SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Mississippi State football in 2020
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with Mississippi State. Friday morning: Ole Miss.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t see that coming.
By “that,” I’m referring to Joe Moorhead winning the Egg Bowl, making the postseason and then getting fired and replaced by Mike Leach.
On the list of “things I predicted for 2019,” I can’t say that was anywhere near the wild possibilities I drew up during an 8-month offseason. You’d be lying if you said anything other than that, too.
But here we are. Go figure that Leach taking his pirate ship to Starkville has been somewhat lost in the shuffle of the most bizarre college football offseason on record. It seems like an eternity ago that Leach was the out-of-nowhere hire when it appeared that MSU’s search had hit a wall.
Now, Leach’s Air Raid offense is invading the SEC. It’ll be different from any other offense that that fell under the Air Raid umbrella because when Leach’s offense doesn’t average 50 pass attempts per game, it’s news. Nothing about Leach will be typical, both on and off the field.
So let’s break down the on-field stuff:
What should we expect from KJ Costello?
The Stanford grad transfer was banged up last year in what turned out to be a bit of a lost season after he was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2018. After Leach brought him into Starkville, the assumption was that the offense was his for the taking. True freshman Will Rogers has some legitimate buzz, and Garrett Shrader is still in the thick of it, but if I’m betting today, Leach brought Costello in to be his next quarterback.
The goal is accuracy. Costello completing 65% of his passes like he did in 2018 should be the expectation with the way that Leach schemes. There should be plenty of high-percentage throws for Costello, and I wouldn’t expect Leach to dial up many slow-developing plays with that offensive line, which is at least a question mark for how the system will be executed in Year 1.
But who do I expect to lead the SEC in passing this year? Costello. The volume will be conducive to that. It usually is with Leach, even at a place like Washington State.
That’s my way of saying that I think there will be some good and bad. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some early struggles to handle the speed of some of those SEC pass-rushers. Ultimately, though, MSU will be happy to have gone out and gotten someone with experience like Costello.
Kylin Hill’s transformation
I can’t wait to see it. It’s going to be massive. The guy who ranked No. 1 in the SEC in carries is going to have a much different role in Leach’s offense. He’ll be used in the passing game. A lot. Leach never had a lead back reach 130 carries in a season at Washington State. His lead backs averaged just 101 carries per season.
Hill is going to be lined up in the slot at points this year, which is something he did in high school, too. It’ll be much different than what we saw from him the past 3 years with Dan Mullen and Joe Moorhead, though I wouldn’t quite bank on 86 catches like Washington State lead back Max Borghi had last year.
Leach’s goal is for Hill to lead the conference in all-purpose yards. That’s what helped sell Hill to flip his decision to return to MSU for his senior year. He wants to be a modern back.
Can that happen? I think there’s a fairly good chance of that.
I brought this up a few times throughout the offseason, and it’s worth keeping in mind as Zach Arnett faces a tall challenge in Year 1 as MSU’s defensive coordinator. MSU lost 7 defensive players to the NFL Draft the past 2 years. That’s as many as Auburn and Penn State and more than Florida (6), Texas A&M (4) and Georgia (3). That’s a wealth of production and talent gone.
Now, Arnett is going to have to make the best of it with a group that entered spring ranked No. 113 in percentage of returning defensive production. That’s, um, not ideal. It’s especially not ideal to pair that defense with an Air Raid offense. Leach won’t exactly be concerned with giving the defense breathers and controlling time of possession.
So considering MSU was mediocre on defense last year, yeah, I’d say it’s fair to question how it avoids being one of the worst units in the SEC this year. The bar is low for Arnett to succeed as a first-time Power 5 coordinator, but if he does that in a conference-only schedule like this, that bodes extremely well moving forward.
Week 1: at LSU (L)
I don’t think this sets up very well for Leach’s debut. His QB hasn’t played a meaningful snap in his offense and the Bulldogs are facing a strong defensive mind who has months to prepare for the Air Raid. LSU also is coming off the best season in college football history but has been told the entire offseason that it’s about to fall off the face of the earth. Give me the Tigers to find their groove in this one.
Week 2: vs. Arkansas (L)
Ummmmm, really? Leach is about to lose to Arkansas? Like, the Arkansas team that has a 19-game SEC losing streak? Yeah. Here’s my thinking. I’m guessing new Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom has had ample time to prepare for that Week 2 matchup against Leach’s Air Raid. That’s not to say he’s counting out the Georgia game, but MSU is a much more winnable matchup. Against a team that isn’t really going to push Arkansas around at the line of scrimmage — that’ll be the Hogs’ biggest weakness in 2020 — MSU’s new offense struggles to sustain drives against an experienced Arkansas secondary. A rough start to the Leach era, it is.
