The Bulldogs rank No. 30 in Athlon’s Top 130 for 2017
Mississippi State won just five games in the regular season but still went bowling thanks to the team's good grades. These Bulldogs shouldn’t have to worry about bowl eligibility this fall, as head coach Dan Mullen has dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald to lead the offense. The defense is breaking in its fourth coordinator in as many seasons and has a bunch of new faces, but there should be enough talent on the roster for this team to hold its own in the always-tough SEC West.
Previewing Mississippi State Football’s Offense for 2017
Mississippi State had its fair share of offensive struggles without Dak Prescott, as would be expected, but by the end of the season coach Dan Mullen had figured out how to get this group rolling. It starts at quarterback, where Nick Fitzgerald is a developing passer — he threw for 300-plus yards several times, but his 54.3 percent completion rate left something to be desired — and an excellent runner who topped 100 yards rushing eight times. Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams combined in the last month to form a powerful running combo in the team’s run-pass option packages. Expect more of the same this fall.
Donald Gray is the team’s most experienced receiver, but he’ll have to prove he’s a legit No. 1 threat. Keith Mixon isn’t, but he’s an electrifying option out of the slot. And Fitzgerald could lean on the tight ends; Farrod Green and Justin Johnson were both good receivers when called upon in the past and could take on larger roles in 2017.
The offensive line has probably been Mississippi State’s biggest weakness the last two seasons, especially at containing edge pressure. Three starters are gone, two of them on the interior. Position coach John Hevesy may be moving bodies around in preseason camp to find the right combination.
Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense for 2017
He has some weapons to do that, if he wants. Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, a former five-star recruit, and linebacker Leo Lewis are both emerging stars in the SEC, and there are several end/outside linebacker types on the roster who can get after the quarterback. But Montez Sweat, Chauncey Rivers and the other two junior college transfers at the position are all going to be making the transition to the SEC in real time, which is always scary and usually bumpy.
The Bulldogs need a bounce-back season from Brandon Bryant at safety, and converted linebacker J.T. Gray joins him on the back end of the defense. Former Georgia Bulldog Johnathan Abram is the best known of three junior college signees at the position. Tolando Cleveland is back after missing all of 2016 with a torn ACL, and if he’s healthy (and he needs to be), he’s probably the team’s best cornerback.
Previewing Mississippi State Football’s Specialists for 2017
Logan Cooke is back as the team’s punter, so the source of intrigue on special teams is at placekicker, where Westin Graves’ back surgery forced him to give up football. Jace Christmann was Graves’ backup a year ago, but he never kicked in a game. Cooke has kicked off, so he could do it. So could Brad Wall or incoming freshman Tucker Day.
Mississippi State can still hang its hat on rising to No. 1 in the polls during the 2014 season, but the program slipped to 5–7 in the regular season in 2016 and made a bowl game only because of its high APR score. But that was a rebuilding year, and everyone knew it going in. With the quarterback position now settled and some emerging stars on defense, Mississippi State could be back in line to begin another ascent up the SEC West standings — if not to the top, at least into the middle of the pack with a seven- or eight-win season.
But there are question marks, especially along the offensive line, so it would not be surprising to see Mississippi State need its good grades to get it into another bowl game.