The time has come for me to put my money where my mouth is.
If there’s one hill that I’m dying on, it’s that I believe in Mississippi State in 2018. I would have believed in the Bulldogs had Dan Mullen stayed in Starkville, but I believe in them even more now that Joe Moorhead is in Starkville.
Hence, my all-in attitude.
Before we dig into this, let’s not forget that this team won 9 games last year. It returns more production than any SEC team, including a defense that held Lamar Jackson to 42 percent passing and 4 interceptions in his final college game. It also returns third-year starter Nick Fitzgerald, who is likely going to set the SEC record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
Yes, I’m high on Mississippi State. I’d argue you won’t find many people who are higher on the Bulldogs than I am.
Let me explain.
2017 record: 8-4 (4-4)
My favorite SEC hire of the offseason was Moorhead to MSU. I liked it even more than Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M. That’s how much confidence I have in Moorhead’s offensive prowess. It will, in my opinion, easily be the most bang for the buck hire of any in college football.
I’ve raved about Moorhead’s personality and why I think his confident demeanor is perfect for the situation he walked into. But if Moorhead couldn’t coach up an offense, it’d all be for naught. Ask offensive-minded James Franklin about Moorhead’s ability to do that.
Or instead, compare Franklin’s 2 seasons with Moorhead vs. the 2 without him at Penn State:
- Without Moorhead (2014-15)
- 14-12 (6-10 vs. Big Ten)
- 6th place in Big Ten East, 4th place in Big Ten East
- Unranked both years
- 0 wins vs. ranked opponents
- No. 110, No. 101 in scoring offense
- With Moorhead (2016-17)
- 22-5 (15-3 vs. Big Ten)
- 1st place in Big Ten East (won Big Ten Championship), 2nd place in Big Ten East
- No. 7 and No. 8 in Associated Press poll
- 4 wins vs. ranked opponents
- No. 21, No. 7 in scoring offense
Starting to see my point? That’s why I believe James Franklin wouldn’t still be at Penn State if not for Moorhead’s presence. Now, Franklin has a consistent top-10 program. In fact, I’m under the impression that there are loads of cash at the bottom of these gift baskets Franklin sends Moorhead:
Received a preseason care package from @coachjfranklin & @PennStateFball this morning! Appreciate the kind gesture! Here’s to a safe & productive fall camp for both of our teams!#HailState#WeAre pic.twitter.com/lLhEQPCrPt
— Coach Joe Moorhead (@BallCoachJoeMo) August 3, 2018
By the way, how in the world am I verified and Moorhead isn’t? That’s perhaps my biggest gripe as it relates to Moorhead.
Oh well. He’ll be a household name by season’s end.
The personnel is there
I’m sure that when Moorhead was weighing his options about coming to Starkville, he had a bit of a realization. Like, holy cow, this team is built to win immediately. He wasn’t a new coach stepping into a rebuild. He was a new coach stepping into a program that was ready to have a special season.
I love that immediately after getting the job, Moorhead actually texted Fitzgerald that “he’d better clear a spot on his mantel for his Heisman Trophy.” Fitzgerald is going to thrive under Moorhead’s tutelage. They’re going to open up the passing game for him to take more shots downfield, and they’re also going to be more creative with getting skill players involved out of the backfield.
Months ago, I actually wrote why Aeris Williams would benefit the most from Moorhead’s arrival. Everyone knows about the job Moorhead did with Saquon Barkley, but people might forget that he developed Fordham running back Chase Edmonds so well that he was a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Out of Fordham. Fordham.
Williams is a perfect fit to get involved in the passing game out of the backfield, as is the talented Kylin Hill. Neither has to be as freakish as Barkley to be effective, especially behind an offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starters.
The real hurdle for MSU to overcome is the deep passing game. Not only coaching Fitzgerald up, but finding the deep targets. Moorhead has tweaked his throwing motion to help with that. Perhaps a combination of Deddrick Thomas attracting attention from the slot with Austin Williams (someone Moorhead has been quite high on) and Jesse Jackson as the downfield threats will be the answer.
Whatever the case, I believe the pieces are there for Moorhead to turn MSU into Penn State South (at least offensively).
Don’t forget about that defense
I’ll be honest. If MSU had just an average defense, I wouldn’t be calling for 10 wins. I do think that there are a couple games (Auburn, LSU), in which the offense could struggle, and it’s the defense that does the heavy lifting in a 21-17 game. Last year showed why this unit is more than capable of doing that. A group that finished 10th in total defense returns a whopping 80 percent of its production. That’s significant.
And yes, I understand replacing Todd Grantham with Bob Shoop has its question marks, but I’m not sure if people realize nationally just how much talent this unit returns. You already know about the All-America potential of Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat on the defensive line, but the defense is more than just a pair of elite pass-rushers.
Gerri Green and Mark McLaurin are also All-American candidates who will be playing on Sundays next year, and Willie Gay Jr. and Erroll Thompson have all sorts of breakout potential in the middle of the MSU defense.
