30 3rd Down Rk 3
Q4 Rk 1

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Dak Prescott 316 477 3793 29 5 66.2% 29 5.7% 7.1
Nick Fitzgerald 6'5, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8133 11 14 235 3 0 78.6% 0 0.0% 16.8
Damian Williams
(2014)
6'1, 229 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8218 14 23 155 3 0 60.9% 2 8.0% 5.1
Elijah Staley



3 5 51 1 0 60.0% 0 0.0% 10.2
Nick Tiano 6'4, 239 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8525








Wyatt Roberts 6', 195 Jr. NR NR








3. New QB Roulette!

Tyler Russell was pretty good when healthy. Prescott's predecessor was fantastic during MSU's 7-0 start in 2012 and played well against LSU and Arkansas late in that season, too. He was particularly good on passing downs.

Russell suffered a concussion early in 2013 and played only sporadically; he was replaced by Prescott but came back to play beautiful football in a late-season win over Arkansas. His passer rating over his final two seasons: a solid 136.9.

I mention this only to remind you Mississippi State can produce a pretty solid quarterback not named Dak.

There's no question the Bulldogs' level of play rose over the last two years, when Prescott became ingrained as MSU starter. His ability to pick up tough yards on the ground while also passing efficiently was invaluable. But the product doesn't have to completely collapse in his absence.

I like where the current baseline is set. Granted, most of Nick Fitzgerald's action came against Northwestern State and Troy last year, but the simple fact that his rushing numbers were as efficient as Prescott's and his passing numbers were almost literally perfect was a reminder that there could be life after Dak.

We shouldn't overreact to small samples (just ask Auburn's Jeremy Johnson), and the fact that Fitzgerald hasn't run away with the starting job tells you he probably isn't as good as his sample suggested. But he's big, reasonably mobile, and throws a pretty accurate ball. If someone beats him out, that someone is probably pretty solid.

Also, MSU just added Wyatt Roberts, who started over Auburn's John Franklin III for most of the JUCO season chronicled in Netflix's Last Chance U.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Dak Prescott QB 131 780 10 6.0 5.9 40.5% 9 4
Brandon Holloway RB 5'8, 165 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8494 93 413 0 4.4 3.4 38.7% 3 2
Ashton Shumpert RB 6'2, 218 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9189 59 228 1 3.9 2.9 33.9% 2 2
Aeris Williams RB 6'1, 217 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9016 40 206 3 5.2 3.7 47.5% 1 1
Nick Fitzgerald QB 6'5, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8133 23 127 3 5.5 5.1 43.5% 1 0
Dontavian Lee RB 6'1, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8358 22 137 0 6.2 6.2 40.9% 0 0
Malik Dear WR 5'9, 220 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9100 11 110 1 10.0 14.9 45.5% 0 0
Gabe Myles WR 6'0, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 7 11 1 1.6 2.7 28.6% 0 0
Nick Gibson RB 5'11, 204 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8914
Alec Murphy RB 6'0, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8581







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Fred Ross SLOT 6'2, 205 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9187 121 88 1007 72.7% 24.8% 8.3 64.5% 54.5% 1.40
De'Runnya Wilson WR 98 60 918 61.2% 20.1% 9.4 63.3% 58.2% 1.52
Brandon Holloway RB 5'8, 165 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8494 43 33 396 76.7% 8.8% 9.2 62.8% 41.9% 2.14
Fred Brown WR
42 27 412 64.3% 8.6% 9.8 69.0% 59.5% 1.50
Malik Dear SLOT 5'9, 220 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9100 31 23 226 74.2% 6.4% 7.3 83.9% 64.5% 1.04
Donald Gray WR 5'10, 204 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9131 30 21 386 70.0% 6.2% 12.9 63.3% 56.7% 2.14
Gus Walley TE
25 19 146 76.0% 5.1% 5.8 80.0% 48.0% 1.19
Ashton Shumpert RB 6'2, 218 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9189 21 13 109 61.9% 4.3% 5.2 52.4% 33.3% 1.42
Gabe Myles WR 6'0, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532 19 12 175 63.2% 3.9% 9.2 57.9% 31.6% 2.98
Darrion Hutcherson TE 19 16 164 84.2% 3.9% 8.6 73.7% 52.6% 1.57
Joe Morrow WR 13 6 100 46.2% 2.7% 7.7 61.5% 46.2% 1.58
Aeris Williams RB 6'1, 217 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9016 8 6 18 75.0% 1.6% 2.3 50.0% 25.0% 0.72
Justin Johnson TE 6'3, 239 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8550 7 5 41 71.4% 1.4% 5.9 71.4% 71.4% 0.80
Jesse Jackson WR 6'2, 211 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8867 3 0 0 0.0% 0.6% 0.0 66.7% 0.0% 0.00
Deddrick Thomas WR 5'9, 188 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8708
Keith Mixon SLOT 5'8, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8593
Jonnas Spivey WR 6'0, 200 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8489
Farrod Green TE 6'3, 232 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8176
Jordan Thomas TE 6'5, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8626
Reginald Todd WR 6'4, 192 Fr. NR 0.9100
Jamal Couch WR 6'4, 223 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8863
Dontea Jones TE 6'4, 254 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8641

