Last Updated: 2018-07-18
Dan Mullen went 70-46 at Mississippi State as a member of the toughest college football division in the country. It was nothing short of remarkable what he was able to do, but the head coaching gig opened up at Florida, where Mullen got his big break as the offensive coordinator from 2005-08 and he had to jump at it. The Bulldogs made a very savvy offensive hire with the new head coach as well, as they plucked Penn State OC Joe Moorhead. Moorhead was the head coach at Fordham, so he has some head coaching experience, but few things can prepare you for the SEC.
Moorhead does walk into a very good situation, as Mississippi State returns 17 starters, including star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and a 1,100-yard back in Aeris Williams. He was also able to procure Bob Shoop from Tennessee, in what is a phenomenal hire on that side of the ball. The Bulldogs generally have capped expectations by playing in a division with Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and to a lesser extent, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, but this may be the best opportunity for Mississippi State in quite some time.
Mississippi State is still well down the board to win the National Championship, with most shops in the 80/1 range or higher, but this could be one of those seasons, a la 2014, when Mississippi State draws a prominent spot in the top 25 and gets some buzz. The schedule, though, is a bear, which is why BetDSI is showing 8.5 with the under -135. BetOnline is at 8.5 with the under at even money and the over at -120. 5Dimes has over 8.5 at +110 and the under at -135. Keep in mind that these win total odds do not include conference championship games or bowl games.
||Stephen F. Austin
||@ Kansas State
Expected Wins: 8.55
Let’s hope that Nick Fitzgerald doesn’t miss a beat coming back from what was a rather gruesome ankle injury suffered in the Egg Bowl. Fitzgerald was a tremendous contributor for the Bulldogs last season. He only posted a 15/11 TD/INT ratio, but he ran for 984 yards and 14 touchdowns. Fitzgerald threw for 1,782 yards on his 159 completions. Credit goes to Keytaon Thompson for leading Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Louisville in a 31-27 win that gave the Bulldogs nine wins for the third time in four years. Fitzgerald isn’t the same kind of passer as Trace McSorley, who was excellent in Joe Moorhead’s two years at Penn State, but Moorhead can definitely work with the skill set of Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has a lot of help as well. Aeris Williams is tough to tackle at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds. He ran for 1,107 yards last season as a junior and should be poised for a big year in this offense. He isn’t as good of a pass catcher as Saquon Barkley, but he’ll get more opportunities in the air game as well. Mississippi State does return three of its top four pass catchers from last season and four of the five starting offensive linemen, with a lot of experienced depth on the chart at those positions. The Bulldogs did fall from 6.1 to 5.5 yards per play last season and Fitzgerald himself dropped from 2,423 passing yards and a 21/10 ratio to the aforementioned numbers. He also ran for fewer yards, as he had 1,375 in 2016. Moorhead’s presence could bring this group back up.
The one hiccup in Starkville during the Dan Mullen tenure was the 2016 defense, which allowed 31.8 points per game and 6.2 yards per play. Things got corrected last season under Todd Grantham. Grantham went with Mullen to Gainesville and Moorhead brought down Bob Shoop, likely at the suggestion of James Franklin, who worked with Shoop in 2014 and 2015 at Penn State. Shoop is a strong DC. It will also help Moorhead to have former South Alabama head coach Joey Jones on the staff as the special teams coach. This is a formidable coaching staff.
This team also has a formidable defense. Montez Sweat had 10.5 sacks last season and Mississippi State brings back the majority of its pass rush. The losses are at the second level, and we’ll have to see if any supplemental discipline comes down against star middle linebacker Leo Lewis for the improper benefits he took during his recruitment, but this is a solid secondary and a very stout defensive line. The Bulldogs only allowed 3.8 yards per carry last season, which was a full yard better than 2016 with Peter Sirmon. Opponents only completed 50.8 percent of their passes. We’ll see if Shoop can sustain those upgrades, but this is a far more confident group.
Mississippi State has an interesting road game in Manhattan against Kansas State in Week 2, but three wins will come from the other non-conference games against Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana, and Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs draw a very intriguing West vs. East matchup with Florida in Starkvegas and also get Kentucky from the East Division. The schedule is tough, as you would expect for an SEC West schedule, but nothing too extravagant.
