Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs' SEC slate includes back-to-back road games at Georgia and Auburn
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen began the 2016 season on a warmer-than-wanted seat after his team lost 21-20 to Sun Belt member South Alabama at home to open the campaign. While some regression was expected after the Bulldogs lost record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott to the NFL, the opening loss put the season's expectations in perspective.
Fortunately for Mullen, things improved after that, including wins against then-No. 4-ranked Texas A&M and archrival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Mississippi State capped off the season with a 17-16 come-from-behind victory over Miami (Ohio) In the St. Petersburg Bowl to finish 6-7. The Bulldogs were in the postseason despite a 5-7 regular season record thanks to a high Academic Progress Rate.
Mississippi State looks to build off of last season’s momentum this fall and returns a total of 10 starters. Six are on offense, including junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who shredded defenses with his arm and legs in 2016. A new No. 1 wide receiver will need to be identified with the expectation that senior Donald Gray will fill the shoes of the departed Fred Ross. On defense, new coordinator Todd Granthan has some pieces to work with, namely the sophomore duo of linebacker Leo Lewis and defensive end Jeffery Simmons.
Here is how Mississippi State’s 2017 schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Nov. 4 vs. UMass
Mississippi State visited Foxborough last September and earned a 47-35 win over the Minutemen. UMass, an FBS Independent, is just 5-19 over the past two seasons. The Bulldogs should be rolling on both offense and defense when these two teams meet.
11. Sept. 2 vs. Charleston Southern
Charleston Southern is coming off back-to-back Big South championships in the FCS ranks, but the architect of those teams, head coach Jamey Chadwell, is now the offensive coordinator at Coastal Carolina. Quarterbacks coach Mark Tucker will make his debut as the Buccaneers’ head coach in Davis Wade Stadium. Unlike last year, the Bulldogs should emerge victorious after Week 1.
10. Sept. 9 at Louisiana Tech
This game could easily go the way of last season’s opener against South Alabama, so it’s probably safe to say Mullen and company aren't dismissing this as an early-season tune up. Louisiana Tech opened 2016 with a one-point loss at Arkansas and won eight of its last 10 games finish 9-5. The Bulldogs from Conference USA boast a high-scoring offense, including 1,000-yard rusher Jarred Craft. This will be a good test for Grantham’s re-tooled defense.
9. Oct. 14 vs. BYU
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill scored four touchdowns against the Bulldogs in last year's 28-21 overtime home win. He's no longer in Provo. However, the Cougars’ defense returns seven starters and new quarterback Tanner Mangum has starting experience. Also working against the Bulldogs is that they draw BYU after back-to-back road games at Georgia and Auburn. BYU could net another win this year if Mississippi State ends up on the wrong side of injuries and fatigue heading into this one.
8. Oct. 21 vs. Kentucky
With eight returning starters on offense and defense, many are expecting Kentucky to turn the proverbial corner this season. The Wildcats beat the Bulldogs 40-38 in Lexington last year. Quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell Jr. are back to lead an offense that could end up being one of the more productive units in the SEC. The defense is less of a sure thing, but boasts plenty of experience and should be solid in the secondary, which is led by safety Mike Edwards.
7. Oct. 28 at Texas A&M
The Bulldogs picked up their signature win of 2016 when they shocked then-No. 4 Texas A&M 35-28. The Aggies and head coach Kevin Sumlin would love to reverse the outcome at home, but must do without the services of leading pass rusher Myles Garret and quarterback Trevor Knight. Sumlin’s feeling the heat in College Station, so he can ill afford a home loss to Mississippi State, especially considering this game comes at the end of October.
6. Nov. 18 at Arkansas
Arkansas' lone win in its last four games of the 2016 came on the road against Mississippi State in a 58-42 high-scoring affair. Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs’ offense should once again have some success against a suspect Razorbacks defense. But unless Mississippi State's defense can do its part, the Bulldogs could have a tough time getting out of Fayetteville with a win.
5. Nov. 23 vs. Ole Miss
Mississippi State snapped its two-game Egg Bowl losing streak with a resounding 55-20 victory in Oxford last year. With Ole Miss serving a self-imposed postseason ban in the wake of the ongoing NCAA investigation, consider this one the Rebels' bowl game. Energy and passion will run high as usual when these rivals meet on Thanksgiving Day.
4. Sept. 16 vs. LSU
Former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron returns to Mississippi with the Tigers and is sure to receive a charged reaction from the Bulldog faithful. LSU, as always, is loaded on paper and should waltz. But such was the case last year when then-head coach Les Miles' team barely escaped at home with a 23-20 win. The good news for Mississippi State fans is this contest will be played early in the season so LSU, which returns a total of nine starters and has a new offensive coordinator, may not be clicking on all cylinders yet.
3. Sept. 23 at Georgia
Year two of Kirby Smart's tenure is expected to be a big one, and eyes will be on this September matchup to see if the hype is real. Georgia returns 11 starters on a defense ranked 16th nationally in yards allowed per game (327.5) in 2016. Standout running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel also return, as does quarterback Jacob Eason, who is expected to take a leap forward in his second season.
2. Sept. 30 at Auburn
The Bulldogs travel to the Plains for an early-season contest against one of the SEC's most intriguing squads. Auburn beat Mississippi State 38-14 in Starkville last season and returns many key players from that team. The addition of junior college transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham gives head coach Gus Malzahn a new look for his already dangerous offense.
1. Nov. 11 vs. Alabama
It's been nine years since Mississippi State has defeated Alabama. The Bulldogs' last win occurred in 2007, a 17-12 victory in Nick Saban's first year leading the Crimson Tide. In the last two meetings, Alabama has outscored Mississippi State 82-9, and there’s no reason to think the Bulldogs have significantly closed the gap against the three-time defending SEC champions.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.