Mississippi State football: 5 biggest concerns I have about 2019
Mississippi State heads into the 2019 season after finishing last fall with a bang. A convincing drubbing of Ole Miss in Oxford, along with late-season wins over Texas A&M and Arkansas, have fans excited about the upcoming year.
Earlier, Rick Stavig tackled the 10 biggest questions entering fall camp. As we transition to the 5 biggest concerns I have heading into this season, remember the Bulldogs are possible a dropped touchdown against Florida and a sloppy bowl appearance from winning 10 games.
Under Joe Moorhead last season, the Bulldogs finished 8-4 in the regular season and 4-4 in conference play before falling to Iowa in a bizarre Outback Bowl.
With a schedule conducive to winning early, the Bulldogs again could vie for another 8- or 9-win season. Mississippi State will be favored in home games against Southern Miss, Kansas State, Kentucky, Abilene Christian and Ole Miss, and the opener in New Orleans against Louisiana. They’ll likely be favored in road trips to Tennessee and Arkansas as well. The game of the season could be when MSU hosts LSU.
The tilt with the Tigers could be the game that defines whether Moorhead and the Bulldogs have a good or great season. That’s 1 of the 5 biggest concerns I have about the 2019 season.
1. Is Joe Moorhead the right fit in Starkville?
The question continues to swirl heading into the 2019 season, mainly due to the fact the Bulldogs statistically had one of the best defenses in its history and only won 8 games. While true, the way Moorhead adapted to Nick Fitzgerald’s strengths down the stretch tells me quite a bit. Unfortunately for Moorhead, the light continues to shine brightly on the loss to Kentucky, followed by the loss to its former head coach in Dan Mullen. Honestly, I think many are missing the fact that Moorhead rallied the troops following the loss to the Gators. Hosting a hot Auburn team, the Bulldogs dismantled the Tigers in a must-win the following week. At that point, I knew Moorhead was a coach with the moxie you need in the captain’s chair.
Lose that game and all bets are off.
Make no mistake, if running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams are alternating carries against Kentucky, the outcome is different. Then you pit the Gators against a would-be top 10 MSU team and things are different. Herein lies the rub on Moorhead. For MSU fans, he didn’t adapt fast enough.
And here we are, heading into Year 2.
As it is now, he commented at SEC Media Days that he looks forward to returning to running the football at Mississippi State. If that’s the case, it will be a season filled with sore arms inside Davis-Wade Stadium from ringing cowbells.
2. The LSU game
Just a few years ago, LSU began the season by placing a big checkmark next to its yearly game against Mississippi State. Those days are long gone, thanks in large part to Dak Prescott. The Bulldogs shocked No. 8 LSU inside Tiger Stadium in 2014 and broke a 14-game losing streak. It was the first win in Tiger Stadium since 1991.
The Bulldogs welcome the Tigers during a pivotal point of the schedule.
Frankly, it could stand between a pretty good season and a great season. Since that 2014 win, the Tigers have been ranked in the Top 25 every season. While the Bulldogs have only won once since, a commanding 37-7 win in 2017, every game has been close.
The LSU defense will be incredible, but the offense will be a question mark. While the Bulldogs only return 4 starters on defense, they have the components to be really good with a lot of experience.
Keep an eye on this game. Should Mississippi State enter the Auburn game 4-0, which it should, a win on The Plains and a win the following week at Tennessee and the entire college football world will converge onto Starkville.
3. How will MSU be defensively after the losses of Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat to the NFL?
As mentioned, only 4 starters return to a defense that only yielded 12 touchdowns during the regular season last year. After only allowing 13 points per game, many expect a step back. I’m not sure I agree. Defensive coordinator Boob Shoop returns all 3 linebackers, led by Erroll Thompson. Last season he finished second on the team in tackles and tallied 9 tackles for loss. He’ll be anchored by Willie Gay, Jr., a Starkville product, and Brian Cole at the Star position. Don’t be surprised to see Cole on the All-SEC team this postseason. This could be the best linebacker unit in the conference.
Up front, one of the best defensive line signees in the SEC is in Maroon and White. Nathan Pickering will play early, along with redshirt freshman Fabien Lovett. True, losing Simmons and Sweat will hurt, but guys like Chauncey Rivers, who originally signed with Georgia, and Kobe Jones will be asked to produce.
4. Who will be the quarterback to open the season?
With Fitzgerald’s graduation, it appeared that Keytaon Thompson was the heir apparent. Last season, the Louisiana product opened the season at QB due to Fitzgerald’s suspension and led the Bulldogs to a convincing 63-6 against Stephen F. Austin. His play was sparse the remainder of the way, but he appeared in 9 games, accounting for 458 yards passing and 226 on the ground.
There was a development in the offseason. Tommy Stevens, unhappy with his situation at Penn State, transferred and will be playing for his former offensive coordinator in Starkville for his final season. He will battle Thompson for the starting nod.
Frankly, it appears the job is Stevens’ to lose, from sources inside the program. Stevens has been compared to Fitzgerald, only a better passer. The one attribute lacking in the Moorhead attack last year was the inability to throw the ball vertically.
It appears Stevens, at 6-5, will fit exactly what Moorhead is looking for in a quarterback.
5. Are the receivers improved or is it more of the same?
If Stevens is the answer at quarterback, who is he throwing to? The likely answer will be Stephen Guidry. He must step up for a group that wasn’t very good last year. The top receiver returns, in Osirus Mitchell. He hauled in 26 catches last year but is known for the dropped touchdown against Florida that would have given the Dawgs a 13-0 lead.
Simply put, they have to do better. JaVonta Payton, a JUCO transfer, will provide immediate help. The time is now for Deddrick Thomas. A senior, Thomas hauled in 19 passes and scored twice. The best receiver could be in the backfield in Kylin Hill, who caught 22 balls and scored on 4 of them.
Overall impression …
From the fans’ perspective, the schedule sets up perfectly. Who doesn’t want to spend the opening weekend of college football season in New Orleans?
Seven home games follow with only 4 true road games.
Should Moorhead decide that Hill and Nick Gibson should shoulder the load on offense and use an experienced offensive line, I’m not sure it matters who the quarterback is.
Moorhead could be the dark horse for SEC Coach of the Year, which would quell any questions if he’s the right fit at Mississippi State.