4. Efficiency options are a new QB's best friend

The run game stopped producing quite as many big plays when running back Josh Robinson and three starting linemen departed. But the efficiency was still decent with little Brandon Holloway and big Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams splitting carries. Meanwhile, almost no team was able to more efficiently lean on its slot receivers than MSU; Fred Ross had a wonderful 55 percent success rate, and backup Malik Dear (65 percent) exceeded even that in limited chances.

If you've got running backs who can consistently gain four or five yards (Holloway also averaged 9.2 yards per target), and if you've got slot receivers who can consistently gain six to eight, you're going to be able to prevent a new quarterback from facing too many second- or third-and-long situations. That's very good.

Granted, you also want big plays so that you don't have to operate mistake-free for eight to 10 snaps at a time to score points. And unless a receiver like Donald Gray or Gabe Myles successfully takes on a larger role, I'm not sure who will provide those. But efficiency is step one.

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 111.9 2.91 3.44 40.4% 71.4% 20.2% 104.4 5.6% 7.4%
Rank 17 62 45 45 35 83 56 78 64
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Justin Malone LG 13 29
Justin Senior RT 6'5, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8130 12 26
Devon Desper RG 6'4, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8694 13 15
Jamaal Clayborn C 6'4, 315 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8342 12 12
Rufus Warren LT 11 11
Elgton Jenkins LT 6'4, 305 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8306 3 3
Deion Calhoun LG 6'3, 308 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8106 1 1
Jocquell Johnson C 6'4, 301 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8503 0 0
Damien Robinson RG 0 0
Cole Carter RT
0 0
Martinas Rankin LT 6'5, 307 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9125 0 0
Darryl Williams RG 6'2, 303 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8758

Harrison Moon C 6'4, 290 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8535

Michael Story LG 6'4, 295 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8324

Stewart Reese RG 6'5, 340 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8793

Greg Eiland LT 6'7, 304 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8529

Dareuan Parker LG 6'4, 325 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8249

5. A line you can probably lean on

The MSU offensive line wasn't quite as successful as 2014's, which makes sense considering the Bulldogs lost two 40-game starters and an all-conference guard. The leaks were a bit more prevalent in run blocking, but MSU was still solid in short yardage. (Having Prescott probably didn't hurt those numbers.)

Two more starters are gone this year, but the experience level appears solid, with three senior starters returning, along with two sophomores who saw spot starts, a four-star JUCO redshirt (Martinas Rankin), and a veteran reserve (Jocquell Johnson). Unless the new QB is far less of a short-yardage presence than Prescott, the line should be fine. It's all about big plays with this offense -- the efficiency should be there.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.19 29 IsoPPP+ 110.2 37
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.6% 77 Succ. Rt. + 101.8 58
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.6 74 Off. FP+ 29.9 64
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.2 45 Redzone S&P+ 107.7 35
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.3 ACTUAL 14.0 -6.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 56 45 58 37
RUSHING 70 50 53 44
PASSING 57 43 68 36
Standard Downs 55 77 41
Passing Downs 23 20 27
Q1 Rk 37 1st Down Rk 42
Q2 Rk 49 2nd Down Rk 29
Q3 Rk 50 3rd Down Rk 36
Q4 Rk 48

6. A Peter Sirmon defense

As with his first stint in Starkville (2010), Diaz served one year as Mullen's coordinator before taking on another gig.

He wasn't quite as successful the second time -- despite decent havoc numbers, the Bulldogs weren't as efficient as they needed to be. MSU stiffened in short-yardage situations and invaded the backfield a decent amount, but opponents still gained at least five yards in 42 percent of their carries (103rd in FBS). Meanwhile, the secondary allowed a 61 percent completion rate; take out the Missouri and NC State games, and that rises to 63 percent.

MSU was still strong on passing downs but struggled to force them. And now Mullen brings in a coach from a defense that forced passing downs well but let opponents off the hook.

