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South Alabama Jaguars vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs Preview and Prediction

Dan Mullen

Dan Mullen

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Mississippi State will find out what life without SEC record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott will bring to Bulldog Nation this Saturday when it welcomes South Alabama to Starkville. 

Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen this week said Damian Williams and Nick Fitzgerald will share the starting quarterback duties with the first-team offense, but don’t be surprised to see someone else under center as the game progresses.

While Mullen, coming off of a 9-4 campaign, enters the eighth year of his successful tenure as head coach, this offseason the Bulldogs made some coaching changes. Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, defensive line coach Brian Baker and cornerbacks coach Terrell Buckley are now part of the staff.

This will mark the second time in three seasons that Mississippi State and South Alabama have faced off. The first-ever matchup was in 2014 in Mobile, Ala., a game the Bulldogs won 35-3. 

Head coach Joey Jones’ Jaguars went 5-7 last season, including 2-4 in the Sun Belt. South Alabama had one of the conference’s stingiest pass defenses last season, finishing 25th in the FBS at 195 yards per game.

In seven seasons in Starkville, Mullen has gone 55-31, moving him to third on the school’s all-time victories list behind Allyn McKeen (65) and Jackie Sherrill (75). Many believe this year will be Mullen’s most challenging because of the loss of Prescott and other key players.

Jones has been at South Alabama since 2009, the same year the school started its football program. Initially, an FCS independent member, South Alabama joined the Sun Belt in 2012. Jones has a career 42-35 record and is responsible for the Jaguars’ lone postseason appearance — the 2014 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.  

South Alabama at Mississippi State

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3, at 12 p.m. ET

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TV Channel: SEC Network

Spread: Mississippi State -28

Three Things to Watch

1. Life without Dak Prescott

Prescott’s days of running over opposing defenses at Davis Wade Stadium are but a memory as the most accomplished quarterback in Mississippi State history is now starting for the Dallas Cowboys. As such, life must go on. Nick Fitzgerald, a sophomore, went 11-of-14 with six total touchdowns and 235 passing yards last season in limited action. For now, Fitzgerald and Damian Williams will share the starting job. Williams’ last start came in the 2013 Egg Bowl, 17-10 win over archrival Ole Miss. While the focus will be on Fitzgerald and Williams in the opener, it’s likely that Nick Tiano could get some snaps under center before the game is over.

2. South Alabama’s Jeremy Reaves

Part of the Jaguars’ success against the pass last season was due to emergence of Reaves. As a safety last year, Reaves recorded 96 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles. His performance earned him second-team All-Sun Belt recognition. The junior from Florida is no longer flying under the radar, as he enters this season included on several preseason watch lists. Reaves and the rest of the South Alabama secondary will no doubt try and make things difficult for Mississippi State’s offense, especially the new quarterbacks.

3. South Alabama’s Gerald Everett

To say Everett experienced a breakout campaign in 2015 would be an understatement. Everett, a tight end, not only led South Alabama in receptions last season with 41, but he also was tops in in receiving with 575. Everett also was involved in the Jaguars’ running game, scoring four touchdowns on eight carries. NFLDraftScout.com currently has the 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior listed at No. 10 among draft-eligible tight ends. Everett tallied a career-high 164 yards last September against San Diego State and poses a legitimate threat to an experienced Bulldogs secondary.

Final Analysis

Uncertainty about this year’s prospects has cast a cloud over Starkville following a stretch that saw Mississippi State go 19-7. No one doubts Dan Mullen’s ability to coach, and the Bulldogs will likely wind up playing in yet another bowl game by season’s end. It just might take some time for this team to find its footing. South Alabama has just one postseason appearance in its brief tenure as a FBS program. The Jaguars seem to be trending upwards as it relates to being able to contend in the Sun Belt, but do not match up favorably with Mississippi State from a talent standpoint. The Bulldogs will kick off their 2016 season with a big, relatively easy win in front of the home crowd.

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Prediction: Mississippi State 48, South Alabama 14

— 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.