In the toughest division in football (SEC West), the Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them in 2016. There are key pieces returning to Starkville, but the face of the program now straps up for the Cowboys. Will Dak Prescott be greatly missed? Coach Dan Mullen might have to do his best coaching job yet to go bowling this winter.
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Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense
It’s impossible to overstate just how much Dak Prescott meant to Mississippi State during his career, and how big a hole he leaves behind for the 2016 season. There’s no shortage of contenders to replace him, but no one with any significant amount of pedigree or success. Redshirt sophomore Nick Fitzgerald has to be considered the leading candidate; he served as Prescott’s primary backup last year, and a couple of strong relief appearances breed some confidence.
Fitzgerald, like Prescott, can run with the football. That’s huge, considering the running backs struggled last year, though all of them return. Can Brandon Holloway run for the tough yards? If not, can Aeris Williams or Ashton Shumpert take over? Don’t be surprised if it’s another season in which the Bulldogs’ leading rusher is their quarterback.
Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley or whoever else is at quarterback will have plenty of options at wide receiver. Fred Ross had 88 catches for 1,007 yards as a junior, leading a group that includes deep threat Donald Gray and slot options Gabe Myles and Malik Dear. That group does not include Fred Brown, a senior who was dismissed from the university in April.
Three starters return along an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks (including nine alone to Alabama) in 2015; improvement is necessary from the group up front, especially with the likelihood of a young QB being the one they are protecting.
Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense
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An entirely new defensive staff, including coordinator Peter Sirmon (formerly of USC), is installing a 3-4 defense that Sirmon believes will help the Bulldogs to be one of the better units in the SEC. He’s inheriting a group that is not short on talent but did lose several key pieces from 2015.
Up front, defensive end A.J. Jefferson has to lead the way after recording 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks as a junior. He’ll be joined by Nick James, sliding into a true two-gap role at nose tackle, and a deep rotation at defensive end.
Linebacker Richie Brown, unlike two of his former defensive teammates, turned down the NFL in order to stay for his senior year. That was a great move, for him and for Mississippi State. A top-five tackler in the SEC, Brown will operate from the middle of the 3-4 and help lead redshirt freshman Leo Lewis. Will Coleman is a former defensive end, but he’s been moved to a hybrid role in the 3-4 look — as the Viper, Coleman will often stand up at the line of scrimmage and could rush the passer or drop back into coverage.
Tolando Cleveland is solid at cornerback, and Kivon Coman and Mark McLaurin could be a bit better than that at safety. But Brandon Bryant is a star in the making for the Bulldogs. The safety had three interceptions and 63 tackles as a redshirt freshman and was the talk of spring practices with his athleticism and penchant for playmaking.
Previewing Mississippi State’s Specialists
Punter Logan Cooke and kicker Westin Graves are both solid and will have more expected of them in 2016 than has been the case previously. Holloway is electric in the open field as a kickoff returner, and Ross is sure-handed on punts and can get a few yards when given the opportunity.
This is not 2014 Mississippi State — only one starter remains from the group that spent five weeks at No. 1 that season. But the transition started last year, and the Bulldogs still won nine games. Coach Dan Mullen has to find a way to replace Prescott, and the defense will have to acclimate quickly to a brand new coaching staff, but the schedule is lean enough to think the Bulldogs will return to a bowl game for the seventh straight season.