USC's 2015 defense ranked 14th in Standard Downs Success Rate+ but only 39th on passing downs; the Trojans didn't have quite enough disruptive pieces up front, and a young secondary suffered too many glitches to play at a level commensurate with its recruiting rankings. Peter Sirmon was Justin Wilcox's linebackers coach on that defense. He served under Wilcox at Tennessee, Washington, and USC, and he also served as recruiting coordinator at those last two stops. One assumes he's being brought in as much for recruiting as for his proven defensive prowess, but he could still succeed as coordinator.

Wilcox tends to lean on a 3-4 defense, but Sirmon seems to be preaching flexibility. (Diaz did the same.) His "VIPER" position will serve as a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid.

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 108 2.86 2.82 41.9% 56.0% 22.4% 116.4 6.7% 7.0%
Rank 39 64 33 103 18 36 38 18 74
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
A.J. Jefferson DE 6'3, 280 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8874 13 37.0 4.7% 13.5 5.0 0 3 1 0
Chris Jones NG 13 30.0 3.8% 7.5 2.5 0 4 0 0
Ryan Brown DE 12 26.0 3.3% 8.0 2.5 0 5 0 0
Johnathan Calvin DE 6'3, 272 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8656 13 19.5 2.5% 5.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Nick James NG 6'5, 320 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9246 13 17.5 2.2% 3.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Nelson Adams NG 6'3, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8547 13 15.5 2.0% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Will Coleman DE 6'5, 250 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8610 13 11.0 1.4% 2.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Torrey Dale DE 6'6, 277 Sr. NR 0.8376 13 7.5 1.0% 0.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Cory Thomas DE 6'5, 313 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631 8 2.0 0.3% 1.0 1.0 1 0 0 0
Braxton Hoyett NG 6'3, 305 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7985 7 2.0 0.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Fletcher Adams DE 6'2, 274 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9234
Tre Brown NG 6'4, 309 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544
Jeffery Simmons DE 6'4, 310 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9862
Kobe Jones DL 6'3, 278 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.9026








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Richie Brown ILB 6'2, 240 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8865 13 80.0 10.2% 13.0 6.5 1 2 0 0
Beniquez Brown ILB 13 73.5 9.4% 11.0 4.0 1 2 0 0
J.T. Gray OLB 6'0, 197 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590 13 46.0 5.9% 3.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Gerri Green VIPER 6'4, 243 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8981 13 34.5 4.4% 2.5 0.0 2 1 0 0
Zach Jackson LB 11 32.0 4.1% 4.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
DeAndre Ward OLB 6'1, 219 Sr. NR NR 13 11.0 1.4% 1.0 0.5 0 0 0 0
Dezmond Harris LB 6'4, 236 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8144 7 6.0 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kelan Chairs ILB 6'0, 218 Jr. NR NR 12 2.0 0.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Traver Jung OLB 6'3, 229 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8762
Leo Lewis ILB 6'2, 230 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9674
Tim Washington ILB 6'3, 225 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8838
Anfernee Mullins VIPER 6'3, 261 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8426
Marquiss Spencer VIPER 6'3, 270 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9047
Erroll Thompson LB 6'1, 262 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8784








7. Few boring plays

At first glance, Sirmon should have some attacking talent up front.

Jefferson is exciting, and he's big enough to withstand the role of a 3-4 defensive end when asked to do so. Linebacker Richie Brown is a shit-stirrer on the interior. Ends Johnathan Calvin and Will Coleman could thrive given more opportunities, big sophomore Cory Thomas barely saw the field but still made a sack and interception, JUCO transfer Tre Brown adds another big body to the mix, and youngsters Fletcher Adams, Kobe Jones, and (fair or not) Simmons are all big and athletic enough to contribute.

Meanwhile, sophomore Gerri Green could take well to the VIPER position -- he's the size of a 4-3 defensive end (6'4, 243), and he proved dangerous in both run support (2.5 non-sack tackles for loss) and pass coverage (three passes defensed).

