clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

There’s a whole lot to like about Mississippi State in 2018

New, comments

New head coach Joe Moorhead has Nick Fitzgerald and the star power for a big debut.

NCAA Football: SEC Football Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In this year’s Kentucky preview, I tried to set a historical bar for UK based on history, recruiting potential, and money. And in my Florida preview, I talked about how programs tend to revert to their historical levels after coaching changes.

A reader asked what this historical look might have to say about Mississippi State. He wondered if we were overestimating Joe Moorhead’s chances in Starkville.

It’s a fair question. Moorhead is replacing Dan Mullen, who might have been MSU’s best coach since Allyn McKeen in the 1940s. Mullen’s MSU finished in the AP top 20 three times, as many times as in the 34 years before his arrival. In 2014, they finished 11th, their second-best ever and highest since McKeen’s 1940.

When you lose a coach that successful, you usually regress.

How far? Let’s look at the baseline, using the standards I set in the UK preview.

  • Historical average. Since the end of World War II, MSU’s average S&P+ ranking is 46th. Over the last 25 years, it is 51st.
  • Recruiting average. Going back to 2002, MSU’s average recruiting class has fallen in the 79th percentile, equivalent to about a No. 27 ranking.
  • $$$$$. Of the 109 public FBS schools in USA Today’s financial database, MSU ranked 31st in revenue in 2016-17 and in the 68th percentile overall (which, projected for 130 teams, puts you around 42nd).

These broad figures set MSU’s bar somewhere around 40th in the country.

That’s a bar Mullen cleared six times in nine years. The Bulldogs were 19th in S&P+ in 2017, and they are projected 14th in 2018.

Is that too high for Moorhead, a guy whose only head coaching experience came in FCS?

Long-term, we’ll see. We don’t know everything about Moorhead’s recruiting prowess yet (though early signs are encouraging), and in four seasons at Fordham, he produced only one truly strong defense. There’s nothing saying he’ll keep MSU functioning at a higher-than-normal level over the long haul.

It’s hard not to be optimistic, though. For starters, his offense really is a thing of beauty. But more importantly for 2018, he inherits a fantastic situation.

  • QB Nick Fitzgerald. Moorhead emphasizes that his system is balanced and can work for both a run-first or pass-first quarterback. Well, Fitzgerald is one of the country’s best in the former group. Not including sacks, he was on pace for 1,200 rushing yards and 2,100 passing yards in 2017 before injury; he produced 1,454 and 2,423, respectively, in 2016. And when he got hurt, his backup — four-star freshman Keytaon Thompson — outplayed Lamar Jackson in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
  • Maybe the best defensive line, besides Clemson’s. Coordinator Bob Shoop has never worked with a line this good. MSU ranked sixth in Adj. Sack Rate, third in Adj. Line Yards, and 11th in defensive line havoc rate (total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) last season and returns every lineman, including elite tackle Jeffery Simmons.
  • Experience on the offensive line. All-conference tackle Martinas Rankin is gone, but six other returnees have combined for 76 career starts. MSU ranked in the top 20 in both Adj. Sack Rate and Adj. Line Yards last season.
  • Experience in the skill corps. Every running back returns, as do three of the five receivers who caught at least 18 passes last season. Moorhead added a four-star JUCO transfer (WR Stephen Guidry) as well.
  • Experience in the back seven. The line will get the attention, but three of four linebackers return, as do the top two safeties and three of four cornerbacks.

There are lots of seniors, and Simmons probably won’t be around for his senior year. But worry about that year-two reset in year two.

Offense

MSU will almost certainly be good to very good. Whether Moorhead can engineer something better than “very good” will depend on whether he can bring the big plays back.

In 2016, Moorhead’s first season as Penn State coordinator, the Nittany Lions produced 48 gains of 30-plus yards, third in FBS. In 2017, with opponents taking the big shots away, they still produced 34 (31st) while significantly improving their efficiency.

MSU, on the other hand, managed just 20 plays 30-plus yards last year (98th).

