Mississippi State football: 5 ways the Bulldogs will measure success in 2020
One of the more respected offensive coaches in the country is faced with closing the gap against SEC West superpowers Alabama and LSU, while also maintaining Mississippi State’s success in the Egg Bowl.
The Bulldogs have won 7 of the past 11 Egg Bowls against Ole Miss and Leach’s predecessor, Joe Moorhead, went 14-12 in his 2 seasons. Two of those wins were against Ole Miss. Getting Missouri and Kentucky as opponents in Leach’s dip-your-toe-in-the-water season is advantageous for his future prospects. But the meat grinder of a schedule that is 3 consecutive games against Alabama, LSU and Auburn, with only the last one at home, will make you wonder if injuries will mount ahead of those weaker SEC East foes.
Here are 5 ways the Bulldogs will measure success in 2020:
Leach’s fingerprints on the program
The Bulldogs signed up for a quirky personality and hilarious tweets, and also are hoping they brought in a coach that will continue his career success. In 18 years at Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach was 139-90, as his offense routinely was at the top of his conference or the country.
Mississippi State faithful would love to see a duplication of what he did at Washington State, which was similarly in the conference cellar, but Leach took the program to 5 consecutive bowl games, including a school-record 11 victories in 2018. He needs to show how the program is moving in that direction early on. By October, there should be some signs as games against New Mexico, NC State, Arkansas and Tulane are more than manageable.
One troubling aspect of Leach’s personality could be if he has an ongoing feud with a media member, like he did last season during a sub-par year. Or he inserts himself too much into political opinions or controversies, which, again, happened at Wazzu. Simply put, can he avoid the type of red flag issues that many believe kept him from landing a big-time job in a conference like the SEC until now? It’s a difficult balance — something that he generally pulls off — between being the lovable mad professor, and the politically incorrect old coach who keeps the PR department up at night.
Prove the university leadership right
Joe Moorhead didn’t leave the cupboard bare, and the Bulldogs also got extra good news with players putting the NFL on hold. Most notably, RB Kylin Hill. Any success Leach has at the outset, particularly in a way that Moorhead couldn’t do, will add credence to the belief that the program’s expectations are more toward the Dan Mullen era than the Moorhead era.
Managing a quarterback, or the quarterback position, is one area that the university brass believes Leach will do a better job than Moorhead, who struggled with several different options, from Nick Fitzgerald to Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader.
Leach didn’t waste a lot of time in bringing in grad transfer K.J. Costello, either.
Find creative ways to use Kylin Hill
Kylin Hill rushed for 1,350 yards last season, but that’s likely not the area where Leach will boost Hill’s numbers. A proven runner with NFL aspirations, Hill had 18 catches in 13 games. By comparison, Washington State’s backup running back had 17 catches last season.
The Cougars’ top running back, Max Borghi, a sophomore, made 86 catches for 597 yards and 5 touchdowns. Leach’s offense combined with Hill’s aspirations to expand his NFL résumé will lead to more production from Hill.
An upset of a top 4 West team
Mullen and Moorhead enjoyed Egg Bowl success, and Arkansas is considerably behind Mississippi State in its own rebuild. So can Leach spring an upset of Alabama, Auburn, LSU or Texas A&M?
Mississippi State has lost 12 in a row to Nick Saban after beating his first Tide team in 2007. Only 2 of those losses were decided by fewer than 13 points. Mullen beat LSU twice, but historically it’s a mismatch: LSU has won 18 of the past 20. Mullen beat Auburn 3 times.
Look at Leach’s history as recently as 2018, when the Cougars went on a 7-game winning streak with wins over Utah, Oregon State, Oregon, Stanford, Cal, Colorado and Arizona. In 2017, Wazzu also upset 3 ranked teams: Boise State, Southern Cal and Stanford.
In 2017, Mississippi State nearly upset Alabama. Is Leach the kind of coach who can deliver that kind of upset with the cowbells clanging at full throat? That game isn’t even the best in this category. How about the win over LSU in 2017, and the win at Auburn in 2015? Are more of those coming?
Holding his own in recruiting
If there’s one area where questions abound, it’s whether Leach can hold his own in the cut-throat world of SEC West recruiting. He can evaluate quarterback recruits and certainly develop lesser-known prospects. But can his staff reel in top-shelf players around the roster, and continue to bring in players like Hill and Erroll Thompson.
Since 2010, the Bulldogs have had just one top 20 class nationally, according to the 247Sports composite. But the likes of Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald were famously unheralded recruits. Between the JUCO ranks in Mississippi, or through transfers, which he’s already shown this offseason, Leach can find creative ways to build a foundation around his expected quarterback success.