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Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen has built ... a steady program? In Mississippi? Is that legal?

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While Ole Miss’ uncertainties continue, MSU’s in solid shape for at least the next two years.

NCAA Football: Samford at Mississippi State
Dan Mullen
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Allyn McKeen led Mississippi State to three straight top-20 finishes in the 1940s and was building something spectacular when World War II broke out. He maintained a high level, but he only lasted nine years in Starkville before he retired.

Bob Tyler pulled off two nine-win seasons at MSU in the 1970s, a time when college football’s elites were at their most dominant. His program also got put on NCAA probation and had to vacate quite a few of his wins. He only made it six years.

Jackie Sherrill lasted 13 years. His MSU finished ranked four times and won the 1998 SEC West crown. He finished with a losing record six times, however, ending with an 8-27 run from 2001-03. His tenure ended under an NCAA investigation cloud, but no major violations were found.

Mullen is entering his ninth season. He has suffered two losing seasons, but neither was worse than 5-7, and he’s taken the Bulldogs to seven straight bowls. He has two of MSU’s five top-15 finishes.

At what point do we start viewing Mullen as MSU’s best-ever coach?

He’s not there yet. McKeen set the bar awfully high. Using estimated S&P+ ratings, he produced five of MSU’s 17 best teams; Mullen has produced just three. So Mullen needs at least a couple more excellent years to have a claim.

None of this was likely. The only piece of the Mullen hire that seemed SEC-like was the fact that he was an Urban Meyer protege in a conference that loves to imitate its winners.

Mullen went to high school in New Hampshire and college in Pennsylvania. He connected with mentor Meyer as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, and all of his early experience had come well above the Mason-Dixon Line. He is seemingly tied to job openings every offseason, both because of what people assume to be better geographic fits and because he has a good agent.

Still, here this Yankee remains, deep in small-town Mississippi, somehow stable in maybe the least stable area of the least stable football conference. And thanks to a certain rival’s increasing instability, he could be in even better shape.

Of course, this might be presumptuous. Before Mullen can pursue McKeen, he needs to pursue pre-2016 Mullen. MSU struggled through an off year last fall after three straight top-20-caliber performances.

In terms of the S&P+ adjusted scoring averages, the offense regressed by four to five points per game, the defense sank by nearly six, and even special teams fell by two. MSU kept its bowl streak alive by only a technicality — the Bulldogs went 5-7 but got in via solid APR score — and barely beat a sketchy Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl.

The offensive regression was easy enough to explain. MSU had to replace Dak Prescott, the best QB in school history and the best offensive rookie in the NFL in 2016; Nick Fitzgerald was decent in the passing game and incredible on the ground, but after finishing 16th or better in Off. S&P+ in back-to-back years, there was nowhere to go but down. With Fitzgerald, running back Aeris Williams, and five of last year’s top six targets back, the odds of a rebound are high.

The defense, however, is suddenly a concern. Coordinator Peter Sirmon took over a pretty experienced unit from Manny Diaz and struggled; MSU dealt with a few injury issues, but that doesn’t explain a plummet from 38th to 73rd in Def. S&P+.

This year’s squad is projected to bounce back to a top-30 level, and if former Louisville coordinator Grantham — MSU and Louisville basically traded DCs, as SIrmon’s at UL — is able to approach the top-20 level of defense that he had going for the Cardinals, Mullen could have his fourth truly strong MSU team. If not, things should be in place by 2018.

Of course, this is the SEC West, where a top-30 projection only makes you the favorite in six of 12 games. The Bulldogs play five projected top-20 teams, plus four more in the No. 26-46 range. And for good measure, they play on the road against a speedy, challenging Louisiana Tech.

Still, amid Ole Miss’ perpetual state of chaos, Mullen has turned MSU into one of the conference’s most stable entities. He’s the best post-war MSU hire, anyway.


2016 in review

2016 MSU statistical profile.

It’s been a trend in nearly every SEC preview I’ve written so far: Team A’s offense started slowly but picked up steam just in time to see its defense get torched.

There’s sometimes a relationship between offensive improvement and a defense relaxing, but in this case I’m starting conclude it was more just that seemingly every team in the league had a new QB who found his rhythm. That was certainly the case for Fitzgerald and company.

  • First 6 games (2-4): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (55% offense, 56% defense) | Avg. yards per play: MSU 5.6, Opp 5.1 | Avg. score: Opp 27, MSU 25
  • Next 6 games (3-3): Avg. percentile performance: 59% (71% offense, 32% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.2, MSU 6.6 | Avg. score: Opp 40, MSU 38

MSU’s overall percentile averages didn’t change all that much as the year progressed, but the makeup of the games changed. In September, MSU lost games while allowing just 21 and 23 points; in October and November, they lost games while scoring 38 and 42.