The Bulldogs improved from 39th to 21st in success rate last fall because of Fitzgerald’s running ability and because his running backs produced a solid 45 percent success rate. But big plays were nowhere to be found — Fitzgerald’s average yards per completion fell from a mediocre 12.4 in 2016 to a poor 11.2.

Efficiency is a great thing, maybe the most important thing, and an efficient team is a steady team — after all, MSU did go 9-4 with almost no big plays — but big plays create easy points. They are the cheat code.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas
Aeris Williams
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Moorhead’s system is QB-friendly and designed to punish defenses for whatever choices they make. One can assume they will choose to force Fitzgerald to the air.

MSU’s biggest known strength is the dual threat of Fitzgerald’s legs and the RB tandem of Aeris Wiliams, Kylin Hill, and Nick Gibson, who combined to rush for 134 yards per game despite big-play issues of their own.

Now, it’s possible that opponents won’t be able to stop this five-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust run game. These solid runners will line up behind some big veterans. Six OL returnees with starting experience average 6’4, 321, and center Elgton Jenkins and guards Deion Calhoun and Darryl Williams have combined for nearly five seasons’ worth of starts.

Still, in a system that happily takes what the defense gives it, Fitzgerald will be reading “pass” quite a bit. What happens then?

If nothing else, there are few options in coordinator Luke Getsy’s corps. Three junior slot receivers — Deddrick Thomas, Malik Dear, and Keith Mixon — combined for 62 catches in their respective last years of competition (Dear missed 2017 with a torn ACL); all are listed at either 5’8 or 5’9 and should see plenty of quick passes.

When Fitzgerald is looking for bigger targets, he’ll have some combination of 6’2 senior Jesse Jackson (27 catches in 2017), 6’4 junior Jamal Couch (10 catches, five of which went for at least 20 yards), 6’5 sophomore Osirus Mitchell, 6’3 redshirt freshman Austin Williams (a spring star), 6’4 JUCO transfer Stephen Guidry (a four-star prospect), and 6’3 freshman Devonta Jason (also four stars).

If one or two can reel in a few downfield shots, this offense will hum.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Alabama
Deion Calhoun (61) and Nick Fitzgerald (7)
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Over the course of a long career, you might make some missteps. Shoop might have made one a couple of years ago. After a wonderful run as James Franklin’s defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt (his Commodores peaked at sixth in Def. S&P+ in 2011) and Penn State (third in 2014, 16th in 2015), Shoop moved back to the SEC, taking the Tennessee DC job in 2016.

It did not go well. Injuries obliterated the Vols’ two-deep in 2016, and they fell from 20th to 54th in Def. S&P+. And in 2017, a rebuilt front folded, and they tumbled further to 68th; the Vols were fine in pass defense but ranked an egregious 104th in Rushing S&P+.

Suffice it to say, Shoop will have a bit more to work with up front this year. Moorhead retained defensive line coach Brian Baker, and holy smokes, does he have a lot to work with.

Baker deployed a huge rotation last year, as 10 linemen made at least eight tackles despite only one, tackle Cory Thomas, missing much time to injury. Thomas had 5.5 tackles for loss in 2016, and six returnees had at least 3.5 last season.

Three were particularly ridiculous.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech
Jeffery Simmons (94) and Gerri Green (4)
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

After struggling through what I’ll diplomatically call a controversial freshman season, Simmons was dominant as a sophomore, not only recording 12 TFLs and five sacks but also making more tackles than any linebacker. That is incredibly rare. He also served as a center of gravity for opposing blockers, helping to clear the way for two veteran ends, seniors-to-be Montez Sweat and Gerri Green, to have huge seasons themselves (combined: 26.5 TFLs and 15.5 sacks).

All three return, as do all of the role players. Simmons will be joined on the interior by four seniors (led by Braxton Hoyett) and a couple of juniors. Big youngsters like 330-pound redshirt freshman James Jackson and 335-pound true freshman Fabien Lovett will probably have to wait a year for a chance in the rotation.