For a unit that’s used to making adjustments — this is the Bulldogs’ fifth defensive coordinator in as many years — I wouldn’t worry about making that switch. This is about them finally having the playmakers across the defense to hang with the big boys in the SEC.
Week 1: vs. Stephen F. Austin (W)
I don’t think Stephen F. Austin would have stayed on the field with MSU under normal circumstances. Having its head coach resign in August certainly didn’t change my mind on that.
Week 2: at Kansas State (L)
Consider this the “working out the kinks” game that calms some of the buzz in Starkville. In the first road game of the year, MSU can’t quite get over the hump. Alex Barnes has a big day out of the Kansas State backfield, which forces the Bulldogs to rely on their developing passing game more than they hoped to. Just like Moorhead’s offense took a month for Penn State players to grasp, the learning curve is evident in Manhattan.
Week 3: vs. Louisiana (W)
Billy Napier and the Ragin’ Cajuns have to travel to face Alabama and MSU in September. That won’t be fun. An angry MSU team bounces back in a big way.
Week 4: at Kentucky (W)
History doesn’t win games, but 8 wins in the past 9 years probably isn’t a coincidence. MSU should be able to dominate 1-dimensional offenses, which I expect Kentucky to have in the early part of the season.
Week 5: vs. Florida (W)
Ah, Mullen’s return. Man, there’s going to be sooooooo much cowbell in Starkville that night. In fact, I wonder what the world record is for cowbell noise. The Bulldogs will be all sorts of fired up to try and shut down Mullen’s new team. This game could get chippy early, but I expect MSU’s defense to contain Florida’s revamped offense and win by a couple scores.
Week 6: vs. Auburn (W)
You’re right. Last year was ugly. Getting stomped 49-10 at Jordan-Hare wasn’t the best look for an MSU program that was trying to show it was a legitimate top-15 team. Keep in mind, though, that was the latter half of a 2-week stretch in which the Bulldogs traveled to Georgia and to Auburn. Absurd. This is the game where Moorhead will really show how elite of an offensive mind he is. He out-schemes Gus Malzahn, whose Auburn teams are .500 in games away from Jordan-Hare, and suddenly, all that preseason buzz is back in Starkville after a 3-0 start to SEC play.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: at LSU (W)
Again, Moorhead earns his paycheck. Coming off a bye, MSU gets to face an LSU team that will be a week removed from facing Georgia (and beating Georgia). I think this sets up well for MSU to pull out a win in Baton Rouge. Sure, it’ll be closer than last year’s 37-7 drubbing in Starkville, but Fitzgerald makes a key play late and gets arguably the biggest road win of his career.
Week 9: vs. Texas A&M (W)
I wouldn’t be surprised if MSU played at home as well as Auburn did last year. I don’t think this game is any exception. Big-time performances from Hill and Williams prevent MSU from a letdown following the big LSU win and MSU stays unbeaten in conference play before the all-important Alabama game. By the way, this also clinches MSU’s second winning season in the SEC in the 21st century.
Week 10: vs. Louisiana Tech (W)
I think MSU could’ve put up 80 points in Louisiana Tech last year. And strangely, that game was played in Ruston, La. This game, played in Starkville, might be even uglier than 57-21.
Week 11: at Alabama (L)
The win streak ends in Tuscaloosa. In what will wind up being an SEC West championship, this will have no shortage of hype. But ultimately, the Tide simply have too much talent in the front seven for MSU. The Bulldogs struggle to establish the balance that opened up their offense all season, and Alabama keeps control of its own fate to play in Atlanta.
Week 12: vs. Arkansas (W)
Chad Morris walked into a situation without the ideal personnel to run his system, whereas Moorhead did. Game, set, match MSU.
Week 13: at Ole Miss (W)
This is the ultimate revenge game for MSU after how much of a nightmare last year’s Egg Bowl was. This year, Fitzgerald runs all over Ole Miss in final regular season game and quiets what’s sure to be a raucous crowd in Oxford. I think we see both offenses light up the scoreboard. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both squads get into the 40s, but this time, MSU hoists the Golden Egg Trophy.
2018 projection: 10-2 (7-1)
Final Standings: 2nd in SEC West
I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’m “jumping” on the MSU bandwagon by predicting 10 wins. I’ve been saying that since March. If anything, I’m driving the bandwagon and picking people up.
When I first made that prediction, many scoffed at the idea of a program with 1 winning season in the SEC in the 21st century having that kind of year. But given the talent coming back and the new coaching staff coming in, I’m all in on this being a historic year for the Bulldogs.
Are they perfect? Of course not. A Moorhead offense that’s predicated on receivers making big plays downfield still has to prove that it can do just that. A defense loaded with talent still has to prove it can dominate without Grantham. An SEC West that hasn’t been kind to MSU is something it still has to overcome.
But yeah, I’m ready to see just how high Moorhead’s squad can fly in 2018.
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