Mississippi State won't get the offseason buzz, but there are 3 major things working in Mike Leach's favor
We could’ve been having a much different conversation about Mississippi State right now. Sometimes all it takes is in this sport is a weak closing argument to muddy the consensus ruling.
That’s exactly the case for Mike Leach’s team.
Losing the Egg Bowl was one thing. Ole Miss delivered its best single-season win total in program history.
But perhaps even more impactful for the 8-month offseason narrative was that following the ultimate roller-coaster regular season, the 2021 MSU ride came to a screeching halt with the disastrous showing in the Liberty Bowl. Any way-too-early Will Rogers Heisman Trophy buzz vanished, and instead of getting an offseason of good vibes with Leach, we got more questions than answers heading into Year 3.
That’s the bad news. There is, however, some good news.
Leach has 3 crucial things working in his favor.
1. Will Rogers did (mostly) make that Year 2 jump
I know those last 2 games didn’t feel like it, but let’s not forget that for the third time as a Power 5 head coach, Leach led an offense that improved by more than a touchdown per game in Year 2. The total improvement was 7.7 points per game and the passing yards went up by about 82 yards per game. MSU also went from No. 12 to No. 7 in the SEC in quarterback rating, which is pretty important for an offense that slings it 53 times a game.
Rogers was a legitimate All-SEC candidate at the end of the regular season because he cut down on his forced throws that he made after being thrust into the starting role as a true freshman. Even with those 2 duds to end the season — one of which might’ve looked better if he didn’t have 3 dudes drop touchdown passes on the same drive against Ole Miss — look at the side-by-side of 2021 Rogers vs. 2018 Gardner Minshew with Leach:
Pretty comparable, right? The last mark there is the key one. Minshew had better escapability than Rogers. The MSU offense was at its best when it could block a 3-man rush and defenses didn’t adjust. We saw against Auburn how that allowed Rogers to get into a rhythm in ways that he really couldn’t in 2020.
That’s the good news. That’s a legitimate strength that teams have to game plan for, and they’ll get carved up if they insist on playing drop-8 coverage.
We still need to see what Rogers looks like without future first-round left tackle Charles Cross and go-to target Makai Polk. Those are major holes to fill. MSU fans remember all too well what it was like to watch an offense that couldn’t block that had receivers who didn’t master the Air Raid concepts (mainly getting comfortable against zone coverage).
The good news for Rogers is that he has 3 of his top 5 targets back. Only 2 SEC teams (Texas A&M and LSU) have more of their top-5 receivers returning in 2022. That’s not including Power 5 transfers Justin Robinson (Georgia) and Jordan Mosley (Northwestern), both of whom were former 4-star recruits. Polk was a perfect example of why a Power 5 receiver can step into that offense and become an immediate playmaker as a transfer from a struggling passing offense. Mosley could be an ideal fit in that system.
Add that all up and no, I’m not worried about Rogers losing 2 key pieces. He’s going to be in the preseason All-SEC discussion, and he could very well be one of the top 10 returning signal-callers in the sport.
That’s not a bad place to start for a Leach-coached team.
2. MSU leads the SEC in percentage of returning production
That’s a good thing. A very good thing. Even losing key pieces like Cross, Polk and the underrated lockdown corner Martin Emerson, MSU is still tops in the SEC with percentage of returning production. Among all Power 5 programs, MSU ranks No. 6 in that department.
We already dug into the Rogers part of this, and with getting the likes of Dillon Johnson and Jo’Quavious Marks returning to the backfield, there should be a ton of experienced skill players in the Air Raid. The offensive line questions with replacing both starting tackles are the bigger question marks.
It’s on defense where MSU should really have optimism.
Only 7 FBS programs return a higher percentage of defensive production than MSU. That’s with losing someone like Aaron Brule to the transfer portal. One would think that improvement on that side of the ball is imminent. Emmanuel Forbes returns as one of the top corners in the league (he’s also excellent against the run), Nathan Pickering lived up to his potential in 2021 and Jett Johnson is PFF’s highest-graded returning inside linebacker in the SEC. Johnson’s versatility will be huge in the middle of Zach Arnett’s 3-3-5 defense.
Remember the name. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/aZ2JPj8vAc
— Left Field Lounger (@LFLatMSU) November 6, 2021
MSU’s defense showed flashes of brilliance in 2021. The second half against Auburn didn’t get talked about enough, and neither did the dominant showings against legitimate Top 25 teams NC State and Kentucky. And we even saw MSU stymie a desperate Texas A&M team in College Station. There were promising signs. Alabama and Georgia were the only SEC teams who were better against the run.
There’s absolutely a foundation to work with for Arnett.
Speaking of him …
3. Zach Arnett didn’t go anywhere
I cannot emphasize enough how important Arnett’s presence is in the early stages of the Leach era. There were the LSU rumors in 2021, but Arnett got a raise to stay in Starkville for Year 2. In Year 3, MSU should have more stability than ever.
Think about the alternative. Four SEC West teams have new defensive coordinators, and MSU should be thankful it isn’t one of them.
Historically, Leach-coached teams struggle to have even an average defense. Had Arnett left for a Group of 5 head coaching gig or perhaps some high-profile defensive coordinator opening like Texas A&M, MSU’s defense would’ve potentially had a major overhaul. It’s been built for the 3-3-5. With the new transfer portal rules, hiring any coordinator who didn’t run that system could’ve been awfully difficult from a personnel standpoint.
Instead, Arnett is set to return as one of the league’s top defensive minds. Pencil him in for another top-25 run defense right now. We need to see Arnett’s group generate a bit more pressure on the quarterback (No. 11 in the SEC in sacks) to help out the secondary without Emerson and safety Fred Peters, but experience in the front 8 should help that cause.
There’s no doubt that this should be Arnett’s best group at MSU.
So what should we make of that?
What’s become pretty clear based on the way-too-early Top 25s is that there really isn’t much national buzz about MSU, and to a certain extent, that makes sense. Besides the lackluster finish, it’s still a program with 1 winning season in SEC play in the 21st century. It’s not like we saw MSU in a Florida bowl game like Arkansas, and it wasn’t some historically successful regular season like what Ole Miss had. Leach’s Year 2 wasn’t on the level of either of those teams with their Year 2 coaches.
MSU could be in position to sneak up on the division. Perhaps it’ll benefit from a transition year at LSU, or maybe Auburn’s turmoil will benefit the Bulldogs once again.
Does that mean the roller coaster will smooth out? Maybe, maybe not. It’s also possible that MSU is quietly building the foundation for a 9-win season that’ll have plenty more reminders why it swung for the fences to land Leach.
Either way, buckle up.