No. 39 Mississippi State
Dan Mullen opened his SEC Media Days appearance by saying how proud he is of the Mississippi State program. He touted their bowl streak, consistency and other items that seemed unachievable to many when he took over eight years ago.
While Mullen should be proud, he's also entering another pivotal period of his tenure as the Bulldogs aim to return to SEC West contention.
2016 Record: 6-7 (3-5, SEC)
Mississippi State failed to win more than six games for the first time since 2009, Dan Mullen's first season. Despite the five-win regular season that ended with a close win over a MAC program in a low-level bowl game — a bid they were granted because of APR scores — it arguably went better than most people expected.
Expected to take a huge step back from their Dak Prescott-directed 10- and nine-win campaigns of 2014 and 2015, respectively, the Bulldogs opened with a home loss to South Alabama. They rebounded nicely, beating South Carolina, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and nearly knocking off BYU and LSU.
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (9th year, 61-42 overall)
In today's edition of Time Flies: Dan Muller has been at Mississippi State for nearly a decade.
Mullen has won at least seven games six times and reached seven-straight bowl games. He has brought stability to a program who had never heard of stability before 2009 and though win declines in each of the last two years isn't ideal, the former Florida offensive coordinator has done a remarkable job.
"One of the things when I came here was to build a program that wins on a consistent basis, and I think we’ve been able to build and do that," he said at SEC Media Day. "…I’m really proud of that, proud of our players, what they’ve been able to do for us, coming off a year last year and making a Bowl game in a very unique way to me. We made a Bowl game last year because of academics, not because of our wins on the field."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Nick Fitzgerald, RB Aeris Williams, WR Donald Gray, WR Jamal Couch, G Deion Calhoun, C Martinas Rankin
It takes some programs years — if not a full decade — to recover from the loss of an elite passer. It took Mississippi State all of eight months.
Nick Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound former three-star recruit, struggled at times during his first season as starter but was mostly terrific, accounting for 36 total touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards.
"The biggest strides we need to see in Nick are his consistency in throwing the football, the accuracy, the decision-making, when he’s getting the ball out, how he’s throwing, what type of throw [it is],” Mullen said. "Those are skills that are developed over a very long period of time. And the more you can develop them, the more successful you’re going to be as a quarterback."
Fitzgerald — who ranked 21st in the nation with 1,375 rushing yards — was their primary ground weapon but now-junior running back Aeris Williams was also very effective, rushing for 720 yards on just 137 carries (5.3 yards per carry).
With leading receiver Fred Ross gone, Fitzgerald's top target is senior Donald Gray. One of the best big-play men in the SEC, Gray averaged 17.3 yards per catch and found the end zone five times. Behind Gray, it's a pile of talented but inexperienced players, led by sophomore Jamal Couch. He played a little as a true freshman and could sniff 35-40 catches in 2017.
Martinas Rankin struggled early last season before transforming into a stud left tackle late in the season. Now he's moving to center — though I'm not convinced he remains there — and could be a first- or second-day pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He and guard Deion Calhoun are the only returning starters for a line that's inhibited their offensive creativity the last two years.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Jeffery Simmons, LB Leo Lewis, CB Tolando Cleveland, S Brandon Bryant, S J.T. Gray
Todd Grantham becomes Mississippi State's fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons — and sixth in nine years under Mullen. The 50-year-old has mile-long résumé that includes most recently coordinator stops at Georgia and Louisville.
"We have had a history of having good defensive players here, a lot of NFL draftable guys here," Grantham said. "We want to re-establish that and get back to that. Being a part of re-establishing that identity, being able to be a part of the most competitive league in the country and being with a head coach that had done it before were all things that were appealing to me."
A lot of that re-establishment starts with senior safety Brandon Bryant. He was terrific in 2015, swatting passes, delivering bone-jarring hits and making highlight-reel plays (below). He, admittedly, was not great in 2016, even saying he wasn't having fun amidst countless botched assignments.
Bryant is flanked by converted linebacker J.T. Gray and corner Tolando Cleveland, the latter of whom missed all of 2016 with a torn ACL.
The big-time talent comes in sophomores Leo Lewis (linebacker) and Jeffery Simmons (end). Both were highly rated in-state recruits who played well as true freshman. Lewis had five tackles for loss and ranked second on the team with 79 tackles, while Simmons had three tackles for loss. Lewis was named in an offseason but Mullen said he'll "absolutely" be eligible.
Notable Player Losses
WR Fred Ross, OT Justin Senior, LB Richie Brown, CB Jamoral Graham
All-SEC receiver Fred Ross had 160 catches for 1,924 yards and 17 touchdowns his final two seasons and is now preparing for training camp with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. Junior Senior, the Bulldogs' lone pick in April's draft, leaves a big hole at tackle.
Defensively, leading tackler Richie Brown is gone at linebacker, as is corner Jamoral Graham. Graham transferred to Jackson State after leading the team with three interceptions and five passes defended in 2017.
Notable Player Additions
QB Keytaon Thompson, DT Deion Pope, DT Lee Autry, DE Chauncey Rivers, LB Willie Gay, S Jonathan Abram
Mississippi State added some huge — literally and figuratively — pieces over the offseason, among them three JUCO defensive linemen who should get immediate playing time. Chauncey Rivers, a 6-foot-3, 284-pound four-star prospect from East Mississippi Community College, boasts the most potential of the three.
Their best true freshman is linebacker Willie Gay, a Starkville product who committed to Ole Miss last summer before decommitting and signing with his hometown team. Also keep an eye on safety Jonathan Abram, a former Georgia Bulldog.
Offensively, they hit the jackpot with four-star dual-threat quarterback Keytaon Thompson from Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans. He enrolled early and will be Fitzgerald's backup, whom he could take over for in 2018 if Fitzgerald leaves early for the NFL.
Mississippi State plays a trick Group of Five road game in Week 2 when they visit Louisiana Tech for an all-Bulldog matchup. Louisiana Tech features one of the best all-purpose playmakers in the FBS in Jarred Craft and big-time talent in the trenches. That game kicks off a brutal four-week stretch that features three road games.
They play five of their final seven games at home, including a Nov. 11 tilt with Alabama.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Charleston Southern|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Louisiana Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. LSU|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Georgia|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Auburn|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. BYU|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Kentucky|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. UMass|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Arkansas|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||at Arkansas|
|Thursday, Nov. 23||vs. Ole Miss|