Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Mississippi State and the SEC West. Coming Saturday: Ole Miss.

Joe Moorhead and I have a lot in common.

We’re both big baseball fans who root for teams in the NL Central. We both have an appreciation for 1990s hip hop, Chick-fil-A and a good Seinfeld rerun. We both came to the SEC without southern roots after spending time in the Big Ten.

And yeah, we both admittedly set the bar a bit too high for Mississippi State in 2018.

Moorhead’s bar was obviously one that included ring sizes and a Heisman Trophy. My bar included 10 wins and a New Year’s 6 Bowl.

Now, we’re both dialing it back a touch in 2019. That’s not to say we’re lowering the bar to the floor, but perhaps with some more historical context, a couple of Yankees like Moorhead and I realized that you don’t roll into MSU and win titles.

So let’s get to what that new bar looks like.

2018 record: 8-5 (4-4), 4th in SEC West

Joe Moorhead’s Year 2 adjustment

As I said, Moorhead has a new approach in Year 2. I like when a person can reflect and admit fault. Moorhead did that at SEC Media Days, and he did it for good reason. In his first year as a Power 5 head coach, he saw what came with those massive expectations and how hard they were to meet.

Now, Moorhead is trying to establish his culture, but more in an on-field sense. Last year, Nick Fitzgerald wasn’t the fit in Moorhead’s system that I thought he’d be because he wasn’t an accurate downfield passer. Moorhead needs a passer who can run, not the other way around. Whether that’ll be Keytaon Thompson or grad transfer Tommy Stevens remains to be seen.

Whether Stevens wins the starting job or not, I don’t think he would have been added if Thompson were totally where Moorhead wanted him to be. The last thing the 2nd-year coach wants is deja vu with his offense. It doesn’t function when it’s one-dimensional, which it was too often with Fitzgerald. Maybe there’s some fear that would be the case with Thompson.

I don’t know. But I do know that Moorhead adjusted his thinking to a more practical approach this offseason.

And hey, thanks to his intermittent fasting-fueled weight loss of 57 pounds (and counting), he adjusted his pants size, too.

Kylin Hill as the X-factor

If there’s one player in the SEC who I want to see healthy from start to finish this year, it’s Hill.

After some early promise, we didn’t get a fully healthy version of Hill in Moorhead’s offense. That combination has all sorts of potential with Hill’s ability to be the 3-down back who thrives under Moorhead.

Based on the fact that Hill just squatted a metric ton — not literally, but he actually did it with good form, unlike most of the squat videos that go viral — it looks like he’s healthy. He’s the best home-run hitter in a lineup that lacks proven explosive receivers. And with the quarterback situation still an unknown, Hill seems like the surest thing going.

As long as he stays healthy.

Replacing last year’s loaded defense

Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat made up a defensive line combination that was special. By “special,” I’m not just saying it was special for MSU. I’m saying it was special for the SEC. Having guys who complement each other so well like that — Sweat’s pass-rushing skills and Simmons’ run-stopping ability — is rare, and as Moorhead knows, replacing them ain’t easy.

It would be naive to think there won’t be a drop-off from a top-ranked defense that lost 3 players to the first round, including Johnathan Abram. Seniors Lee Autry and Chauncey Rivers will be asked to step up in a major way, as will Marquiss Spencer coming off a season-ending injury last year.

But the linebacking corps of Erroll Thompson, Willie Gay and Leo Lewis will be one of the SEC’s best. That position group will be the backbone of Bob Shoop’s defense, which has a much lower set of expectations this year. They should also have a bit less pressure on them to hold teams with Moorhead’s expected offensive improvement.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Louisiana (W) (at Superdome)

File this under the “weird opener” department. Opening away from home against a Group of 5 team will put pressure on that offense to come out ready to roll, but we’re still talking about a game that was decided 56-10 last year. That was only Fitzgerald’s second start in the system, too. Whoever starts at quarterback should still be able to pick apart a defense that ranked No. 105 in scoring last year.

Week 2: vs. Southern Miss (W)

The Golden Eagles gave Auburn problems last year, so an SEC road environment won’t rattle them. Defensively, they have talent in the front 7 with Demarrio Smith, Jacques Turner and Racheem Boothe, which will put pressure in MSU to be able to get the passing game going. But even if it’s not a shootout like Week 1 could be, a full dose of Hill should still be too much to handle.

Week 3: vs. Kansas State (W)

Do you think Kansas State fans still have nightmares of Hill? I do. His breakout game was against the Wildcats on the road last year (227 scrimmage yards, 3 touchdowns), and it wouldn’t surprise me if Hill went off again. It is worth noting that Kansas State returns 75% of its defensive production. Still, give me a Hill-led win again to get MSU to 3-0.