Having a dominant defensive front can allow you to generate pressure without blitzing and can mitigate overall risk. But former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who followed Mullen to Gainesville, couldn’t help himself. His secondary was crazy-aggressive, which resulted in both extreme efficiency (fourth in passing success rate) and some really big big plays (128th in passing IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of the successful plays).

This was a very all-or-nothing defense as a result.

Dealing with youth and injury at linebacker certainly didn’t help in the big-play department. Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay Jr. combined for 7.5 TFLs as freshmen, but, well, they were freshmen. And veteran Leo Lewis struggled through both nagging injuries and what I will just as diplomatically call some off-the-field distraction. They’re all back.

Safeties were a huge source of the aggression, both good and bad. Seniors Mark McLaurin and Jonathan Abram are back after combining for 8.5 TFLs, 17 passes defensed, and three forced fumbles. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re deployed a bit differently, a bit further from the line, in Shoop’s system.

Getting a bit more help from the cornerback position would help; last year’s top four CBs (Cameron Dantzler, Jamal Peters, Tolando Cleveland, and Chris Rayford, of whom only Cleveland is gone) combined for just 10 passes defensed, and while the unit was solid overall — 51 percent completion rate, 117.1 passer rating — it got absolutely torched in MSU’s losses. And I mean torched.

  • MSU pass defense, 9 wins: 47% completion rate, 11.3 yards per completion, 91.1 passer rating
  • MSU pass defense, 4 losses: 62% completion rate, 22.3 yards per completion, 209.4 passer rating

Grantham’s defense didn’t really have an off switch. It could only attack. Most of the time, that worked well, but if Shoop can add a level of extra discretion, a gear besides fifth, then he should have his first top-20 defense since he left Happy Valley.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Louisville vs Mississippi State
Mark McLaurin
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

A good unit gets a makeover. MSU ranked 16th in Special Teams S&P+ last season thanks to phenomenal coverage units and decent-at-worst play elsewhere. The coverage might not change, but the leg will — Logan Cooke was in charge of both kickoffs (seventh in KO efficiency) and punts (44th in punt efficiency).

Lead kick returner Reggie Todd and punt returners Gabe Myles and Donald Gray are also gone, but in Deddrick Thomas (21.5 average on KRs, 17.3 average with one touchdown in six PRs), the Bulldogs might have the answer there. They might also have an answer in the place-kicking department, where Jace Christmann took over for Tucker Day early in the year and was automatic under 40 yards.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Stephen F. Austin NR 57.6 100%
8-Sep at Kansas State 61 11.3 74%
15-Sep UL-Lafayette 121 31.5 97%
22-Sep at Kentucky 64 11.4 74%
29-Sep Florida 32 10.0 72%
6-Oct Auburn 5 -4.2 40%
20-Oct at LSU 16 -0.8 48%
27-Oct Texas A&M 24 7.2 66%
3-Nov Louisiana Tech 70 18.6 86%
10-Nov at Alabama 2 -13.8 21%
17-Nov Arkansas 52 14.5 80%
22-Nov at Ole Miss 25 2.3 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 14
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 33 / 11
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.7 (17)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 26 / 27
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 2.7
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (82%, 80%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.0 (1.0)

It’s easy to find yourself making assumptions here. Moorhead’s presence, combined with so much experience on the two-deep, could easily turn this back into a top-20 offense, and a dominant defensive line, combined with maybe some better brakes, could make this a top-15 defense. That ... sounds like a really good team, no?

S&P+ projects MSU 14th; granted, that makes the Bulldogs a semi-distant third in the SEC West behind No. 2 Bama and No. 5 Auburn (and barely ahead of two other West teams in the top 24), but it will give them a chance at something big. They are projected favorites in six games and have at least a 40-percent win probability in 11. If the offense indeed clicks — it’s projected only 33rd — then every game but the trip to Tuscaloosa is extremely winnable.

Mullen did Moorhead a favor, leaving him a loaded two-deep and room for another step. He only finished higher than 4-4 in conference play or 9-4 overall once. He’s given Moorhead a path to topping that in his very first year, even if turnover is on the horizon.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.