In theory, if the Grantham hire works out, you could get the offense from the second half of last season combined with the defense of the first. But the Bulldogs have questions in the trenches, and the answers will dictate whether they’re looking more at 5-7 or 9-3.


Offense

Mississippi State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Credit where it’s due: the combination of Mullen (Meyer’s former offensive coordinator) and co-coordinators John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales has been a smashing success. This arrangement was set in 2014, and since then the Bulldogs have ranked eighth, 16th, and 31st in Off. S&P+. After losing a fantastic, ball-dominant quarterback in Prescott, they needed about a month to get rolling again last fall.

The fact that they had one of the most unconventional, awesome QBs in the country doesn’t hurt.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Mississippi
Nick Fitzgerald
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Fitzgerald is a lanky-looking 6’5 and 230 pounds. He’s shaped like a pocket passer prototype. In fact, he was the opposite. He completed just 54 percent of his passes while averaging an astounding eight yards per non-sack carry last year.

It was like opponents could never grasp how good Fitzgerald was at running. About 15 times per game, not including sacks, he would tuck and run. Those 15 carries would gain about 120 yards. One in 9.4 carries would go for a touchdown.

Fitzgerald’s first season as a starter began with a crushing false start. In the season opener against South Alabama, he went 0-for-3 passing with two three-and-outs on his first two drives, and frankly, Mullen panicked, lifting him in favor of Damian Williams. The Bulldogs were upset, 21-20.

Credit the coaching staff for sticking with Fitzgerald after that, though. He dealt with some ups and downs — good against South Carolina, bad against BYU, etc. — but after a loss at Kentucky in mid-October, the game slowed down for him. And for the most part, only Alabama slowed him down after that.

  • Fitzgerald’s passing, first 7 games (record: 2-5): 56% completion rate, 10.4 yards per completion, 115.2 passer rating
  • Fitzgerald’s passing, next 5 games (record: 3-2): 53% completion rate, 15.3 yards per completion, 141.0 passer rating

Take the debacle against Alabama out of the equation, and in the other four regular season games at the end of the year, Fitzgerald completed 59 percent of his passes with a 163.7 rating. That’s a positive trend.

NCAA Football: Samford at Mississippi State
Donald Gray
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Fitzgerald’s supporting cast will look familiar. Running back Aeris Williams is back, and he’s important. He basically performs the role of the fullback in a triple-option attack — if defenses have to fear him between the tackles, that will open up room for the QB on the outside.

Williams brought no explosiveness whatsoever, but he gained at least five yards on 45 percent of his carries. That’s all Fitzgerald needs.

Slot receiver Fred Ross is gone from the receiving corps, but that’s basically it. Donald Gray was a home run threat as a No. 2, and that will probably translate well as a No. 1. Plus, junior bowling ball Malik Dear (5’9, 224 pounds) is a lovely possession receiver, and sophomores Keith Mixon and tight end Farrod Green could grow into nice possession roles.

If another youngster emerges — the most likely candidates are either 6’4 sophomore Jamal Couch (eight catches for 113 yards last year) or four-star redshirt freshman Reginald Todd — then this passing game could absolutely sustain last year’s gains.

An awesome line does have to replace three starters, which is a bit scary. But the offense itself could compensate; Fitzgerald and Williams are big guys who can fall forward and generate an extra yard or two (therefore helping the blocking out), and Fitzgerald throws a lot of quick passes, which aids the pass blocking. It’s conceivable the blocking is equal to last year’s.

Really, then, the biggest threat to this offense is a what-if — as in, what if Fitzgerald gets hurt? The only other scholarship QB is true freshman Keytaon Thompson, and while Thompson was a four-star recruit, a) he’s still a freshman, and b) what happens if he gets hurt? This can be a pretty punishing offense for a QB, and just how punishing it is will be huge.

Defense

Mississippi State defensive radar

Based on nothing more than recent track record, Mullen definitely got the better of the coordinator trade with Louisville. Sirmon is regarded as a hell of a recruiter, and he could grow into the role, but his lone season as MSU DC left a lot to be desired.

Mississippi State defensive efficiency and explosiveness

Grantham has been a college coordinator for seven years — four at Georgia, three at Louisville — and has had only one defense rank outside of the Def. S&P+. (His first UGA defense ranked 44th.) With Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals, he crafted an attacking 3-4 that stuffed the run and took some chances against the pass.

We’ll see how long it takes to create the same identity in Starkville. His first MSU front seven will be pretty green. The line has to replace five of last year’s top eight, while two of the top four linebackers are gone.

