7 reasons to look forward to 2017 for Mississippi State
Mississippi State had a pretty tumultuous football season, but after ending with a bowl win, a .500 season is way better than the outlook provided after losses to South Alabama and Kentucky.
The Bulldogs had to claw to beat MAC foe Miami (Ohio) in the St. Petersburg Bowl, a win that signified the tough season they endured. But it was infinitely better than the alternative, and as the Bulldogs close the book on 2016, here are seven reasons to look forward to a better 2017.
1. Nick Fitzgerald is QB1: The sophomore quarterback didn’t start out as the guy. But after 195 rushing yards in his debut start against South Carolina, his value was obvious. Fitzgerald has to work on his long passing game and will be without receiver Fred Ross next season, but following 142 rushing yards against Miami Ohio, Fitzgerald sits atop the SEC in rushing with 1,375 yards. That’s 7.1 yards per 195 runs.
Fitzgerald just missed breaking Cam Newton’s SEC record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Newton, however, had 69 more carries than Fitzgerald; Manziel had six more.
Most single-season rush yds by QB in SEC history:
2010 Cam Newton, 1,473
2012 Johnny Manziel, 1,410
2016 Nick Fitzgerald, 1,385 (142 today)
— Saturday Down South (@SDS) December 26, 2016
2. The schedule: There is no such thing as an easy SEC schedule, but the Bulldogs have a favorable home slate in 2017. They should start 2-0 against Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech before hosting LSU at Davis Wade. Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas are on the road, but LSU, Kentucky, Alabama and Ole Miss are home games. If MSU can beat Georgia and sneak in a win against LSU or at Auburn, it could be a healthy 6-1 heading to Texas A&M three days before Halloween.
3. Speaking of rushers: Aeris Williams will be a junior and should be an offensive focus. He wasn’t for the bulk of 2016, but there were three games that exposed his worth. Against BYU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, Williams had 69 carries for 413 yards and three of his four touchdowns. Not a coincidence two of those were upset wins.
4. Recruiting revival: A bowl win can go a long way with recruits, especially those weighing Mississippi State and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs needed something to combat the excitement Rebels QB Shea Patterson created with a comeback win at Texas A&M. The Bulldogs grabbed the late in-state recruiting momentum, carried heavily by a blowout of the Rebels in the Egg Bowl. The rivals aren’t fighting for the same national recruits, but State’s late success to get to 6-7 was important within the state lines.
The Bulldogs have commitments from six of Mississippi’s top 20 players, according to 247Sports.com’s composite. Ole Miss has just three.
5. Numbers sort of lie about 2016: Mississippi State finished with six wins, but a look at the season numbers says things should have gone worse. Opponents scored more points (413-395), had more first down (298-287) and passed for nearly 1,000 more yards and seven more touchdowns. Like a couple of rough losses against South Alabama and at Kentucky, things often looked bleak. The Bulldogs showed a resiliency that turned disaster into promise going forward. If some of the overall numbers go in their favor next season, eight or more wins are possible.
6. Leo Lewis lingering: The freshman linebacker finished second on the team with 79 tackles. He had 4.5 for loss with a sack. His 35 solo tackles tied for third and showed his ability to find the football and stop its progress. Lewis was the nation’s top linebacker recruit for 2016 and stayed in-state. It was a coup then, stealing him from Ole Miss. His time appears to have arrived and he is primed for a huge 2017, which is good considering the Bulldogs must replace senior leader Richie Brown, who again led the Bulldogs in tackles (102).
7. Better against the pass: Mississippi State finished 14th in the SEC against the pass, allowing 281.5 yards per game. Things should get better as that will be a focus of the offseason.
The Bulldogs did make some plays, however. They finished with 14 interceptions — including a key one in Monday’s bowl victory. Juniors Brandon Bryant (1), Mark McLaurin (2) and Jamal Peters (2) and sophomore Maurice Smitherman (1) combined for six of the INTs.
Only one way to go from 14th place — and the Bulldogs have the pieces for the rise.