Mississippi State used a blocked field goal to beat Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl in late December and cap a 6-7 season that included Dan Mullen's fifth Egg Bowl win. Mullen hauled in a top-30 recruiting class in February, keeping State fans optimistic about the Bulldogs' 2017 season. With a number of key players returning to Starkville, lofty expectations aren't unfounded.
Last season offered several head-scratching moments — MSU's season-opening loss to South Alabama notwithstanding — that provided angst for Mullen and his assistants. To be fair, the departure of eventual AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott among others was bound to set the Bulldogs back during their 2016 campaign.
However, MSU enters the 2017 season with more experience. An SEC West schedule isn't for the faint-hearted, and the Bulldogs will once again jostle weekly to remain relevant in the division race.
5 Storylines to Watch in Mississippi State’s Spring Practice
1. Nick Fitzgerald's maturation
Last year's burning question from Starkville was who will replace Dak Prescott? Thankfully for Bulldog fans, Fitzgerald answered the question, rushing for 1,375 yards — second most in the SEC — and throwing for another 2,423 yards (eighth) as a sophomore. And for good measure, he was responsible for a total of 37 touchdowns, 16 of those coming on the ground. Not shabby for a guy who was buried on the depth chart entering fall camp.
If Fitzgerald is to replicate his production in 2017, he'll have to do so without top target Fred Ross (917 receiving yards, 12 TDs), who has exhausted his eligibility. Donald Gray is expected to emerge as Fitzgerald’s new No. 1 receiver in 2017. A sophomore last season, Gray pulled in 41 catches for 709 yards and five touchdowns.
2. New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham
Peter Sirmon left MSU for Louisville after just one season. In a coaching trade of sorts, the Bulldogs announced the hire of Grantham, who was the Cardinals’ DC from 2014-16, in January. The Bulldogs’ defense under Sirmon was porous and gave up 31 points per game. MSU finished the season ranked 13th in scoring and 12th in total defense in the SEC.
Grantham's hire was the first step in shoring up the defense. Although Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and Louisville's offense earned loads of accolades in 2016, and rightfully so, Grantham's defense ranked in the ACC's top five in total defense throughout his three-year tenure. He knows what he’s doing.
Grantham also brings SEC experience, as he led Georgia's defense from 2010-13. He's also had stops as a position coach in the NFL in Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Indianapolis.
3. Who emerges as the premier running back?
If the Bulldogs are to be relevant in conference play next season, Fitzgerald can’t be expected to carry the rushing load all by himself. He led the team in carries, yards and touchdowns last season, followed by running back Aeris Williams’ 137 attempts for 720 yards and just four scores. Dan Mullen's spread-option offense gives his quarterbacks the liberty of keeping or handing off the football depending on the defense, but Fitzgerald also needs to limit the amount of punishment he takes.
Williams produced two 100-yard games last season, including an Egg Bowl performance where he ran for 191 yards and two scores. MSU landed four-star running back Kylin Hill in February, and he should bolster the depth of a position group that last season totaled just four touchdowns outside of Fitzgerald and Williams.
4. Incoming linebacker Willie Gay
Starkville High School’s Gay was the crowned jewel of the recruiting class. With the addition of a new coordinator (Grantham), Bulldog fans have reason to believe in a bright defensive future. Gay, a four-star recruit, selected MSU over Alabama, LSU, Georgia and a number of Power Five programs.
Gay accumulated 83 tackles his senior season at Starkville. In 2015, he made 84 stops, recorded six sacks and snagged four interceptions. He should see playing time early and has all the tools to succeed in the league as a true freshman.
5. Revamped defense
The Bulldogs enter spring with a 2017 recruiting class that includes seven junior college players. This means Grantham will have some experienced guys at his disposal. One such player to keep an eye on is Chauncey Rivers, a former Georgia commit who was dismissed from the program after a string of arrests. He’s back in the SEC after a year at East Mississippi Community College, where he posted 45 tackles, eight sacks and one forced fumble.
Another incoming JUCO prospect is former Michigan State defensive lineman Montez Sweat, who was expected to compete for playing time for the Spartans before leaving the team in 2016. Sweat, a Georgia native, signed after playing at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College. At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, he should plug in nicely to the Bulldogs’ defensive line. MSU’s JUCO signings also include the top two defensive tackle prospects (Deion Pope and Lee Autry), as well as the No. 2-ranked safety, Johnathan Abram, another former Georgia Bulldog.
Pre-Spring Oulook for Mississippi State in the SEC
In hindsight, Mississippi State’s 2016 season wasn’t as bad as some expected. The offense, headlined by sophomore dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, emerged as one of the conference’s best by season’s end. Although the Bulldogs will lose top wide receiver Fred Ross, Donald Gray appears well-suited to emerge as the go-to guy. Fitzgerald’s athleticism also masks a lot of deficiencies. Returning running back Aeris Williams should add another boost to the ground game.
While MSU’s offense provided plenty to cheer for in 2016, the same can’t be said for its defense. New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham should turn things around. How long it will take him, however, is another question. MSU’s influx of talented junior college defensive players should ensure that the unit doesn’t lag near the bottom of the conference in points and yards allowed per game again.
The last few seasons haven’t shown much parity in the SEC West, but the Bulldogs have shown they too can compete with the right roster. While hoping for an SEC West title might too ambitious, Mississippi State should be able to find a way to get to at least eight wins.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.