Of course, if you focus on who’s here instead of who’s not, you start to see a pretty high ceiling. And by 2018, that ceiling should be even higher.

Blue-chip sophomores Jeffery Simmons (nose tackle) and Leo Lewis (linebacker and Twitter master) should serve as solid anchors for the next couple of years, and another sophomore, Marquiss Spencer, showed attacking potential in reserve minutes. Spencer could end up at either DE or OLB in this system, but either way, he and senior linebacker J.T. Gray will be a nice havoc duo.

Recent recruiting should plump up the two-deep. Mullen signed three JUCO linemen and a JUCO linebacker, and there are some four-star recent signees beyond Simmons, Lewis, and Spencer in the pipeline as well: sophomore end Fletcher Adams, redshirt freshman tackle Kobe Jones, and freshman linebacker Willie Gay, to name three. It might take a year for this unit to grow into itself, but when it does, look out.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Mississippi State
J.T. Gray (45)
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary might be able to pick up the slack if there are occasional breakdowns. MSU was a major disappointment in pass defense last year, plummeting from 43rd to 104th in Passing S&P+. The pass rush didn’t help enough, nor did an injury to 2015 starter Tolando Cleveland (plus a couple of in-season knocks). Still, that was quite a fall.

With the return of juniors Brandon Bryant and Mark McLaurin, I feel mostly okay about the safety unit, but cornerback is a mystery. Cleveland’s back, but last year’s top two (Cedric Jiles and Jamoral Graham) are not, and leading returnees Lashard Durr and Chris Rayford didn’t do much with their playing time opportunities.

If junior Jamal Peters suddenly begins to look like the blue-chipper he was supposed to be, that will tamp down a lot of concerns. Otherwise, here comes the JUCO brigade; Mullen signed three JUCO DBs, meaning he brought in seven transfers on defense. That belies some concern that JUCO transfers only sometimes alleviate.

NCAA Football: Troy at Mississippi State
Mark McLaurin
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

  • Bad news: MSU’s special teams unit was mostly awful. The Bulldogs ranked 117th in field goal efficiency, 87th in punt efficiency, and 71st in kickoff efficiency. The result was a No. 104 ranking in Special Teams S&P+.
  • Good news: the return game was pretty good.
  • Bad news: the return men (Fred Ross, Brandon Holloway) are gone.
  • Good news: part of the reason for the awful leg work was an injury to punter Logan Cooke. Cooke’s backup (Kody Schexnayder) averaged 3.1 fewer yards per punt, and his backup on kickoffs (Brad Wall) had a touchback rate 25 percentage points worse. With Cooke in there, an at least mediocre special teams rating is possible.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Charleston Southern NR 25.7 93%
9-Sep at Louisiana Tech 82 11.5 75%
16-Sep LSU 4 -12.2 24%
23-Sep at Georgia 20 -7.2 34%
30-Sep at Auburn 9 -13.8 21%
14-Oct BYU 46 6.3 64%
21-Oct Kentucky 41 5.2 62%
28-Oct at Texas A&M 19 -7.3 34%
4-Nov Massachusetts 111 23.0 91%
11-Nov Alabama 1 -22.9 9%
18-Nov at Arkansas 32 -2.5 44%
23-Nov Ole Miss 26 0.3 51%
Projected S&P+ Rk 30
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 15 / 65
Projected wins 6.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.4 (21)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 31 / 25
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / -4.5
2016 TO Luck/Game +4.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 65% (72%, 59%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.6 (-0.6)

It’s hard not to notice something when going unit to unit on the Mississippi State depth chart. Here’s basically the entire list of key senior contributors: Gray and Myles at receiver, Martinas Rankin at center, Gray at linebacker, and Cleveland and Durr at cornerback.

That’s it. Fitzgerald is a junior who would be draft eligible, in case he happened to have a dynamite passing year, but Fitzgerald, Williams, and nearly everybody else are scheduled to return in 2018 for what could be Mullen’s next truly awesome team.

This year’s should be pretty good, though. It’ll have to be. S&P+ projects MSU 30th and 6-6, with three likely wins (Charleston Southern, at Louisiana Tech, UMass), three likely losses (LSU, at Auburn, Alabama), and six games with win probability between 34 and 64 percent.

So basically, this season will be defined by how quickly Grantham can find a rhythm with this defense. The offense will be there, but if the Bulldogs rediscover a top-40 level or better on D, they could win four or five of those relative tossups. If Grantham requires a breaking-in year, maybe they lose four or five. The main goal will be to get all the arrows pointed in the same direction for 2018.

Team preview stats

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