I had an unpopular take immediately after Mississippi State announced the hiring of Joe Moorhead.
To the Bulldogs’ credit, that announcement was a few days removed from losing Dan Mullen to Florida. Let me rephrase that. That announcement was a few days from losing the best coach that MSU ever had.
That’s what made my take unpopular. Oh, yeah. I should probably let you know what that take was.
I think Mississippi State will win double-digit games in the first year of the post-Mullen era. Yes, that would match the program’s best single-season win total (1940, 1999, 2014). No, that’s not too high of a bar to set for a first-year coach.
Well, it’s not too high of a bar when that first-year coach is Moorhead and he gets that roster.
Anybody under the impression that Mullen left the cupboard bare clearly hasn’t been paying attention. And anybody under the impression that Nick Fitzgerald is MSU’s entire team hasn’t been paying much attention, either.
Sure, it’s easy to like the combination of Fitzgerald and Moorhead. Everyone saw what the latter did with Trace McSorley at Penn State. And while McSorley and Fitzgerald aren’t the same exact player — McSorley throws a better deep ball and Fitzgerald is a more physical runner — both have the dual-threat ability needed to effectively execute Moorhead’s offense.
Fitzgerald is still working his way back from his season-ending injury. What we saw from Keytaon Thompson in the TaxSlayer Bowl suggests that MSU isn’t one injury from watching the season fall apart. That’s key.
This is a prime opportunity for MSU. Besides this being Fitzgerald’s senior season, this is the last year that the Bulldogs will have the duo of Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, both of whom earned first-team All-SEC honors. The group that improved so dramatically under Todd Grantham still has a chance to be special — it returns 8 starters after finishing No. 10 in total defense — even though he followed Mullen to Florida.
In addition to having all of those veterans back (16 starters return on both sides of the ball), I’d be lying if I said my optimism for MSU didn’t have something to do with that schedule. I know it’s the SEC West, but it isn’t unbearable. These are MSU’s games vs. Power 5 teams:
- at Kansas State
- at Kentucky
- at LSU
- Texas A&M
- at Alabama
- at Ole Miss
How many of those games scare you if you’re an MSU fan? One. At Alabama. No, I wouldn’t be scared of hosting Auburn (Gus Malzahn is 9-9 in Power 5 road games his past 4 years) and I wouldn’t be scared of traveling to LSU (remember 37-7?).
MSU would be a favorite to win at least 9 and maybe 10 of those games if oddsmakers had to make lines today. A lot can change in that regard, but the point is a fair one. It isn’t like MSU has to go to Georgia and Auburn while hosting Alabama like it did last year.
And I’m not saying that an upset is in the works, but Moorhead’s offense has plenty of similarities to what Hugh Freeze did so successfully in taking down Alabama twice. I don’t think that game in Tuscaloosa will be a picnic for the Tide, especially if Moorhead can coach up Fitzgerald’s deep-ball accuracy a bit (I realize that’s a big “if”).
Alabama upset or not, 2018 has the potential to be a special year for MSU. With the roster that Mullen built — and Moorhead did a really nice job of keeping intact — the Bulldogs could compete for an SEC West title and be a top-15 team from start to finish.
The Moorhead skeptics wonder how he’ll recruit in a region that he’s never coached in. So far, he passed that test. But even if he didn’t, that wouldn’t really impact the upside of MSU’s 2018 season.
Before Moorhead has to really build his roster, he can do what he did the past two years at Penn State. That is, maximize the potential of some talented offensive players and light up scoreboards. That’s what Moorhead does. That’s why he walked into Starkville like he owned the place. The skeptics probably raised an eyebrow when Moorhead asked MSU players to learn their ring size upon meeting them.
But after he puts up double-digit wins in his first season, a whole lot more people will buy into Moorhead’s swagger.