Pick: Over 8.5 (+110, 5Dimes)
Mississippi State tends to play Alabama rather close, but that is the only very likely loss on the schedule. The Bulldogs will be competitive with all other SEC foes and should run the table in the non-conference, which gives us a good head start on this play. The market looks to be a tad lower on Mississippi State than our power ratings, but this is a terrific coaching staff and a return of 2016 Nick Fitzgerald coupled with last season’s defensive gains creates a really high ceiling for this team.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
There were some that probably thought Dak Prescott was a once-in-a-generation type of player for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. After the season that Nick Fitzgerald put together in 2016, that may not be the case at all. Fitzgerald will lead Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs into the 2017 season, as the team looks to make a bowl game for the eighth straight season. The Bulldogs tend to be an afterthought while sitting in the shadow of SEC West dynamos like Alabama and LSU, but this has been a consistent and successful program in the Mullen era.
Recruiting in the SEC is not easy for a program like Mississippi. Staying local means contending with the Alabama powerhouses. Ole Miss has had some serious recruiting upgrades during the Hugh Freeze era. Going west towards Louisiana steps into LSU’s territory, not to mention the Texas schools that are all on the hunt for talent. Going east means fighting with Georgia, Georgia Tech, and all the schools in Florida vying for talent. And, yet, Mullen’s Bulldogs just endured their first losing season since 2009. You have to respect a program like that.
That respect seems to be permeating the sports betting community. Mississippi State’s season win total line is only 5.5 at 5Dimes Sportsbook, but the juice on the over is at -150, as the Bulldogs are getting a lot of attention in the market. Keep in mind that the number does not include conference championships or bowl games. It only applies to the regular season.
||@ Louisiana Tech
||@ Texas A&M
Total Expected Wins: 5.62
Nick Fitzgerald epitomizes the term “dual-threat”. The 6-foot-5 junior threw for 2,423 yards last season and ran for 1,375 as the unquestioned leader of this offense. The scary thing is that he did it as a sophomore. A year older and a year stronger, the focal point of the Bulldogs offense is ready to follow in the footsteps of Dak Prescott and possibly even surpass what the Dallas Cowboys quarterback did for the program. Last season felt like just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald may have more scrambles for yardage than designed runs this season with a much weaker offensive line that lost 92 career starts over the offseason. The Bulldogs ran for 5.6 yards per carry last season.
Aeris Williams is back for his junior campaign and the Bulldogs have a lot of depth at the running back position. The wide receivers have some production to replace with Fred Ross. Ross’s name sits atop the all-time receiving yards list at Mississippi State, so he is a significant talent to replace. A lot of players return aside from Ross, so Fitzgerald will have some weapons that have grown up around him in this offense. Regardless of the skill players and the offensive line, as far as Fitzgerald can take them is as far as this offense will go.
This is the real key to the 2017 season for the Bulldogs. Last year, the defense allowed over 31 points per game. That was very uncharacteristic of a Mississippi State defense. A change at defensive coordinator might be just what the Bulldogs needed. Manny Diaz stepped in for the 2015 season after Geoff Collins left and provided some stability. Last season, the defense suffered under Peter Sirmon. Now, Todd Grantham brings plenty of NFL and college head coaching experience to the table. This was a slam dunk hire for Mullen and should restore the Bulldogs defense to its past levels.
There are some losses here. The Bulldogs lost a lot of defensive line talent and are hoping that JUCO transfers like Chauncey Rivers and Traver Jung can step in and replace the production of AJ Jefferson and Jonathan Calvin. Plenty of JUCO transfers are going to be viewed as plug-and-play options, which is interesting and one of the ways that Mullen can attempt to offset the recruiting hardships when it comes to incoming freshmen. A conservative approach to the defense is why I have Mississippi State power rated where I do and why their projected number of wins isn’t all that far off of the line, but this is a group that could get adjusted very quickly.
The Bulldogs have a miserable schedule. A trip to Louisiana Tech in Week 2 is a little tricky, though the Bulldogs should be down a couple notches. Getting BYU at home is no gimme and that’s a physical game. A trip between the hedges against Georgia is a tough draw from the SEC East. But, the Bulldogs have a tough schedule year after year in this division and still persevere.
Win Total Pick: Over 5.5
This is a bit chalky for my liking, but make no mistake, an improved defense and another year of Nick Fitzgerald could mean huge things in Starkville. If Todd Grantham can return the Bulldogs to that 21-24 points against range like they were for so many years under Collins, this is a team that can make some serious noise and give superior competition a lot of scares, like Alabama on November 11, which is the week after the big LSU showdown. Mississippi State only plays away from home twice after the bye week. There’s enough upside with this team to lay the price and don’t be surprised if they climb up your power ratings quickly.
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