The Bulldogs rank No. 30 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2019
If the Joe Moorhead offense were correlated to the 26 letters of the alphabet, he estimates that he got letters A through M installed in his first season in Starkville. It was enough to go 8–4 in the regular season, but it wasn’t nearly enough to be competitive in the team’s four SEC losses. The 2018 Bulldogs averaged 7.5 yards per play in the eight wins and 3.6 yards per play in the four regular-season losses.
The four SEC teams that beat Mississippi State — Kentucky, Florida, LSU and Alabama — did compile a 44–10 record, with three of those four winning New Year’s Six bowl games. But Moorhead promised that his Bulldogs would hold themselves to a championship standard, and winning championships starts with getting the 2019 team through the N through Z portions of his offense.
“We’ve got to be able to pass the ball effectively and explosively against every team on our schedule, not just some of the teams on the schedule,” Moorhead says. “We have to do it on a weekly basis in a league that has a very small margin for error.”
Previewing Mississippi State's Offense for 2019
Much like last year, the Bulldogs have all of the pieces to run the ball effectively but have to prove their ability to throw it effectively.
Kylin Hill and Nick Gibson have proven their value as ball carriers, and the offensive line should be stout once again despite the loss of two quality starters. The Bulldogs moved veterans to two crucial positions — Darryl Williams from left guard to center and Stewart Reese to right guard from right tackle — to keep the interior of the line a formidable run-blocking unit.
MSU will also have a run threat at quarterback no matter whom it chooses, and the battle to replace Nick Fitzgerald got even more interesting in May when Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens decided to play his final year in Starkville. Junior Keytaon Thompson has averaged a 6.8 yards per carry in his career but also a 47.4 completion percentage in the three games he played in Fitzgerald’s place. Redshirt freshman Jalen Mayden and true freshman Garrett Shrader are the other two options at quarterback. Stevens played in 23 games and threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, while adding 506 yards and eight scores on the ground in his career at Penn State. His experience in Moorhead's offense will be a huge asset this fall.
The biggest question may be at wide receiver, where signs of both progress and need were evident a year ago. Stephen Guidry and Osirus Mitchell both eclipsed 400 yards — after no Bulldog topped the 300-yard mark in 2017 — but neither ranked among the top 30 in yards in the SEC.
Previewing Mississippi State's Defense for 2019
The Bulldogs led the country in yards per play allowed thanks to a pair of elite defensive linemen and a pair of all-conference deep safeties. All of them are gone — as well as two other defensive line starters — but thanks to the depth that last year’s unit displayed, there isn’t much regression expected in Year 2 under coordinator Bob Shoop.
Chauncey Rivers, a former junior college transfer, will be asked to provide the edge presence lost by Montez Sweat’s departure, and he is far from alone at defensive end. The interior of the line is where MSU has something to prove. Linebacker play could make up for that, with no losses from last year’s corps that shined in relative anonymity, most notably Erroll Thompson
Safety was the strong suit in last year’s secondary, but that title should belong to cornerback this year, after Cameron Dantzler was excellent his entire sophomore season and Maurice Smitherman developed throughout the fall. Marcus Murphy and Jaquarius Landrews may not be as good at blitzing as the safeties they are replacing, but their experience at Star (nickel back) last season should give MSU enough coverage skill to limit regression.
However, if MSU is going to be as strong in the middle of the field as it was last year, the linebackers will have to step up.
Previewing Mississippi State's Specialists for 2019
Jace Christmann made 11 of his final 13 field goal attempts and has yet to miss an extra point in his two years as MSU’s kicker. He and holder Kody Schexnayder are points of stability in the kicking game. Schexnayder occasionally spelled Tucker Day in what was a bad punting season for all — 110th in the nation in punting average (38.9) — so MSU added two transfers, Corliss Waitman from South Alabama and Reed Bowman from Texas Tech, to have more options. MSU is also replacing a long snapper for the second year in a row but brought in junior college transfers at the position in each of the last two recruiting classes.
Moorhead and the Bulldogs will need the aforementioned N through Z part of the offense to be fully implemented for the unit to take flight.
The depth from last year’s defense should prevent the unit from cratering, but losing that amount of top-line talent is likely to have some impact. Even if that impact is small, the offense will have to pick up that slack and more if MSU is going to produce the program’s first nine-win regular season since 2014.
This team will also have to get it done on the road, with just one home game during a five-game stretch in the middle of the season. The trips to Tennessee and at Arkansas are crucial, as winning both of them would give the Bulldogs some margin for error in road trips to Auburn and Texas A&M.