Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State: Which team has the better offense?
One of the primary reasons for the rise of Ole Miss and Mississippi State in recent years has been due to success on offense.
After all, the rise of both programs came courtesy of offensive-minded coaches in Dan Mullen and Hugh Freeze, and the stars they developed. Whether it’s Dak Prescott or Chad Kelly, Laquon Treadwell or Fred Ross, Josh Robinson or Jordan Wilkins — there has been no shortage of offensive star power in the Magnolia State the past few years.
Obviously, strong defensive play has also played a crucial factor in rise of both programs, but we’ll save that for another article. For now, we’ll just focus on offense.
Both offenses, while predicated on shotgun-based spread principles, took different routes to find success. Mississippi State has generally employed a bruising dual headed rushing attack between QB and RB while the Rebels have been airing it with 4 and 5 WR sets.
As is the case with enough time in the SEC, things change. Both Freeze and Mullen are gone, granted, with two vastly different exits. Yet despite the coaching changes, we can still expect to see strong offensive play from Mississippi State and Ole Miss in 2018.
Who’s better? Let’s compare.
Running the Ball
For the Rebels: This is the greatest question on offense. It was a weakness for much of last season — they averaged just 76 rushing yards through the first five games. Eventually, the rushing attack found some life in the second half of last season thanks to Jordan Wilkins, but they finished 104th nationally in rushing yards per game with 133.9.
Now they must replace Wilkins, a fifth-round pick in last spring’s NFL Draft who became just the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in school history. Replacing him won’t be easy.
Scottie Phillips, ranked by 247sports as the second best JUCO RB in the 2018 signing class, appears to have the leg up to win the starting job, though there will obviously be a battle in camp for the position. Eric Swinney, once considered one of the top high school RBs in the country before a series of catastrophic leg injuries, is the leading returning rusher, though with 171 career rushing yards, that doesn’t mean much. And then there’s Isaiah Woullard, who fans across the state might remember from his glory days in high school, where he finished as the state’s all-time leading high school rusher. After a missed season last fall waiting on a scholarship, he finally arrived on campus this spring.
Basically, there’s a lot of question marks.
Fortunately for the Rebs, the offensive line should be a strength. LT Greg Little is an All-American candidate and a potential top-10 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. LG Javon Patterson and C Sean Rawlings are highly experienced vets with a combined 56 starts. There’s high expectations for the right side of the line of RG Ben Brown and RT Alex Givens. Jordan Sims is a very good swing lineman who can play inside or out.
Optimistic thinkers will believe that the line will generate enough of a push that whoever is carrying the ball will be able to get 4 yards a carry. Plus, when you factor in the passing attack, which is clearly the strength of the offense, the Rebels aren’t going to face too many overloaded boxes.
For Mississippi State: This clearly is the strength of the offense.
Mullen is gone, but there’s extraordinarily high expectations for new coach Joe Moorhead, who’s strength as a coach is to make the scheme fit the personnel, and not vice versa, meaning he knows he’s got a ground game to work with. State finished 11th nationally last year with 251.7 rushing yards per game, and nearly all of the pieces from that attack return in 2018.
Senior RB Aeris Williams returns after compiling an 1,100-yard season last year with 6 TDs, as does sophomore Kylin Hill, who looked very strong in limited time, racking up 393 rushing yards and 2 TDs. This is one of the more underrated RB duos in the SEC in my opinion, as Williams is more of a bruising, short yardage, between-the-tackles runner, Hill is a bit more dynamic, with more speed and burst, with the ability pickup chunk yardage more consistently.
They also return QB Nick Fitzgerald from the gruesome ankle injury suffered in the Egg Bowl, and he has been a key piece the past two years, rushing for 2,359 yards and 30 TDs. Hopefully he has improved enough as a passer to the point they won’t have to rely on his legs as much, but considering how effective he can be running the ball, it’d be foolish to ignore an obvious strength in his game.
The offensive line returns 4 of 5 starters, with LT Martinas Rankin the only one needing to be replaced. While losing a third-round draft pick at LT is never ideal, there’s a lot of optimism surrounding Greg Eiland, who more than capably filled in at LT last year when Rankin went down with an injury. Guards Darryl Williams and Deion Calhoun are powerful run blockers, Stewart Reese is expected to show further development at RT and Elgton Jenkins made a smooth and successful transition to C last year after moving inside from OT. The line should again be a strength.