Week 4: vs. Kentucky (W)

A revenge game for MSU yields a better result at home. I’m not predicting the Cats’ demise like some are, but I think Kentucky’s defense will take a slight step back and that MSU’s offense will at least take a slight step forward. I’m here for the Cameron Dantzler-Lynn Bowden matchup, too. A pass-heavier Kentucky offense struggles against an MSU defense that covers well and actually gets some rest with a functioning offense.

Week 5: at Auburn (L)

On the road against a team I expect to be much better in the trenches than it was last year, I think MSU will struggle against the Tigers. Perhaps it’ll be Hill’s first real grinder of a game against that loaded Auburn defensive line. I could see MSU falling behind a couple scores and really getting out of its offensive rhythm. MSU gets worn down and this has a 2018 feel to it heading into the bye week.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: at Tennessee (W)

Both Year 2 coaches trying to get to the top tier of the division would badly want a game like this. I’ll give Moorhead the edge over Jeremy Pruitt because he’ll have a fresh, motivated team coming off the bye week. Tennessee, however, is coming off the Georgia game with Alabama up next. Jarrett Guarantano against that MSU pass defense will be interesting. Both could make huge, momentum-swinging plays. Ultimately, I’ll take the Bulldogs to make more stops in a low-scoring, 1-possession game in Knoxville.

Week 8: vs. LSU (W)

I’m predicting that the Tigers will be undefeated and ranked in the top 5 entering this game. And I’m also predicting that Moorhead gets his biggest win in Starkville. Why? Against LSU’s RPO offense, a disciplined group of linebackers proves to be the difference. In what turns out to be a wild atmosphere in a battle of top 15 teams, MSU stops LSU’s last-minute drive and the cowbells are heard from coast to coast.

Week 9: at Texas A&M (L)

And as it often does in the SEC, reality smacks MSU in the face. Against a battle-tested Aggies squad, MSU’s defense doesn’t quite have the success it did against LSU. Hill struggles against Mike Elko’s lights out run defense, which forces MSU to have a pass-heavy approach in the second half that comes up short.

Week 10: at Arkansas (W)

I mean, 52-6 won’t happen again. Probably. But yeah, a 46-point difference isn’t flipped.

Week 11: Bye

Week 12: vs. Alabama (L)

Remember when Alabama needed Jalen Hurts to have a clutch moment to survive that game in Starkville 2 years ago? I remember. Now I should forget it because both teams are drastically different. I worry about an MSU defense that won’t be able to generate pressure up front as well as it did last year, and how Tua Tagovailoa could pick apart the Bulldogs’ secondary with a little extra time. It’s not a blowout, but Alabama has too many offensive weapons for MSU to keep up with.

Week 13: vs. Abilene Christian (W)

A nice, warm cupcake. MSU shouldn’t have any issues gobbling it up.

Week 14: vs. Ole Miss (L)

Yeah, I’m calling the upset. While I believe MSU will clearly be the superior team in 2019, I wonder about a young Ole Miss team treating this game like its Super Bowl. Why didn’t that yield an Ole Miss win last year? With the bowl ban and a handful of guys heading to the NFL, I don’t think there was quite the same motivation. Besides, the road team won this game in 4 consecutive years. Perhaps Ole Miss rides Scottie Phillips and Jerrion Ealy to make it 5.

2019 projection: 8-4 (4-4, 5th in SEC West)


Talk about a roller-coaster year this could be. MSU could get as high as the top 10 under that projection following a potential win against LSU. And with a loss to the lowly Rebels, MSU could be a fringe top 25 team heading into the postseason.

Do I expect MSU to have a different identity than last year? Definitely. There should be more offensive consistency and the defense shouldn’t have to do as much of the heavy lifting. But on the flip side, I still have questions about how much improvement we’ll see in the passing game and if it can rally from a deficit because of the limited proven options at receiver.

As of now, it’s unknown whether it’ll be Stevens or Thompson running the show. I get the sense that Moorhead wants his guy and that he won’t dabble with any sort of 2-quarterback system.

My guess is that Stevens becomes the guy and he runs the offense better than Fitzgerald did. How much better? It’s hard to project that when we’ve seen Stevens in such limited doses. But can Hill be the driving force behind Moorhead’s improved offense? Absolutely.

And hey, 3 consecutive seasons of 8-plus wins for the second time since World War II wouldn’t be anything to scoff at.