Since football in the Magnolia State can sometimes feel like a zero-sum game, the Bulldogs benefit from all the negativity surrounding the Rebels.
While Hugh Freeze left Ole Miss in shambles after his stunning exit a few weeks ago, Dan Mullen has made a case for himself as the second-best coach in the SEC behind Alabama’s Nick Saban. And the gap between the two programs could be widening.
That doesn’t mean MSU is ready to be competitive again in the West, though. The ‘Dogs went on a magical run all the way to No. 1 in the country with Dak Prescott at the controls back in 2014, but it took arguably the best player to ever lace up a pair of spikes in Starkville playing the game’s most important position for the ‘Dogs to put together a 10-win season.
Like Rick Pitino might say, Prescott isn’t walking through that door. Nick Fitzgerald may be his equal statistically, but it takes more than numbers to make a dent in this division.
2016 Projection: 4-8 (1-7)
Actual Record: 5-7* (3-5)
* doesn’t include bowl game
Now in his ninth season at Mississippi State, Mullen’s legend as a legit quarterback guru is growing by the day.
The aforementioned Prescott is coming off one of the most magnificent seasons in the history of the NFL for a rookie signal caller, and he did it as an unheralded fourth-round draft pick. Mullen is getting a lot of credit for Prescott’s immediate success and budding superstardom at the next level, and deservedly so.
Fitzgerald is his latest project. Like Prescott, Fitzgerald was relatively ignored on the recruiting trail. On the ground, he’s hard to handle at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. But through the air, he still has a long way to go in terms of touch, timing and accuracy. Expecting a Prescott-like jump is unfair, although there’s no question that he can get better.
On the other side of the ball, Mullen isn’t so celebrated. However, the arrival of Todd Grantham at defensive coordinator is certainly a step in the right direction.
Even though his end-of-the-season totals were impressive, many have forgotten that Fitzgerald was actually benched by Mullen in two of his first three starts last year.
It took Fitzgerald a while to hit his stride, but eventually he accounted for three 300-yard passing games and eight 100-yard performances on the ground. He threw for as much as 417 yards in a single week and ran for as many as 258.
That being said, Fitzgerald padded his stats against inferior competition. His 417-yard passing performance came at home against lowly Samford. While those 258 yards on the ground were at Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, the Rebels had essentially quit — their run defense had, to be sure — at that point. When facing ranked opponents LSU, Auburn and Alabama, he was largely ineffective.
We know Fitzgerald can be a monster vs. equal or lesser foes, but he’s yet to elevate his play when facing an elite defense.
Strengths & Weaknesses
One way or another, Fitzgerald needs a better supporting cast in 2017. The skill-position talent around him this past year was lacking.
More than anything, he needs a running back that he can feed the ball 20-plus times per game to alleviate some of the burden on his own legs. Aeris Williams emerged in the second half of last season and also looked good in the spring game, so he must become a bigger part of the offense going forward.
As far as Fitzgerald’s targets go, Fred Ross is now in the NFL. Even with Ross in 2016, this receiving corps dropped way too many passes. From a protection standpoint, Martinas Rankin is thought to be a possible first-rounder at the tackle position, although there’s a chance he lines up at center. The rest of the line is solid if not spectacular.
Defensively, Mullen is counting on a handful of JUCO transfers to make a difference. Fortunately, former 5-star recruit Jeffery Simmons appears to be the real deal in the trenches.
Week 1: vs. Charleston Southern (W)
The Buccaneers aren’t afraid of a paycheck game and have become one of the mainstays on the cupcake circuit in recent years.
Week 2: at Louisiana Tech (W)
Just this past season, Tech finished second nationally in passing offense. This one has shootout written all over it.
Week 3: vs. LSU (W)
Fitzgerald got the hook against the Tigers last time. That contest was in Death Valley, though. At Davis Wade, he’s a different player.
Week 4: at Georgia (L)
This crossover matchup is a battle of Bulldogs, although bigger things are expected this season in Athens when compared to Starkville.
Week 5: at Auburn (L)
The Tigers kept Fitzgerald under wraps in last year’s game, and they did it on the road. A win for MSU at Jordan-Hare seems out of reach.
Week 6: bye
Week 7: vs. BYU (W)
Mississippi State went to Provo a season ago and came out on the short end of a 28-21 final. Mullen and Co. exact some revenge in 2017.
Week 8: vs. Kentucky (W)
For fans of the running game, this one should be an awful lot of fun to watch. The Wildcats have struggled to stop the run recently, which is music to Fitzgerald’s ears.
Week 9: at Texas A&M (L)
The ‘Dogs upset the Aggies in 2016. Expect the 12th Man to be rabid as a means of payback, plus Fitzgerald was only 1-3 as a starter on the road in league play last year.
Week 10: vs. UMass (W)
The Minutemen kept it unexpectedly close with Mississippi State this past season, but that was in Amherst. It should be a different story in Stark Vegas.
Week 11: vs. Alabama (L)
The Bulldogs were positively humiliated in Tuscaloosa the last time around. It’s going to take more than a change of venue to defeat the Crimson Tide.
Week 12: at Arkansas (L)
MSU surrendered 58 points to the Razorbacks in 2016. Now having to travel to Fayetteville, Fitzgerald will have a hard time staying on serve with Hogs quarterback Austin Allen.
Week 13: vs. Ole Miss (W)
Nobody knows what to expect from the Rebels due to all their off-the-field concerns, but the ‘Dogs are the superior squad right now.
2017 Projection: 7-5 (3-5)
Final Standings: 5th in SEC West
Mississippi State appears to be headed in the right direction, but it might be a year away from making a real run in the West.
Recruiting is going well for the Bulldogs, due in part to Ole Miss having so much trouble. It’s August, but MSU’s current list of commitments for the class of 2018 ranks 22nd nationally. The Rebels, conversely, are 84th following a slew of decommitments.
While Mullen tends to get the most out of his quarterbacks, it remains to be seen how much of an improvement Fitzgerald can make from Year 1 to Year 2 as a starter — he’s still just a junior, too. Expecting him to be Prescott 2.0 isn’t realistic. But if he can be more consistent with his arm and handle an increasingly sophisticated playbook, then big things lie ahead in Starkville.
It just feels like MSU isn’t ready to be a genuine threat in this division. But next season, when Fitzgerald is a senior, watch out.