Mississippi State football: Way-too-early look at 2022
Despite an enormously disappointing finish to the season, the Mississippi State Bulldogs vastly exceeded expectations in Year 2 under Mike Leach.
They finished 7-6 and 4th in the SEC West division, ahead of Texas A&M, Auburn and LSU. However, they dropped a game to Memphis that they should have won and finished the season with a home loss in the Egg Bowl and a Liberty Bowl loss against Texas Tech.
They will lose start left tackle Charles Cross and star cornerback, Martin Emerson, to the NFL Draft, but quarterback Will Rogers will return on offense as will linebacker tandem Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson among others.
After sputtering to the finish line, let’s take a quick look at the 2022 MSU season.
What worked in 2021
The Bulldogs are typically underestimated on defense, but this squad was particularly good. Playing in a conference, and division, that boasts elite NFL prospects at QB, RB, WR and OL, the Bulldogs were consistently able to stop or slow their opponents enough to give their offense a chance.
The rush defense was particularly impressive. Against NC State, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, the Bulldogs stopped the run far better than most would expect. Ole Miss, the nation’s 9th best rushing offense, was held to 70 yards fewer than average.
By stopping the run, the defensive line was unleashed to rush the passer and the secondary was put in a good position to make plays and get stops.
Martin Emerson and Emanual Forbes were among the best cornerback combos in the country and perhaps the best in MSU history, although Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks were pretty good.
There were a few games in which the defense allowed too many points, but this is college football and that’s bound to happen, especially playing against quarterbacks like Bryce Young, Matt Corral and KJ Jefferson.
The defense was the star in 2021 and much of it will be back in 2022.
What didn’t work
I can’t believe I’m saying that. However, because Mike Leach is who he is, that side of the ball is held to a higher standard with this team and with this system. Seondly, Rogers appears to be on a the track to becoming the 3rd MSU QB in recent years to be a program legend (Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald).
The issue isn’t the system. The Air Raid has long been successful. Rogers set single-season school records for passing yards (4,739) and TD throws (36). The issue is the ground game. Not the number of times the ball is run, but the success those plays have. In the Air Raid, swing passes and checkdowns are essentially elaborate toss plays. However, running between the tackles must be more successful enough to force linebackers and safeteys to play downhill thus allowing open passing lanes behind them.
Not to play the conference card, but in the SEC, you can’t have a bad ground game. You don’t have to do what Alabama or Georiga does with the big backs and complex scheme, and you don’t have to do what Arkansas and Ole Miss do with the mobile QB, but you have to do something.
Against Auburn, Bulldogs running backs curried the ball 14 times for 89 yards. The longest run was 22 yards so, taking that out, that’s 13 carries for 67 yards. That’s 13 carries at just over 5 yards per carry. That’s perfect. But, against Kentucky, the running backs carried the ball 31 times for 99 yards with a long run of 12 yards. That means that running backs were averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry. That’s simply not good enough.
Keep in mind, both examples came from wins against teams that were favored.
Mississippi State’s running game was fine in some games and non-existent in others.
MSU is in an interesting situation. The 2021 squad played very few true freshmen. That makes sense in Year 2 of a new coach. However, this will be the class that sets the table for Leach and his staff. ESPN and 247Sports each ranked this class in the 20s.
Notably, the Bulldogs landed a few recruits who could have an impact as true freshmen. Those guys are WR Marquez Dortch from Lucedale, Mississippi, and DL Trevion Williams. Both are 4-star recruits at positions that lend themselves well to having an immediate impact.
They also landed an enormous man at offensive tackle from Gulf Coast Community College. They needed to, because Charles Cross was one of the best OL in program history. But Percy Lewis, 6-8, 360 pounds, seems like he’ll step in and hold down the fort.
Let’s highlight what we’re looking at in 2022.
MSU plays in the SEC West, so that is what it is. The Egg Bowl is in Oxford, the cross-conference rotational game is Georgia on Nov. 12 in Starkville, and the nonconference schedule is friendly. Arizona is among the weakest teams in the Pac-12 and is coming off a 1-11 season. Memphis is tough, Bowling Green can be feisty, and East Tennessee will take its lumps in the pre-Egg Bowl game.
In 2021, the Bulldogs probably should have beaten Memphis, and could have beaten Ole Miss, but they escaped against Louisiana Tech and played the game of their lives against A&M. The biggest disappointment was the whooping they got in the bowl game.
Overall, they were about a 7-8 win team, and that’s where they finished.
The 2022 squad feels like it’s about the same with some potential to be a bit better. It feels like the program has more momentum than it has since Prescott was heading into his senior year.