Following years of speculation that many Mississippi State fans simply refused to believe, Dan Mullen finally left Starkville for another job. The loss will undoubtedly hurt the Bulldogs’ 2018 chances in the eyes of many offseason prognosticators in the months to come — and for good reason. Mullen was six wins from tying Jackie Sherrill for the most in the program history after coaching in Starkville for only nine seasons.

While it’s tough to fault Mullen for jumping at the chance to return to Florida, this time as head coach, the ironic part of his departure is he’s leaving for a program that’s not nearly as ready to win in 2018 as the one he coached in 2017. In fact, the 2018 MSU team looks to have more talent on paper than the 2014 squad that achieved the No. 1 ranking in the first-ever College Football Playoff poll.

Now it’s on Joe Moorhead to make the most of that talent.

SEC fans would be wise not to overlook what the former Penn State offensive coordinator is capable of achieving in Starkville in 2018. Just look at what he accomplished in his first season in Happy Valley in 2016: Penn State broke school records for total offense (6,056), passing yards (3,650) and points scored (526). He helped the program improve from 7-6 (4-4 in Big Ten play) to 11-3 overall (8-1 in conference) and won the Big Ten title.

Of course, there’s a big difference in leading an offense and leading an entire program; however, Moorhead has achieved much success doing that, too. Moorhead was named head coach of FCS program Fordham in 2012, taking over a 1-10 program. After going 6-5 in Year 1, Fordham went 23-5 over the next two seasons under Moorhead. Looking at the MSU roster, one thing is clear, Moorhead won’t have to do any rebuilding in Starkville.

Next season’s Mississippi State squad is loaded at just about every position. Starting at quarterback, MSU returns arguably the best quarterback in the conference, if not the nation, in Nick Fitzgerald.

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For those worrying about the potential of a slow return from Fitz as he rehabs from his dislocated ankle suffered in the Egg Bowl, all his backup Keytaon Thompson did to prove he was worthy of one day succeeding Fitzgerald was to outduel former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the TaxSlayer Bowl. By the way, that was also Thompson’s first start of his college career.

The passing game was a liability at times against the better defenses in the SEC, but that’s where Moorhead’s expertise should help. His Penn State offense led the Big Ten in passing last season and ranked No. 3 his first season with the club in 2016. The coach also helped develop unheralded recruit Trace McSorley into a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award semifinalist.

In 2015, Penn State averaged 215.4 passing yards per game. In 2016, Moorhead's first season as OC, the Nittany Lions improved to 260.7. And they led the B1G with 290.2 in 2017.

The offensive line returns four of five starters and every key reserve. While the loss of left tackle Martinas Rankin — first-team All-SEC in 2017 — will be a blow, rising sophomore Greg Eiland started four games last season when the senior Rankin’s went down to injury. The top six rushers from last season all return as well.

It’s true that the receiving corps left much to be desired, but that unit has been significantly upgraded this offseason. Starting with the signing of Stephen Guidry, the No. 1 junior college receiver in the nation for 2018, who is on campus in Starkville for spring football. Guidry turned down the likes of Alabama, LSU and Florida to play for MSU. The Bulldogs also signed and got receiver Devonta Jason to enroll early. He was the No. 5 overall prospect from Louisiana during the latest recruiting cycle.

Mississippi’s No. 1 overall prospect, and 2018 Under Armour All-American selection, Malik Heath turned down an opportunity to follow Mullen to Florida and has signed with the Bulldogs. He also happens to be a receiver. One last fresh face who could contribute at receiver is Marcus Murphy, the No. 5 overall prospect from Mississippi. While he might end up playing defense, he also has the capability to contribute as a receiver. He, too, has enrolled.

For all the firepower returning or joining the offense in 2018, the defense is returning the majority of the star power. They’re led by defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who many believed to be among the nation’s finest before he took over in Knoxville. His stint with the Vols tarnished his image a bit but should also serve to motivate him to prove he’s still among the game’s top defensive minds. Prior to accepting the Tennessee job in 2016, Shoop turned down the opportunity to run Les Miles’ defense at LSU before the Tigers turned to Kevin Steele in 2015.

The defensive line doesn’t lose a single contributor and returns Jeffery Simmons, the player on the roster with the most NFL potential. In only his second season, Simmons earned first-team All-SEC honors after serving as the linchpin of the MSU defense in 2017. He’s such a freak of nature, he even managed to score two touchdowns. Reminiscent of a young J.J. Watt,  if he continues to progress as a junior, he could be the top defensive lineman taken in the 2019 NFL Draft.

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MSU returns all eight defensive linemen off the two-deep from last season, plus expect a major new contributor. After sitting out 2017 due to an academic issue, Chauncey Rivers is expected to be eligible in 2018. He was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 weakside defensive end coming out of junior college in 2017.

The linebacking unit returns three of four starters from last season’s 3-4 defense, but with Shoop coming aboard to run the defense, you can expect MSU to use more 4-3 looks next season. Playing at outside linebacker in 2017, Montez Sweat tied for the most sacks in the SEC with 11. Rising junior Leo Lewis might be the most gifted linebacker on the roster but not even that is a slam dunk as sophomore-to-be Willie Gay could challenge Lewis for that honor.

The team loses two key cornerbacks in Tolando Cleveland and Lashard Durr but returns veteran senior corners in Jamal Peters and Chris Rayford. MSU has plenty of starting experience returning at safety, too. The backend might be the unit’s biggest weakness, but if the pass rush consistently gets to quarterbacks, that’s only going to elevate the back of the team’s DBs.

Mississippi State loses its punter to graduation but returns All-SEC Freshman performer Jace Christmann at placekicker.

The schedule also sets up well for MSU to start the season, the first three games are out of conference, which could potentially allow Fitzgerald to ease back into the flow of the game/Moorhead’s offense while coming off his injury.

Only the Week 2 trip to Kansas State resembles anything close to competition (Week 1: Stephen F. Austin, Week 3: UL-Lafayette — both in Starkville). The SEC opener at Kentucky follows those three. If MSU can win that game — Hail State has won 8 of the past 9 against UK — it will set up what could be an all-time classic in Starkville as Dan Mullen and Florida come to Starkville Sept. 29. Mississippi State follows that game by hosting Auburn before hitting the bye week.

Should the Bulldogs enter the bye at 6-0, that will provide the program a ton of momentum heading into the second stretch of the season, which contains the final five games against annual West opponents. The only opponent that will have more than a week to prepare for MSU once the season starts will be Texas A&M, but even the Aggies will be traveling to Starkville on Oct. 27 while coming their bye week.

It’s my belief that while college coaches are the headliners of college football, they are only as good as the players they have. That’s something Nick Saban firmly believes in and told the Alabama administration soon after agreeing to become the program’s coach. It wasn’t about him, so much as the players he was going to bring into his program. One of the key reasons Saban is the greatest college coach of all time is he’s the best evaluator and recruiter modern college football has ever seen.

At this point, that isn’t a concern of Moorhead’s heading into 2018. The man knows how to coach; that much is clear. Moorhead has also shown he’s capable of getting immediate results. With the roster he has coming back, Mississippi State will be Alabama’s biggest threat in the SEC heading into 2018.

The future stability of the program and being able to build off what Mullen created in Starkville should be a bigger concern for MSU fans heading into future seasons, as we just won’t know how successful Moorhead will be at that task for some time, but given the talent on hand he now has to work with, Hail State could be staring down the barrel at a historic run toward Atlanta in 2018. 

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