There’s a new sheriff in town in Starkville. Or in this case, a new pirate.
Mississippi State is set for its first season under the leadership of Mike Leach, a man whose outlandish personality in press settings is perhaps only eclipsed by his knowledge of the game and ability to get the most out of his offenses.
Leach brings a whole new level of excitement to the Bulldogs after the school parted ways with previous head coach Joe Moorhead following last season. Moorhead spent just two years at Mississippi State in a tenure that many locally viewed as a disappointment. Now, enter Leach.
Mississippi State hired Leach in early January. He brings a big-time name and reputation with him as he tries to see if his traditionally successful coaching methods can translate in the unforgiving SEC West.
Previewing Mississippi State's Offense for 2020
No matter the down or distance, Leach teams are unafraid to throw the football and will do so with regularity. Stanford graduate transfer K.J. Costello hasn’t officially been tabbed as Leach’s starting quarterback, but it’s difficult to believe that he won’t be. Costello boasts a 62.6 percent career completion percentage, along with 6,151 yards passing and 49 TDs through the air. Injuries limited him to only five games last season, but the year prior he had one of the best campaigns ever for a Cardinal quarterback, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors with 3,540 passing yards, 29 TDs and a completion percentage of 65.1 percent.
Costello’s resume immediately makes him the most proven quarterback on the roster. The Bulldogs do have other options, including exciting dual-threat sophomore Garrett Shrader, who played in 10 games and started four last season, but Costello seems likely to get the first crack at running the Mississippi State version of the Air Raid barring something unforeseen.
Meanwhile, at running back, the Bulldogs welcome back Kylin Hill for his senior season, and he could be set up for a monster year. He led the SEC in rushing yardage in the regular season in 2019.
The biggest question mark for the Mississippi State offense is at receiver. The Bulldogs haven’t had a 600-plus-yard receiver since 2016. That will almost assuredly need to change if Leach is to win. Alabama graduate transfer Tyrell Shavers should compete for a starting job this fall.
Of course the key to any offensive success is the line. Mississippi State did lose a pair of starters up front from what was a solid group last year, and Stewart Reese decided to transfer to Florida this summer. However, there is quality depth and several options to replace those losses.
Previewing Mississippi State's Defense for 2020
As Leach brings his Air Raid offense, new defensive coordinator Zach Arnett brings his 3-3-5 defense to the Bulldogs. If Arnett can be as successful in Starkville with his scheme as he was in his previous stop at San Diego State, that’s good news for Mississippi State. Over the last two seasons at San Diego State, Arnett’s defense ranked in the top 15 nationally in multiple categories, including rushing yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per carry, and yards allowed per play.
Arnett inherits a defense full of talent, but low on big names. Senior linebacker Erroll Thompson — last season’s leading tackler — is the heart and soul of the Mississippi State defense, but beyond him there are many unknowns.
Up front, Mississippi State seems to be in pretty good shape. A season ago, the Bulldogs were young and inexperienced along the defensive line. However, tackle Nathan Pickering emerged as an All-SEC Freshman, and he joins fellow tackle Jaden Crumedy and veteran ends Kobe Jones and Marquiss Spencer to give the Bulldogs the makings of a solid front.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State’s success in the secondary will largely hinge on the development of youngsters. Junior safety Marcus Murphy is one of the leaders of a group that needs players like sophomore corner Martin Emerson to step up.
The secondary’s performance could very well make or break the Mississippi State defense. Last season, the Bulldogs were hurt through the air, surrendering 246.8 passing yards per game. They’ll need to improve on that for this team to reach its peak.
Previewing Mississippi State's Specialists for 2020
Jace Christmann has been Mississippi State’s placekicker the last three seasons, but he’ll be challenged this year by Arizona State graduate transfer Brandon Ruiz. Christmann has made 32 of his 40 career field-goal tries. Meanwhile, Ruiz made 37 of his 49 field goals in two years at Arizona State.
Tucker Day was Mississippi State’s punter last season, and he returns after averaging 42.6 yards per punt a year ago.
The Bulldogs will need to find players to rely on in the return game as most of last year’s contributors are gone.
Leach’s arrival has brought both excitement and ramped-up expectations. Whether or not Leach lives up to the hype will largely be determined by whether his offense continues to put up yards and points, as it has done throughout his career. There is a question as to how effectively Leach’s style can work consistently against the athleticism of SEC defenses. If it can, the Bulldogs can overachieve. If it can’t, the jubilation of Leach’s arrival may quickly be gone.
National Ranking: 48
(Top by Aaron Cornia/Mississippi State Athletics)