5 biggest concerns I have about Mississippi State
Mississippi State is primed and ready to build on a 2-game winning streak that ended the 2020 season. A full spring practice to work with this time around should go a long way in helping to implement Mike Leach’s still relatively new scheme.
But there remains some concern, as there does with all programs, as a new season approaches. Here are the 5 biggest concerns I have with the Bulldogs entering the 2021 season.
1. How will the QBs develop?
This isn’t going to be a discussion on which quarterback should be the starter, but rather how quickly that player will develop into a legitimate SEC quarterback. That means something different today than it did just a few years ago. The addition of Leach is proof of that.
High-scoring offenses are the order of the day in the SEC and that means in order to compete there must be a trigger man who can get the job done on a consistent basis.
That’s the concern. Can MSU’s starting quarterback step in and become acclimated to the Air Raid offense, and if so, how long will that take? Will Rogers got a good taste of it last season and one would imagine that with such experience he would have a jump on the competition, a handful of others vying for the position.
Fortunately, as it all stands now, the Bulldogs are scheduled to play 3 nonconference games, Louisiana Tech and NC State in Starkville, then at Memphis, before entering SEC play. That could be a huge help in the development of that one guy who separates himself from the rest and claims the starting quarterback position.
2. Will the Air Raid offense fly in Starkville?
It certainly got off the ground in a hurry. But I guess when you beat the defending national champions on their home turf like the Bulldogs did over LSU, 44-34 to open the 2020 season, there was no place to go from there but down. And that’s exactly the direction Mississippi State trended, losing their next 4 games and dropping 7 of 8 before somewhat righting the ship at the end of last season with a pair of victories to close it out.
Despite the fast start, the season as a whole had to be considered a disappointment, not only because of the losses, but the fact that SEC defenses had little trouble in defending what started out looking like an unstoppable force. The Bulldogs produced just 30 total points over their next 4 games and suddenly there arose more questions than could be answered.
However, the Bulldogs were able to end the season with a 51-point barrage on Missouri and produce another 28 points against Tulsa in the Armed Forced Bowl, proving that there is indeed some life in the offense.
Was that an outlier to a bad season and a system that doesn’t work in the SEC, or was it a prelude of things to come for the 2021 season? Leach’s second teams typically made a big jump — but those teams never faced SEC skill on the other side. That’s the concern Bulldogs fans will just have to wait patiently to find out.
3. What to expect from this defense?
It seems like feast or famine with the defense. They’ve been among the top 5 defenses in the SEC only to slip to the bottom rung within a year or two. Mississippi State ranked 12th in the conference in total defense in 2016 but rose to 3rd overall the following season and then in 2018 actually had the league’s top defense. A year later, they slipped to 11th overall in the SEC.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett was hired to stop the whiplash. Coming over from San Diego State, Arnett made great strides in that endeavor in his first season at Starkville, and the Bulldogs really took to his 3-3-5 scheme, rising to 5th overall statistically in the SEC in 2020. They ranked 3rd in the league against the run; only Georgia and Texas A&M were better.
With 25 lettermen, including 7 starters, returning from that group, it would seem that Arnett has the group on the right path. And with a full spring to implement the entire package, Arnett’s experienced defense figures to add the consistency that’s been missing recently.
“I hope we’re as good as we think we are so we can be really aggressive,” Arnett said after the Bulldogs’ 2nd day of fall camp.
4. Will switching positions set the o-line back?
They were just young pups last season, but the offensive line has grown up, and out. In 2020, only 3 players returned along the offensive front who played more than 11 snaps the previous season. Offensive line coach Mason Miller, in his first year at Mississippi State, helped mold the inexperienced group into a relatively cohesive unit, and that progress has continued over the spring and summer.
“There was a lot of work in the weight room and the credit goes to the kids and (strength and conditioning coach) Tyson (Brown),” Miller said. “We’re not playing with 285-pound kids anymore. I think every single one of them is 300-something pounds.”
But Miller isn’t finished tweaking the group. While All-SEC Freshman tackle Charles Cross returns to his spot, junior Kameron Jones moves from right tackle to left guard and junior center Cole Smith is trading places with senior guard LaQuinston Sharp.
Sure, Smith and Sharp toyed with the switch-a-roo last season and it seemed to work out fine. So much so, in fact, that Miller could be making it a permanent change. Add in senior right tackle Scott Lashley, a transfer from Alabama and West Point, who missed all of last season with an injury sustained in training camp and you have what amounts to a new-look formation.
How will that all work out and what is the time frame? The Bulldogs hope to find out during nonconference play. Will that be enough time to settle these talented and growing young men into their respective roles?
5. Those first 3 SEC games
Could it be any tougher? The Bulldogs open SEC play with LSU, at Texas A&M, and with a week off in between, welcome in Alabama to Davis Wade Stadium. Murderer’s Row was a walk in the park compared to what the Bulldogs are going to be up against beginning Sept. 25.
If you’re keeping score with us at home, that’s the Nos. 1, 7 and 11 ranked teams in the AP Preseason Poll. Hello!
That’s a brutal way to open SEC play. The potential to gut the second half of the season is real, and is certainly a concern.
Of course, the opposite side of the coin, the view from the eternal optimist’s vantage point would be that with a victory (or two?) over one or more of those SEC behemoths could be just what the Bulldogs need to make this a very special season.