Edge: Mississippi State
Passing the Ball
For Mississippi State: This is the greatest question on offense.
Since Prescott left, the passing attack has continued to stumble, going from 316.4 yards per game in 2015, to 209.7 in 2016 and finally 166.9 last year. Fitzgerald returns, but he drastically needs to improve his mechanics as a passer, as he noticeably regressed developmentally last year, seeing his passing yards dip from 2,423 to 1,782 with fewer TDs – 21 to 15 – and more turnovers – 10 to 11. He also saw his yards per attempt drop from a shaky 6.7 to an even worse 6.2.
There is reason for optimism, however, that Joe Moorhead will be able to improve Fitzgerald’s mechanics. From his footwork to his delivery to his ability to go through progressions, Moorhead should provide a great deal of help tutoring Fitzgerald, who, despite his inconsistencies as a passer, still possesses a great deal of raw talent. He’s not just a big kid who can run the ball; he also has a lot of natural arm talent just waiting to be developed.
One reason for Fitzgerald’s decline last year was in part due to a shaky receiving unit that was constantly hobbled by injuries. The Bulldogs never replaced Fred Ross, who hauled in 160 passes for 1,924 yards and 17 TDs between 2015 and 2016. The leading receiver last year was Jesse Jackson, who finished with 27 receptions for 276 yards and 0 TDs.
The receiving unit should undoubtedly be improved. Malik Dear returns at the slot from the torn ACL that sidelined him all of last year. Jamal Couch is a big body whose ability to stretch the defense should play well in the vertical passing attack Moorhead likes. Jackson returns, though in a better position as a reliable possession receiver. Austin Williams, just a redshirt freshman, displayed tremendous hands throughout spring and could be in position to make an impact this year.
People are also eager to see what kind of impact Stephen Guidry and Devonta Jason, two of their highest-rated recruits from the 2018 class, can make. Guidry was ranked by 247sports as the No. 1 JUCO WR, and Jason was a highly-ranked 4-star whom the Bulldogs snagged from New Orleans, right in LSU’s backyard.
For Ole Miss: The passing game is the undisputed strength of the offense, and it should be one of the more explosive aerial attacks in the country. After finishing the 2017 season 11th nationally in passing yards per game with 328.4, there’s reason to think it could be even better this year.
Many were rightfully concerned last year that the passing game and offense would crumble when one-time golden boy Shea Patterson went down with an injury. Not only did Jordan Ta’amu, an unknown JUCO transfer, succeed, he thrived leading the offense. He was actually a better fit than Patterson and took far better care of the ball. Ta’amu’s rise coincided with the improved play of Wilkins, which gave the Rebels a far more balanced attack than they had with Patterson.
Patterson transferred to Michigan, making Ta’amu the undisputed leader of the offense. He’s expected to be even better this year, and should show improved timing with his receiving unit. And his receivers? They make his job so much easier.
The Rebels boast one of the deepest and most talented stable of receivers in the country, led by All-American candidate AJ Brown, who is looking to build off a 2017 season that saw him haul in 75 passes for 1,252 yards and 11 TDs. Heading into the season he’s considered the favorite to be the first WR taken in the 2019 NFL Draft, potentially in the top-10 overall.
Alongside Brown are DK Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge, two big and physical receivers who can stretch the field and provide dangerous threats in the red zone. They combined for 80 receptions, 1,344 yards and 14 TDs last year. Dawson Knox returns as one of the better TEs in the SEC after 24 receptions and 321 yards in 2017. Talented underclassmen like Braylon Sanders, Elijah Moore and Miles Battle will provide solid depth.
Edge: Ole Miss
Better Offense Overall?
It’s awfully close and you can legitimately make the case for either, but I’m going to go with Ole Miss because they simply have more big-time playmakers and have fewer questions.
Mississippi State has potential to develop into a very good offense, maybe as early as this year, but that still has to play out on the field. We know the Rebels can score 35+ points on just about anyone, whereas we still need to see how quickly Moorhead can get the Bulldogs running on all cylinders.
The one thing that gives me pause is that I have more faith in the Bulldogs’ passing attack showing extensive improvement than I do the Ole Miss rushing attack, but the sheer depth Ole Miss has at WR, to go with a strong offensive line giving Ta’amu time, is going to make stopping them a challenge for anyone.