Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with Mississippi State.

Well, you knew it’d be entertaining.

Mike Leach’s debut season in Starkville certainly checked that box. You had a record-setting offensive explosion in the opener against defending champ LSU, and a week later you also had a loss to an Arkansas team that earned its first SEC win in over 1,000 days.

KJ Costello soared and then sank, MSU couldn’t block a soul and the offense ranked No. 110 out of 128 FBS teams. Not great.

In all, it was a frustrating first season for Leach at MSU. That’s typically how it works with the Air Raid guru. In his third Power 5 job, Leach again had a subpar Year 1.

But as for that Year 2 bump? Well, history suggests it’s coming in Starkville. Leach’s offense typically improves by at least a touchdown per game. If that happens at MSU, we’ll likely be talking about a team that can at least have a fighting chance against better SEC competition.

Part of that belief that MSU should improve is because of how impressive Zach Arnett was in his first season as MSU’s defensive coordinator. He led a group with major turnover and helped it finish in the top half of the SEC in scoring defense.

In all, MSU returns 16 players who started at least 6 games last year. That’s the byproduct of major attrition leading up to 2020 or during 2020.

So how big will the Year 2 bump be? Let’s dig into it.

Can this look like the Air Raid is supposed to?

One would think? The only 3 times that Leach failed to have a top-5 passing offense as a head coach were in each of his Year 1 seasons. Imagine throwing the ball 51 times per game — that was 6.2 attempts more than any other team — and barely cracking the top 20 in FBS in passing. That’s not ideal.

What is ideal is having a roster that bought into the Air Raid. For now, it appears that’s the case. Will Rogers is likely going to get a chance to build off a true freshman season in which he wasn’t particularly efficient — he averaged 5.7 yards per attempt — but he got 316 passing attempts against SEC competition (and 346 overall). For a little perspective, Emory Jones is entering Year 4 at Florida and he attempted 86 passes at the FBS level.

Rogers has experience, and now, he needs pass-catchers who can separate. Jaden Walley looked like that guy last year, especially down the stretch when he had 4 100-yard games. MSU needs to find options outside of dumping it off to Jo’quavious Marks in hopes that he can break a tackle and maybe gain 6 yards.

Can that be slot man Austin Williams? Perhaps a transfer like Jamire Calvin, who came to MSU after playing in Leach’s offense at Washington State, can be that steady target. Or what about 4-star true freshmen like Antonio Harmon and Teddy Knox?

Whatever the case, MSU needs to actually be able to pass protect or else that Year 2 bump come after all. Charles Cross and Co. have to take care of that if the Air Raid will resemble anything close to a peak-Leach offense.

Zach Arnett’s rising stock should rise some more

The MSU defensive coordinator was tremendous last year. In his first year as a DC without longtime San Diego State coach Rocky Long, Arnett looked up for the challenge. The 34-year-old assistant led a defense that ranked No. 23 against the run and No. 5 in yards allowed.

Considering that MSU lost 7 defensive players to the NFL Draft in the previous 2 seasons, that was darn impressive. Arnett’s 3-3-5 wasn’t lights out, but it was plenty effective. With major production returning, especially on the back end, this unit should be even better. Arnett has one of the best cornerback duos in America in Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes, while Aaron Brule looks like a breakout star in the middle of that defense.

Arnett reportedly turned down the opportunity to take the LSU defensive coordinator job. If he keeps surpassing expectations, that won’t be the last time MSU fans will have to sweat out an Arnett offer.

Don’t forget about the weird Year 2 thing at MSU … which hopefully will be forgotten about by midseason

You can’t offer contracts of more than 4 years to any state employee in Mississippi. Leach didn’t get an extension after Year 1, but barring a total collapse, he’ll get one in Year 2. It wasn’t long ago that we assumed Joe Moorhead would survive more than 2 years in Starkville. Some would argue the failed expectations and the pre-bowl fight made his 2019 season a total collapse, though I would disagree with that.

It’s important to remember because while Leach won’t be on any hot seat list heading into the year, he has a tricky nonconference slate and kicks off SEC play with 3 consecutive preseason Top 25 teams. The margin for error is slim if MSU doesn’t have the Air Raid figured out yet.

Is it possible that there’s some buyer’s remorse after a poor start? Sure. It’s conceivable to think that Leach, who hasn’t been one to mince words after losses, puts himself in a less-than-ideal spot. If Leach were to not get an extension after Year 2, one would have to think he’d be on every hot seat list in America entering Year 3 with just 2 years remaining on his contract.

Do I think that’ll happen? No. Hopefully for his sake, his offense makes strides and the midseason conversation is centered on whether he deserves a raise.

Just file that thought away. You know. Just in case it hits the fan.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Louisiana Tech (W)

I just want an excuse to show the greatest fumble in college football history, which happened when these teams met in 2017:

If that happens again, dibs on asking Mike Leach the first question about it.

Week 2: vs. NC State (W)

I nearly picked NC State because the Wolfpack should be a borderline Top 25 team this year. They have dudes who can rush the passer and if MSU hasn’t figured out those pass protection issues, this could be a disastrous night. But then I thought about this being a night game in Starkville with a full capacity crowd. I thought about the battle of Arnett vs. Tim Beck (NC State’s offensive coordinator), and quite frankly, that doesn’t seem like a fair fight. A late Walley score winds up being the difference in a 28-24 MSU win.

