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Mississippi State Football: 2018 Bulldogs Preview and Prediction

Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State Football

Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State Football

For the first in nearly a decade, Mississippi State has a new head coach. And the arrival of former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead combined with the presence of dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald should produce plenty of yards and points, especially if the new receivers catch on quickly. After a solid 2017, the defense should be able to maintain its level of play, if not improve, thanks to the return of seven starters, including a pair of playmaking defensive linemen. While this season represents one of transition for the Bulldogs because of the coaching change, there's more than enough talent to remain competitive in the SEC West, if not surprise a few teams along the way.

Previewing Mississippi State Football's Offense for 2018

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Mississippi State Football/SEC Magazine

In his first Power 5 head-coaching job, former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will call his own plays - a good thing if you are a Mississippi State fan.

Nick Fitzgerald is healthy once again after a gruesome ankle injury ended his 2017 season in the Egg Bowl. The senior is a proven runner who has yet to develop into a consistent passer, though a lack of weapons at wide receiver is partly to blame for his less-than-impressive stats. The belief is that Moorhead will having Fitzgerald looking downfield more often in 2018.

That might be easier this fall thanks to an influx of talent at wide receiver that has given this position group a much-needed facelift. Newcomers Stephen Guidry, Devonta Jason and Malik Heath all arrive with strong credentials, and they will each be counted on to contribute right away.

Aeris Williams is a 1,000-yard back who is a tough, reliable runner. Moorhead used his running backs as receivers much more than Dan Mullen - Saquon Barkley caught 54 passes last season, 31 more than all of MSU's backs combined - so it will be interesting to see who develops into a threat in the passing game.

The Bulldogs welcome back four offensive line starters, but the one loss is a big one. Left tackle Martinas Rankin was an All-SEC player last season, and Mississippi State will certainly miss him.

Previewing Mississippi State's Defense for 2018

Bob Shoop is Mississippi State's fifth defensive coordinator in as many years, and he's at his third different SEC school. The Bulldogs are certainly hoping his results are more like what he did with Vanderbilt and Penn State and less like Tennessee's struggling unit the last two seasons.

Shoop should have no problem establishing a pass rush: Montez Sweat had double-digit sacks as a junior and came back for his senior season, and Jeffery Simmons is a tackle-end combo who makes all kinds of plays, from sacks to blocked kicks to scoring TDs.

The top two tacklers from a year ago return in safeties Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram. The position to watch will actually be linebacker, where sophomores Willie Gay and Erroll Thompson are starting to really emerge as difference makers. What Shoop must do is maintain the same philosophy that predecessor Todd Grantham brought back to Mississippi State: attack. A year ago, MSU was in the top five in the league in sacks, tackles for a loss and turnovers created. With many of the same faces back, Shoop can change schemes (from Grantham's 3-4 to his preferred 4-3) but does not need to change the mindset of what was one of the better defenses in the league in 2017.

Previewing Mississippi State Football's Specialists for 2018

At a position that has long been a sore spot for the Bulldogs, placekicker Jace Christmann made all 42 extra-point attempts and 12-of-14 field goals, becoming a fan favorite in the process. The Bulldogs need a new punter, and former high school All-American Tucker Day could fit in nicely there.

Final Analysis 

When Mullen left Mississippi State after nine seasons to return to Florida, the school elected to go outside of the SEC and hire Moorhead. There's some risk there (mostly related to recruiting), but the hire was hailed by outside observers, and 2018 could prove why immediately.  Mississippi State lost very little of consequence from its 2017 team, and despite a fairly challenging schedule, there's reason for optimism in Starkville. Eight wins are expected, and some believe that this could be a 10-win team with the right breaks.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Mississippi State

National Ranking: 14

SEC West Prediction: 3