These are all good things! But attacking wasn't really the problem for MSU last year. The problem was when the attacks didn't hit their mark. Solid safety play helped to prevent too many serious gashes, but if the Bulldogs didn't make a stop behind the line, they were giving up five or 10 yards. The Wilcox USC defense wasn't quite as aggressive as MSU's, but it will be interesting to see how Sirmon balances this risk-reward exchange.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Kivon Coman FS 6'3, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8317 13 57.5 7.3% 4 0.5 1 7 0 0
Brandon Bryant SS 6'0, 215 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8640 13 54.5 6.9% 2 1.5 3 3 1 0
Tolando Cleveland CB 6'0, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8268 13 34.5 4.4% 4.5 1 0 3 1 0
Taveze Calhoun CB 12 31.5 4.0% 6.5 0 2 8 0 0
Deontay Evans FS
13 26.5 3.4% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Will Redmond CB 7 21.5 2.7% 0 0 2 1 0 0
Jamoral Graham CB 5'10, 183 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9148 12 19.5 2.5% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Jamal Peters FS 6'2, 217 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9720 12 18.5 2.4% 1.5 1 0 2 0 0
Kendrick Market SS 4 18.0 2.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Mark McLaurin SS 6'2, 218 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8598 12 15.0 1.9% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Cedric Jiles CB 5'10, 186 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8559 12 11.5 1.5% 0 0 0 4 0 0
Chris Rayford CB 6'0, 199 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8216 13 4.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Maurice Smitherman FS 5'9, 185 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8807
Chris Stamps CB 6'0, 179 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8670
Lashard Durr CB 5'11, 197 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8626
C.J. Morgan SS 6'0, 197 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8721
Korey Charles DB 5'10, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8696








8. Another SEC defense with fantastic safeties

The SEC is absolutely stocked at safety. It's also a strength for MSU, where senior Kivon Coman and sophomore Brandon Bryant combined for six TFLs and 14 passes defensed last year and fellow sophomores Jamal Peters (a former blue-chipper) and Mark McLaurin forced their way onto the field as well.

Sirmon appears to appreciate simplicity in the back, but if or when he decides to go with a nickel look, he should easily have the guys to pull it off. And all three of the sophomore safeties are big enough to play a bit of a linebacker role if need be.

Cornerback is a bit more of a question mark. Tolando Cleveland and Jamoral Graham are back, as is senior reserve Cedric Jiles (who broke up four passes in limited chances), so pure experience isn't an issue. But MSU must replace maybe its two best play-makers at the position (Taveze Calhoun, Will Redmond), and a lot could be expected of JUCO transfer Lashard Durr. Still, it would be surprising if MSU didn't improve on last year's No. 43 ranking in Passing S&P+.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Logan Cooke 6'5, 224 Jr. 44 42.2 7 20 15 79.5%
Devon Bell 9 41.1 1 4 2 66.7%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Devon Bell 80 62.1 33 2 41.3%
Logan Cooke 6'5, 224 Jr. 4 49.3 2 0 50.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Westin Graves 6'0, 163 Jr. 52-54 12-13 92.3% 3-5 60.0%
Devon Bell 2-2 0-0 N/A 0-1 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Brandon Holloway KR 5'8, 165 Sr. 24 23.6 1
Malik Dear KR 5'9, 220 So. 5 19.8 0
Fred Ross PR 6'2, 205 Sr. 15 10.5 1
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 24
Field Goal Efficiency 39
Punt Return Success Rate 51
Kick Return Success Rate 58
Punt Success Rate 65
Kickoff Success Rate 38

9. Big legs

Most of the components of a solid special teams unit return. Logan Cooke's punts were high and mostly unreturnable (opponents managed only 10 attempted returns in 2015, seventh-fewest in the country), and Westin Graves was a reliable kicker. Meanwhile, returns were a bit all-or-nothing, but MSU scored a touchdown via both kick and punt return. You'll take that.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep South Alabama 115 29.9 96%
10-Sep South Carolina 63 14.3 80%
17-Sep at LSU 2 -14.3 20%
24-Sep at Massachusetts 127 27.2 94%
8-Oct Auburn 24 4.6 60%
14-Oct at BYU 35 1.7 54%
22-Oct at Kentucky 83 12.5 76%
29-Oct Samford NR 36.7 98%
5-Nov Texas A&M 25 4.6 61%
12-Nov at Alabama 1 -16.7 17%
19-Nov Arkansas 17 1.9 54%
26-Nov at Ole Miss 7 -8.8 30%
Projected wins: 7.4
Five-Year F/+ Rk 22.9% (23)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 23 / 27
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -6.6
2015 TO Luck/Game +1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (44%, 69%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 8.4 (0.6)

10. October is enormous

Mississippi State's over-under win total was set at 6.5 back in May, but S&P+ seems to like the Bulldogs' chances of exceeding that. With September games against South Alabama, South Carolina, and UMass, the Bulldogs are a good bet to start 3-1 at worst; that would set up a pair of hinge games.

Per S&P+, MSU will have a 32 percent chance of beating both Auburn and BYU, an 18 percent chance of losing both games, and a 50-50 shot at splitting the pair. Win both, and there's a chance MSU heads into November at 7-1, again bordering on a top-10 poll ranking, even with a downward turn at QB.

The finish will be rough again (S&P+ says there's a 75 percent chance MSU goes either 1-2 or 0-3 in the last three games), but what a statement it would be for MSU to once again make noise and post a comfortable win total a year after Prescott.