Week 3: at Kentucky (W)
I’m calling this an upset because I’m a big Mark Stoops believer, and I especially believe in the talent he has returning in 2020. By this point, I believe Kentucky will be in the AP Top 25 after a 2-0 start. Leach, back where he helped Tim Couch become the No. 1 overall pick, bounces back in a major way. Austin Williams eclipses the 100-yard receiving mark, and Osirus Mitchell makes a highlight-reel catch late to give MSU a surprising win in Lexington. Leach is officially on the board in the SEC.
Week 4: vs. Texas A&M (L)
Do I think this would be different with a capacity crowd in Starkville? Yes. Kellen Mond is experienced, but he’s 3-6 in true SEC road games. Without a big-time road atmosphere, Mond settles in and makes huge throws to Jhamon Ausbon and Jalen Wydermyer all game. Mike Elko’s defense makes a key halftime adjustment and finds ways to generate pressure without loading the box. A&M knocks MSU back down a peg after the big first win.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: at Alabama (L)
Do I like that Leach has an extra week to prepare for Alabama? Absolutely. You’re not gonna beat the Crimson Tide by trying to push them around at the line of scrimmage. You have to find ways to spread them out and keep them on their heels. Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze know a thing or two about that. And this is before the bye week for Alabama, which will be playing its 6th SEC game in as many weeks. That could make this a bit closer than the oddsmakers think. But I’ll still take Nick Saban to find a way to win on his 69th birthday (and have a not-too-pleasant postgame press conference afterward).
Week 7: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
The “Kylin Hill can do it all game.” The MSU star finishes the day with over 100 both rushing and receiving en route to a lopsided MSU win after the Alabama loss. In an up-and-down year, Hill’s performance certainly stands out as a proof of concept for future Leach backs.
Week 8: vs. Auburn (L)
Leach vs. Kevin Steele is an underrated annual matchup. It really is. I wonder about the timing off this one, though. Coming off a bye week, does a young Auburn defense with extra time to prepare for the Air Raid show up ready to go? My guess is yes. That sets up for a long day for the MSU offense. Against a better-than-advertised Auburn secondary, the Bulldogs struggle to sustain drives and a chance for a solid division win slips away.
Week 9: at Georgia (L)
Moving forward, I do think that MSU has a chance to be a fly in the ointment for an elite team. I’m just not sold that it’s going to be in Year 1 before Leach has all of his guys on that roster. This is an intriguing matchup because Georgia’s loaded defense won’t face any team all year that tries to do what MSU does. This might stay a little bit closer than expected with some potential surprising big MSU plays early. But I’ll say Malik Herring forces a rushed throw that leads to a pick-6 from Richard LeCounte that proves to be a back-breaker in the second half.
Week 10: at Ole Miss (W)
Here’s a trivia question: When was the last time MSU won 3 consecutive Egg Bowls which had 2 games played in Oxford? You’d have to go back to the streak from 1939-42. Fun times. Even Archie Manning was 8 years late to catch any of that action. Well, unfortunately, he’ll be able to see this one (from the comfort of a socially-distanced setting, of course). Malik Heath has his first big game in an MSU uniform with multiple touchdowns … neither of which conclude with a trolling celebration to cost a team a ballgame.
Week 11: vs. Mizzou (W)
In a battle of first-year SEC coaches who aren’t afraid to say exactly what’s on their minds, it’s Leach who should have the advantage. My only question — and this applies for both programs — is how the grind of a 10-game SEC schedule in this atypical year will be handled. Will players check out once the race is over? Or will we start to see underclassmen getting more reps than ever with eligibility not counting in 2020? Who knows. I’m gonna say this one actually turns into a fun, empty out everything in the playbook, backyard shootout. MSU pulls away with a 38-35 win to close out the regular season.
2020 projection: 4-6, 5th in West
There’s something that I keep coming back to with MSU in this conference-only schedule. For starters, it’s not a full Leach roster. In Year 1 at Texas Tech, he went 3-5 in Big 12 play. In Year 1 at Washington State, he was 1-8 in Pac-12 play. Leach needs time to recruit to his system. It’s seen as a bit of an excuse for coaches in Year 1 and Year 2, but there’s certainly something to it.
There’s also the fact that we’re talking about an MSU program that has 1 winning season in SEC play in the 21st century. If this, of all seasons, becomes the 2nd time that happens then that would be quite the flex for Leach. I still wouldn’t bank on that.
Teams with new coaches were put at a disadvantage this offseason through no fault of their own. While it’s certainly been a benefit to some to able to watch more film, not having that same sort of face-to-face contact and with so many moving pieces this offseason, I’d be surprised if we saw a lot of new coaches like Leach actually improve the programs they inherited from a win percentage standpoint.
Do I think we’re going to have moments in which we’re in awe that Leach’s quarterback threw the ball 60 times in a game for 500 yards? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t assume that becomes the norm just yet.
A bumpy Year 1 allows Leach to establish his brand of football … along with several viral moments.