There's just no substitute for experience.
As Mississippi State gets set for its third year under head coach Mike Leach, the Bulldogs will enter the season with a solid, veteran foundation. MSU has eight returning starters on each side of the football, all vital pieces of a team that ended the 2021 regular season ranked in the top 30 nationally in both total offense and total defense. Suddenly, a group that only a couple years ago was one of the country's youngest teams seems all grown up. That's the good news for Mississippi State.
Now here's the bad. MSU has to run through a schedule that's as tough or tougher as any team's slate in the country. So just how much will State's experience pay off and show up in the win column? That's the big question.
On one hand, an older group might be just what Mississippi State needs to weather all the storms it'll face. On the other, when you face the gauntlet MSU is looking at, simply having been through the wars before might not be enough.
Previewing Mississippi State's Offense for 2022
Quarterback Will Rogers leads a Mississippi State offense that is now at the point where, for most players, just about all they have known in college is Leach's Air Raid. Of course, Rogers is the centerpiece of the pass-happy system and showed last season how much of a weapon he could be. After being thrust into the starting role as a true freshman in 2020, Rogers enjoyed a tremendous sophomore year in which he began rewriting the MSU record book. Last year, Rogers set the single-season school record for completions (505), passing yardage (4,739) and touchdowns (36). He set numerous single-game records as well and enters 2022 as MSU's leader in career completion percentage. Rogers has seemingly progressed in each game the last two seasons, and he hasn't been alone in getting comfortable.
Both of Mississippi State's primary running backs — Jo'quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson — have seen a ton of action. Only two years into his career, Marks already holds the State career record for receptions by a running back. Johnson has been nearly as productive. The duo has accounted for 2,787 total yards the last two seasons.
MSU also brings back a wealth of talent at the inside receiver positions. Austin Williams is headed into his sixth year with the program and is a leader on and off the field. Jaden Walley is another standout returnee in the slot. He followed up a Freshman All-SEC season in 2020 with 628 yards and six touchdowns in 2021.
State's biggest offensive questions come on the outside, both at the receiving position and on the offensive line.
Makai Polk starred as a pass-catcher in his lone year at MSU before declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft. Polk led State with a school-record 105 receptions and 1,046 receiving yards. The Bulldogs will need to find someone to make up for that lost production, as well as find a pair of offensive tackles. Last year's left tackle, Charles Cross, entered the NFL Draft as a coveted prospect, while last season was right tackle Scott Lashley's final year of eligibility.
Previewing Mississippi State's Defense for 2022
The first two levels of the Mississippi State defense stand as the units with the strongest track record on that side of the football.
MSU brings back its entire starting defensive line and should add back into the mix a skilled pass rusher in the form of Jordan Davis. Davis missed last year with a knee injury.
The Bulldogs are also solid at linebacker, as Jett Johnson, Nathaniel Watson and Tyrus Wheat all return to go along with talented depth behind them.
It's in the secondary where MSU has most of its unknowns. The Bulldogs will have to figure out whom they'll plug into various openings in the defensive backfield.
Martin Emerson was one of the SEC's best corners over the last couple of years, but he left early to enter the NFL Draft. Safety Fred Peters is also no longer in maroon and white.
The Bulldogs have options in the defensive backfield, including the blossoming Decamerion Richardson and Alabama transfer Marcus Banks at corner. But there's no doubt the secondary stands as State's biggest defensive concern.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing Mississippi State's Specialists for 2022
Former Air Force walk-on Archer Trafford assumed punting duties early in the year and did a solid job, punting 26 times and averaging 42.4 yards per punt with a long of 57 yards.
MSU will definitely have a new placekicker, however. Both Brandon Ruiz and Nolan McCord are no longer Bulldogs. Coastal Carolina transfer Massimo Biscardi, who's made 46 of his 57 career field goals including 18 out of 21 the last two seasons, is in the running for the job, as is Northern Colorado transfer Ben Raybon, who was 8-for-14 on field-goal tries in 2021.
For Mississippi State, 2022 likely comes down to the team's level of consistency.
At their best, the Bulldogs proved last year they could hang with anyone, as they earned huge victories and went into the regular season's final week with a chance to finish second in the ultra-competitive SEC West.
At other times, the Bulldogs' Air Raid offense was unable to take flight, and MSU seemed like a different team altogether as a result.
State has the playmakers to make noise in 2022. The Bulldogs simply need those pieces to use their experience to perform with more consistency than they did during an up-and-down 2021.