4 reasons I'm already high on MSU in Year 2 of the Mike Leach era
It’s not too early to want more cowbell.
Check that. I don’t want any more 2020 cowbell. That version of Mississippi State can stay in the year of doom. And I don’t even know what to say about that postgame brawl.
But the 2021 version of MSU? Yeah, I’m buying it.
That’s only slightly because MSU won a bowl game that was played in a monsoon against a Group of 5 team. I know. Tulsa was a top-25 team that gave Oklahoma State and Cincinnati all they could handle. It was a solid win, no doubt.
But even had MSU followed in the footsteps of all things 2020 and fallen on its collective face on Thursday in the Armed Forces Bowl, I’d still be buying low on the Bulldogs in Year 2 of the Mike Leach era.
Yes, I also know that MSU post-LSU was mostly a disaster up until these last 2 games. Leach didn’t even post a top-100 offense. The Bulldogs were exposed in this all-SEC schedule. I’m pretty sure nobody in America allowed more sacks against 3-man rushes than MSU. Like, ever.
The more I think about it, though, the more I find myself liking MSU to make a significant Year 2 jump. That’s not to say that Leach’s squad is about to compete for a division title, but the odds of the Bulldogs looking SEC worthy throughout 2021 seem much more likely. Dare I say, MSU’s odds of posting a winning record in SEC play for the second time in the 21st century look … not impossible?
Here are my 4 reasons I want some 2021 cowbell:
1. The Leach Year 2 bump is real
At Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach’s Air Raid didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Texas Tech didn’t even have a top 60 offense in 2000. Like MSU, Washington State didn’t even have a top-100 offense. In those Year 1 seasons, Leach went 4-13 vs. Power 5 competition with the work-in-progress offenses.
In Year 2? Texas Tech improved by 8 points per game while Washington State improved by a whopping 11 points per game.
MSU fans should know by now that Leach was never going to be a shot in the arm in Year 1, despite what that LSU opener suggested. The Air Raid is an extremely specific style that requires a unique understanding of the offense from the quarterback, as well as the receivers and how they adjust to weekly zone coverages. It’s even an adjustment for an offensive line that is suddenly asked to pass block more than it ever has.
We saw the roster overhaul happen in Year 1. That was, given Leach’s personality and stubbornness to keep his style even if it doesn’t yield immediate results, not a surprise. As frustrating as that was, we probably should’ve accounted for that. Nobody in the SEC played with a younger roster than MSU by season’s end.
That’s another key point here.
2. The young talent is promising
If you watched the Armed Forces Bowl, you saw MSU score 4 touchdowns. What did those touchdowns have in common? All of them were scored by true freshmen.
Yeah, that’s a good sign.
MSU’s top 3 recruits from Leach’s first class were (in order of their ranking) Jo’Quavious Marks, Emmanuel Forbes and Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin. Those 3 players were excellent down the stretch, especially in the bowl game. Marks had 102 scrimmage yards and a score, Forbes had a pick-6 (he leads all FBS players with 3 defensive touchowns) while Griffin was monumental in the return game AND he had a key touchdown catch late to make it a 2-possession game.
Keep in mind that this was from an MSU team that had 3 players make the SEC’s all-freshman team. That was tied for the most of any SEC team.
Among those 3, of course, was Will Rogers. The true freshman quarterback didn’t get anything close to a normal offseason, and starting off as KJ Costello’s backup probably didn’t help him get the reps needed to master Leach’s Air Raid. Rogers’ decision-making has plenty of room for improvement, mainly when it comes to throwing into zones. But having said that, he was the only FBS quarterback in November who threw for at least 1,000 yards and no interceptions. He set MSU’s freshman record for passing yards and completions.
Rogers will absolutely benefit from getting an entire offseason as the starter. Getting on the same page as MSU’s receivers and finding the soft spots in zone coverage is key to making this offense work. So is being able to protect him against 3-man fronts. MSU’s offensive line truly can’t get worse than it was in 2020. Depth was an issue all year with transfers and COVID. Roster attrition at that rate shouldn’t be expected in Year 2.
In the Armed Forces Bowl, 6 starters on each side of the ball were first- or second-year players. That was a theme all year:
Of the 19 first-time starters, six are freshmen and seven are sophomores. https://t.co/WbBlkNzOQO
— Brandon Langlois (@bmlanglois) November 9, 2020
But the good news is that Rogers should have the factors around him improve in 2021. His connection with fellow SEC all-freshman selection Jaden Walley was real (Walley had 4 consecutive 100-yard games to end the season). That’s the type of thing that Leach can build this offense around.
3. Zach Arnett was a major success in Year 1, and (it looks like) he’ll be back for Year 2
The MSU defensive coordinator inherited a team who ranked No. 113 in FBS in returning defensive production. MSU had more defensive players drafted in the last 2 years (7) than Georgia. And Leach’s teams have never exactly been known for their defense. So yes, there was skepticism about the 34-year-old Arnett, who had been mentored by longtime San Diego State coach Rocky Long, but was truly taking over an FBS defense for the first time.
Yeah, about that.
Arnett is legit. His 3-3-5 defense kept MSU in far more games than it probably should’ve been in, despite those returning production/depth issues. We saw that in the Armed Forces Bowl when MSU’s entire defense took home MVP honors for finishing the day with 9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 1 touchdown.
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) December 31, 2020
It was a fantastic first season for Arnett, who earned himself an extension at season’s end. As long as a team like LSU or Florida doesn’t poach the up-and-coming defensive coordinator — they should absolutely pursue him — MSU is in an ideal spot to return one of the SEC’s better defenses.
File that one under “sentences I didn’t think I’d type in 2020.”
4. No. 3 in the SEC West is totally up for grabs
Serious question. Who will finish No. 3 in the SEC West next year?
Alabama and Texas A&M both return a ton of talent and will likely be in position to start as preseason top-10 teams.
Ed Orgeron overhauled his coaching staff after a massive fall from grace in 2020. Auburn has a new head coach after a pedestrian season that easily could’ve been 4-6. Arkansas and Ole Miss didn’t have winning seasons, either, and MSU was within a touchdown of both of them. Even with this disastrous year with depth issues galore, Alabama was the only West team who beat MSU by more than 14 points.
Starting to see what I’m saying? The West isn’t what it was back in 2014 or even 2019. Orgeron is the second-longest tenured coach in the division, which says a lot. It’s a division in flux.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that MSU is destined to become that No. 2 team, but nothing about the West suggests it’s loaded with 4 top-15 teams and that MSU will be on the outside looking in. There’s parity. That’s good for a team on the rise like MSU, who could easily lead the SEC in percentage of returning production depending on some of these NFL Draft departures.
MSU is undoubtedly going to get a nice bump in the wins department for the simple fact that it’ll have nonconference games once again instead of an all-SEC schedule. That’ll be the case for everyone.
But finishing the season with 2 solid wins perhaps made Leach’s vision a bit clearer. Better days are ahead in Starkville.