Final grades for the 2020 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Want a roller coaster of a ride in emotions during one college football season? I present to you the 2020 Mississippi State Bulldogs, who capped the season with a 28-26 victory over No. 24 Tulsa in the aptly named Armed Forces Bowl on Thursday.
Actually, they capped the season with what Mike Leach described as a “dumb” postgame brawl. It was the second consecutive year that the season ended with punches. Last year, Willie Gay punched Garrett Shrader before the Music City Bowl, breaking the QB’s orbital bone and making him unviable for the game.
Who knows whether there will be any fallout from Thursday’s postgame fight. Stay tuned.
But it capped a wild Year 1 under Leach, one that started with a record-setting victory over defending champion LSU.
Yes, it was a season to remember for all the right and wrong reasons in Starkville.
Here are the grades for each positional unit along with the coaching staff and overall performance:
KJ Costello took the college football world by storm in Week 1 by throwing for 623 yards and 5 touchdowns against defending champion LSU. That just turned into a mirage as he quickly regressed, throwing 8 picks to just 1 TD in the next 3 games before being replaced by Will Rogers. While Rogers, a true freshman, didn’t exactly light it up at first, he seemed to come along at the end of the season, throwing 8 touchdowns to 3 picks in the final 4 games, and will go into the spring as the favorite to win the job.
Running backs: C
Part of this is from Kylin Hill, a preseason All-SEC pick, getting injured and then opting out after only appearing in 3 games. The rest is the fact that at pretty much no time did State try to get a run game going, which, let’s face it, is not unusual for a Leach-led offense. The Bulldogs finished last in the FBS in rushing, gaining just 360 yards in 10 total games. Almost half of that came in the final regular-season game, too, when the Bulldogs ran for a season-high 151 yards against Missouri.
Yet Leach went to the run in the bowl win against Tulsa with State going for 123 yards on the ground led by Jo’Quavious Marks with 72 yards and a touchdown.
Wide receivers: B-
Being a receiver in Leach’s system is like being a kid in a candy store with $100 to spend: you are going to be happy. Five receivers had at least 200 yards receiving this year, led by Jaden Walley (51 catches, 707 yards, 2 TDS which earned him a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team. Expect this unit to be even better next season.
Offensive line: C+
For the mere amount of times that State will throw the ball under Leach, it is obvious that the sacks will come in large numbers if the offensive line isn’t just right. It was OK this season, dealing with a true freshman behind center for a portion of the season, and allowed 34 sacks in 11 games. That’s high compared to what Leach’s offense allowed in years past, but the lack of a quarterback with the scrambling abilities when needed is also at fault.
Defensive line: B-
One of the strengths of pre-Leach Mississippi State teams has been the defensive line. That was somewhat the case this season but it wasn’t as dominant as it has been recently. Marquiss Spencer turned in a quality senior season until the injury in the next-to-last game against Auburn, putting up 30 total tackles, 8 tackles for a loss and 3 sacks, as did another senior in Kobe Jones.
Good news for Mississippi State fans: star linebacker Erroll Thompson is considering returning for a 6th season in 2021. That would be a major lift for this defense as he was all over the field this past season, recording 86 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. If he returns, he will pair with Aaron Brule (69 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks) for a dynamic duo.
The secondary had its moments, holding Auburn star wide receiver Seth Williams for most of the game until a 32-yard touchdown, but it also let up way too many big plays. The result was being partially responsible for the Bulldogs ranking 96th in the FBS is passing defense by allowing 255 yards per game.
The unit stepped up in the bowl game, though, recording 2 interceptions with Emmanuel Forbes returning one for 90 yards for a touchdown.
Special teams: B-
Brandon Ruiz was solid, making all 28 extra point attempts and 10-of-12 field goal attempts, but his longest came at just 43 yards. What makes this grade low is kickoff return coverage which the Bulldogs finished 118th in the FBS during the regular season, giving up 26.40 yards per return.
The Bulldogs seemed to improve all year, played more freshmen and first-time starters than anyone in the country while also having a dwindling roster with COVID-19 issues. This wouldn’t have been an easy job or season for anyone. Leach and the staff worked with the hand they were dealt.
Sure, the Bulldogs ended 4-7, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed as, as pointed out above, the team did seem to improve once the opt-outs and transfers occurred and the coaches had players who really wanted to be there. Year 1 for Leach has always been difficult as he is installing a new offensive system while trying to weed out players. If this was the second year under his tutelage, it would be a failure. Give him time and success will come.