After a handful of college football teams got the season started in Week 0, the doors open more fully to the 2022 season this weekend, as the Memphis Tigers head south to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs under the lights in Starkville on Saturday night.
The 2021 season was quite the roller coaster for Memphis and Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs managed no more than two consecutive wins before falling victim to a loss en route to plenty of high-ranking stats but ultimately a 7-6 record in the standings. All six losses came when Mike Leach's Air Raid-powered team was held under its scoring average (29.1 ppg, 59th nationally).
Memphis' campaign featured more extremes at the beginning before leveling out. The Tigers opened with three straight wins — the third of which was against Mississippi State … more on that in a bit — and then proceeded to lose their next three, two by three points and one by six. The second half saw them split their final six games to finish 6-6. Memphis was scheduled to face Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, but the Rainbow Warriors had to pull out due to a variety of factors (COVID-19, injuries, transfers) that had depleted their roster.
Going back to that Memphis-Mississippi State meeting last September, it isn't often that a road team loses twice in the same stadium in the same season, but that's exactly what happened to the Bulldogs in 2021. After a pair of wins to open the season, the Bulldogs headed north to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for their first meeting with the Tigers since 2011, where — despite attempting 67 passes and completing 50 — the visiting SEC team lost 31-29 thanks to a 17-point fourth-quarter rally by the hosts. That comeback halted MSU's 12-game winning streak in the series — the longest by either side — and was Memphis' first win since a 45-35 victory in Starkville in 1993. Fast-forward a bit, and three months later the Bulldogs returned to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl, where their loss this time came to Texas Tech by a much more convincing 34-7 margin.
Memphis at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Mississippi State -16
When Memphis Has the Ball
Seth Henigan got his collegiate career off to a strong start in 2021, becoming the first true freshman to start a season opener in program history. Henigan led all true freshman quarterbacks in the FBS in completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns, and he set the school record for passing yards (3,322) in a season by a freshman, eclipsing Paxton Lynch's mark of 2,056 set during his redshirt-freshman season in 2013. Henigan averaged more than a first down every time he found a receiver thanks to an AAC-best 14.1-yard average per completion and finished 11th in FBS with 302 passing yards per game, right behind SMU's Tanner Mordecai (302.3) for the top mark in the American Athletic Conference. Last October, Henigan received the AAC Offensive Player of the Week Award after his 463-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 35-29 loss at Tulsa, with his yards and attempts (57) both setting the high mark for the conference in 2021.
In order to come close to replicating such high-caliber performances, he'll have to rely on new productivity after the departure of wide receiver Calvin Austin III and tight end Sean Dykes to the next level. The pair combined for 15 of Henigan's 25 touchdowns, while Austin III led all AAC receivers (19th in FBS) with 95.8 yards receiving per game. Running back Brandon Thomas returns after a redshirt freshman season that saw him lead the team on the ground and finish fourth in the AAC in yards per carry (5.77) and rushing yards per game (74.3), while Eddie Lewis is the team's leading returning receiver. Lewis appeared in all 12 games last season (eight starts) and hauled in 22 catches for 349 yards and four touchdowns, with all four scores coming in the team's final six games.
Henigan and his receiving corps will likely be tasked with carrying much of the load on Saturday night, as Mississippi State finished 12th in FBS against the run (113 ypg) last season. The Bulldogs also ended 2021 ranked among the top 30 nationally in total defense (344.8 ypg), but was middle of the pack when it comes to scoring defense (25.9 ppg). One of the Bulldogs' primary struggles on defense came by allowing opponents to convert more than 41 percent of third downs, the third-worst mark among SEC teams. Eight starters return from last year's defense but there are question marks in the secondary following the departure of cornerback Martin Emerson, a third-round pick in this year's NFL draft.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
The Bulldogs possessed one of the most potent offenses in all of college football a season ago … well, passing offenses, that is. Junior quarterback Will Rogers returns after leading FBS in completion percentage (73.9 percent) and completions per game (38.85) along with 4,739 total passing yards that slotted Rogers second in the SEC behind Alabama's Bryce Young (4,872), with WKU's Bailey Zappe well ahead of both. Rogers also finished second in the conference with 36 touchdown passes (Young, 47). Rogers tossed three or more TDs in eight of his 13 starts.
Rogers is hardly the only playmaker back from last year's offense, though. Running backs Jo'quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson may not have piled up the rushing yards, but they were highly effective as receivers out of the backfield. Both Marks (6.4) and Johnson (5.0) were among the top 10 in the SEC in receptions per game, with wide receiver Makai Polk leading the way at 8.1. Polk is now in the NFL, but Jaden Walley (55 rec., 628 yds., 6 TDs) and Austin Williams (52, 617, 4) are both back.
It's also possible that Marks and Jonson could see even more passes thrown their way this year because when it comes to Mike Leach-coached teams, that's really the only way to move the ball. Mississippi State was fourth in the nation in passing (378.3 ypg) but also dead last in rushing with only 63.2 yards per game. Johnson and Marks combined for 901 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground but also averaged a collective 15 carries per game. It's not like they weren't effective on running plays (combined 4.6 ypr), it's just that running the ball is not a big part of Leach's game plan. Could that change in 2022? It's possible, especially with a veteran offensive line whose projected starters consist of one redshirt junior (LG Nick Jones), three redshirt seniors (LT Kwatrivious Johnson, RG Cole Smith, RT Kameron Jones), and one graduate student (C LaQuinston Sharp). This group has a combined 90 starts over the last two seasons alone, but don't expect Leach to change his ways either.
Leach's patented offense also poses a tough challenge for a Memphis team that had its own struggles on defense last season. The Tigers finished in the bottom 30 nationally against the pass (250.8 ypg, 103rd), along with 95th in total yards per game allowed (418.2) and 91st in points (29.2). The unit also recorded just nine interceptions in 12 games, not a great stat when getting ready to go up against one of the most pass-happy teams in FBS. The lack of turnovers and key stops contributed to Memphis' defense being on the field for an average of more than 33 minutes per game, the worst mark in the AAC and fifth worst overall.
Mississippi State was one of the nation's best in time of possession last season, compared to Memphis being among the nation's worst. The Bulldogs return a large extent of their offensive firepower, while the Tigers will be relying heavily on young playmakers at the key skill positions, a group that will be heavily responsible for the efforts to keep pace with the potent MSU offense. That combined with the Bulldogs' veteran defense will more than likely result in a rough visit to Starkville for Memphis.
Prediction: Mississippi State 45, Memphis 21
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.