Following a frustrating loss on Thursday to archrival Ole Miss in gloomy, rainy, conditions, Mississippi State finished the regular season 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC.

As for the game, it wasn’t clear who the better team was coming in, but it was certainly clear who played better on Thanksgiving night.

Mississippi State receivers dropped (probably) sure touchdowns on three consecutive plays to end the first half, then missed a chip-shot field goal to end the half trailing 10-6. The series summed up the game. Ole Miss executed offensively, especially in the red zone — State didn’t. Ole Miss sacked the quarterback on key downs — State didn’t.

Regardless, it was the first bad game the Bulldogs played since their loss at LSU in September. Between those games, the Bulldogs played increasingly well in game after game (except Alabama) down the stretch.

The improvement was clear in both the performance of the team overall and in the performance of individuals.

Let’s hand out some grades for the 2021 Bulldogs.

Overall Grade: B+

Mississippi State exceeded expectations in the second year under Mike Leach. Many media outlets, including SDS, considered the Bulldogs to be between the fifth- and seventh-best team in the SEC West.

The Bulldogs provided fans with a lot of overall positivity in 2021, making the long-term outlook even better.

With big wins against teams that, on paper, appeared far superior to the Bulldogs, there should be momentum heading into the next few recruiting cycles. In the coming years, there is no reason Mississippi State can’t reasonably expect to threaten in the SEC West.

Non-Conference Grade: C

The Bulldogs dominated every second of their matchup with North Carolina State, a team that often ranks in the top 25. They also annihilated their lone FCS opponent, Tennesse State. However, they dropped a winnable game on the road to Memphis and needed a historic comeback to beat Louisiana Tech.

I understand that in the Memphis game, there was preposterously officiating from an SEC crew, and I understand that Louisiana Tech was the first game of the year.

That’s no excuse.

Both Louisiana Tech and Memphis scored non-offensive touchdowns on plays that simply should not have happened — a pick-six for Tech and a scoop-and-score for Memphis. Those kinds of plays are inexcusable against any opponent. It’s one thing for a superior player to make an excellent play, it’s quite another to allow a mistake to result in points, no matter the opponent.

While the Bulldogs escaped their game against Tech, that didn’t work against Memphis, a better team than Tech. That can’t happen moving forward.

Air Raid offense: A-

Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers III began the season with various struggles with decision-making in the Air Raid offense. He clearly forced throws that he didn’t need to make. But week-to-week, Rogers made obvious strides in decision-making and in trusting his receivers.

Against Texas A&M, LSU, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Auburn, he was clearly the best quarterback on the field. And, against top NFL draft pick Matt Corral (Ole Miss) and budding superstar KJ Jefferson (Arkansas), Rogers was the better passer. That said, Bryce Young (Alabama) is really good.

Part of the Air Raid is understanding that just because the offense throws a huge amount doesn’t mean that the passes are always deep shots.

Rogers really grasped this concept around the fifth game of the season and never looked back. The trust he developed with his receivers was so clear against Ole Miss as he hit back-shoulder throws. State fans must feel as excited for their quarterback play as they did back in 2013 or 2014.

The other aspect of the Air Raid is trust in the coach. Often in this system, the best play is a swing pass or a check-down. For aggressive and talented passers like Rogers, it’s enticing to force the ball down the field. Coach and QB need to trust one another to execute. Rogers and Leach are clearly on the same page of the same book.

Defense: A+

Martin Emerson didn’t bite on a double move down the far sideline against Ole Miss WR Braylon Sanders on a pump-fake by Matt Corral. That kind of move had burned defenders all year, but not Emerson.

Emerson, along with defensive pillars like Emmanual Forbes, Jett Johnson, and the entire defensive front played far better than anyone gave them credit for in the preseason.

The Bulldogs completely stymied some of the best rushing offenses in the country like Texas A&M and N.C. State and they defended the pass well against teams like Auburn and Ole Miss.

For years, decades even, college football fans and pundits wondered what it would look like if Mike Leach had a defense at Texas Tech and as Washington State. Well, it looks pretty good to me.

The Bulldogs’ ability to stop the run allowed defensive backs to play aggressive coverages and keep the game in front of them.

That kind of defensive stability provides Leach and Rogers the confidence to play more aggressively knowing they can rely on their teammates to stand up for them.

You will see Emerson, and probably a handful of others, in the NFL this time next year.


Charles Cross: A

Having a brick house on the offensive line in the most important position gives everyone comfort. Cross was exceptional. He’ll make State fans proud in the NFL.

Running backs: B-

The running back room had good games on occasion but disappeared at other times. For this offensive scheme to really hit its stride, the 10-15 rushing attempts per game need to be more effective than they were in 2021. If they run for 2-3 yards per attempt, it means Leach should have just called a pass.

It wasn’t a lack of talent or effort, just a lack of consistency in execution from the running game. I am putting it all on the backs, but I understand quite well that there were issues with blocking as well, and the quality of opponents had something to do with it too.

Rivals: D

The LSU game was winnable, The Ole Miss game was winnable. The Alabama game was not. The Bulldogs shouldn’t have dropped all three.

Against LSU, the Bulldogs seemed a little distracted by the environment — it was the first major road game since the COVID-19 pandemic impacted crowd size in 2020. But the mental mistakes bound Mississippi State’s hands and they couldn’t break free.

Against Ole Miss, we saw a team we hadn’t seen in months. Dropped passes, bizarre decisions, missed tackles, and a too-little-too-late comeback attempt.

I thought Mississippi State was the better team on Thursday, but the Rebs outplayed them. As an Ole Miss alum I was happy with the way Matt Corral and Sam Williams Jr. played and happy with the result. But I am well aware State did a lot to lose that game. I don’t know that the Bulldogs should have won, but they certainly could have.


Many of the excuses and moral victories simply won’t cut it next year for Leach and the Bulldogs. They can’t not show up against LSU and Ole Miss, they can’t gift points to non-conference opponents and they cannot fall behind by double digits so often.

However, they did whoop some good teams. They have young players coming back and studs headed to the league, both of which help recruiting.

The trajectory at Mississippi State is up.