Week 3: at Memphis (L)

Aaaaaaand, back to reality. Memphis dealt with COVID issues throughout last season, and it still wound up going 8-3. In other words, the Tigers are legit. Yeah, there are questions about replacing Brady White with Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell. But I’m a Mike MacIntyre believer, and I think his defense is ready to roll for this one. They return 8 starters, including Jacobi Francis and Quindell Johnson in the secondary. I think Rogers takes one too many chances and Memphis wins a 1-score game to end MSU’s early Top 25 bid.

Week 4: vs. LSU (W)

Shades of 2020? Not quite. I’ve been saying all offseason that I think the 2021 SEC West has a very 2014-like feel to it. That is, upsets galore. That includes this one, but it won’t have the feel of last year’s shootout. MSU might not break 30 against a much-improved LSU defense. But this ends up being a game in which LSU fans really wish they had lured Arnett from MSU. That’s not a slight at Daronte Jones, but Arnett’s defense confuses Max Johnson and LSU becomes a bit too one-dimensional on the road. MSU wins the turnover battle and spoils LSU’s SEC opener once again.

Week 5: at Texas A&M (L)

I think the days of expecting to go into College Station and push around the Aggies are over. This is a horrendous matchup for MSU in the trenches. As much as Mike Elko loves to load the box and send extra pressure, he has enough studs up front to get pressure with only sending 3 or 4. That makes for a long afternoon for the MSU offense, which falls behind early and struggles playing catch-up in the entire second half.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Alabama (L)

Arnett’s defense held its own against Alabama last year. Holding the Tide to 4 offensive touchdowns in 2020 was a win. And the good news for MSU is that it no longer has to match up against DeVonta Smith, who had 4 touchdowns and outgained MSU by himself. The bad news is that the Tide are loaded in the secondary and even in a post-Christian Barmore world, they still have guys like Phidarian Mathis and Will Anderson who can pressure the quarterback and take over a game. MSU actually gets on the scoreboard this year, but not nearly enough to hang with the Tide.

Week 8: at Vanderbilt (W)

Something tells me a week removed from facing Alabama, MSU’s offense will appreciate having time to actually take a breath. Marks and Walley both have huge days against an improving, but still rebuilding Vandy defense.

Week 9: vs. Kentucky (L)

It’s hard to move past last year’s 24-2 debacle, but one must. Kentucky gained 157 yards and won by 3 touchdowns. It helps when you play drop-8 coverage all night and pick off 6 MSU passes. I don’t think that repeats itself, but I also think by this point, Kentucky’s offense is a bit more settled in after a slow start to the season. Chris Rodriguez takes over late and Kentucky quiets the cowbells.

Week 10: at Arkansas (W)

Did I not learn anything from last year? I thought Arkansas owned the state of Mississippi? I didn’t think MSU had the personnel to throw the ball 50 times per game in 2020. I am, however, a believer of the Year 2 bump with Leach. This will have a much different feel from last year. I expect a somewhat high-scoring game between two offenses that should have more of an established identity by this point. But in the end, I think KJ Jefferson picks on Emerson one too many times and MSU squeaks out a victory in Fayetteville.

Week 11: at Auburn (W)

In a way, Auburn has the secondary depth to handle the Air Raid well. Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are excellent at tracking down ball-carriers in the open field, which could negate those check downs to running backs that Leach’s Air Raid often yields. But I think Arnett’s defense shows up on a mission to force turnovers. TJ Finley, who replaces Bo Nix midseason, has another tough week and throws a couple of interceptions into the arms of Emerson and Forbes. In a field-position game, that proves to be the difference.

Week 12: vs. Tennessee State (W)

Hey! Eddie George! That’ll be a fun storyline! As for the actual game, well, let’s just say I’m not expecting to see the first-teamers in the 4th quarter against an FCS team that is looking for its first winning record against Ohio Valley Conference competition in 5 years.

Week 13: vs. Ole Miss (L)

Let me just say that the fact that this game is back on Thanksgiving brings a smile to my face, as does thinking about watching this game 12 Hawaiian rolls deep. Year 1 of the Lane Kiffin vs. Leach rivalry was fantastic, even though it didn’t end with a viral moment like the previous 3 Egg Bowls (people don’t talk enough about Joe Moorhead’s “drag my yankee a– out of here” thing enough). I expect both teams to get into the 40s, which has never happened in this rivalry. A great, back-and-forth shootout is decided by … a Jerrion Ealy kickoff return for 6. A late Tylan Knight interception puts it on ice and Ole Miss pulls out a wild win in Starkville.

2021 projection: 7-5, 4-4, 5th in SEC West


What a strange, herky-jerky season this would be for MSU. You lose to Memphis, then you beat LSU. You win 3 SEC road games, but you lose 3 SEC home games.

Consider this another team who will ride the waves of the gnarly SEC West.

I do believe we’ll see MSU’s offense take a nice step forward. If it improved by 6 points per game and got the Year 2 Leach bump, we’re talking about a unit that would be middle of the pack nationally. MSU’s defense is still going to have moments when it feels that pressure to do all the heavy lifting. That winds up costing the Bulldogs a few winnable games late because of how gassed that unit is.

But let’s also have some perspective. Going 4-4 in the SEC is nothing to scoff at for MSU, who has 1 winning season in conference play in the 21st century. So what if Leach’s Year 2 doesn’t quite match Mullen’s. People forget that even though MSU made that jump back in 2010, it still finished 5th out of 6 SEC West teams with a 4-4 record. It could be a similar story this year.

The goal should be to establish the Air Raid brand as much as possible. This is when Leach usually cranks out a top-5 passing offense and the program floor is raised.

After a mostly forgettable Year 1 for Leach, that’s perfectly realistic for Year 2.