Southern fried Q&A: Mississippi State beat writer higher on Bulldogs than I am
On the list of places where I’m popular right now in SEC circles, Starkville is toward the bottom.
When making my Crystal Ball predictions for all 14 programs, I picked Mississippi State last in the West. Unfortunately, somebody has to bring up the rear. I went with the Bulldogs, whom I picked to finish 4-8 (1-7 in the SEC).
On the offensive side, I’ve written repeatedly that Dak Prescott may be the single most difficult player in the league to replace. A four-arm race at quarterback is down to three, as Elijah Staley — likely because he was losing the battle — announced his intentions to transfer.
As for the defense, this unit finished toward the bottom of the standings statistically a season ago in most of the important categories. Some very productive players have departed, too.
Saturday Down South: Dak Prescott is the best quarterback in Mississippi State history and perhaps the greatest Bulldog of all time. How is coach Dan Mullen going to replicate what he accomplished?
Joel Coleman: I think there are multiple components to this answer. You are correct that Dak will be impossible to replace, but I don’t think that means MSU’s doom is imminent. Whoever wins the QB job will have, what I believe, to be a stronger offensive front.
One of the biggest holes on that line last season was at left tackle. Rufus Warren was a former tight end who couldn’t keep weight off, so he got moved to left tackle. He then got embarrassed over there pretty frequently. This year, MSU’s likely starter, Martinas Rankin, was the best JUCO left tackle in the country a couple of years ago. He redshirted last season, not necessarily because he wasn’t ready, but because he now has the opportunity to be a two-year starter in the SEC.
The rest of the line is adequate, and there is some decent depth there. I’m not saying they’ll be world beaters, but I’m confident they’ll be improved.
SDS: Prescott was also a huge component in the running game. The top two tailbacks a year ago didn’t have as many carries combined as Prescott did. Will we see more of a commitment to the run?
Coleman: With an improved line will come an improved running game. MSU’s running game was non-existent last year. Part of that was the line’s fault. But part of that, in my educated opinion, was Mullen helping develop Dak into a better passer. There was a conscious effort put on letting Dak’s arm do the damage last season. Dan isn’t grooming an NFL quarterback this year, so I fully expect Mullen to return to his roots, which is a spread offense that emphasizes the run.
Don’t underestimate Mullen’s ability to win with a less-than-perfect QB. Go back to 2010 and watch MSU put together a nine-win season with Chris Relf at QB.
So, in short, I expect the line will be a bit better. There won’t be as much pressure placed on the QB because Mullen isn’t prepping him for the NFL Draft. I expect the running game to be much improved and more emphasized from a season ago so the QB won’t be forced to win every single game with his arm.
SDS: Prescott and Co. were one of the premier offenses in the conference last season. However, the defense didn’t hold teams off the scoreboard very well. Is there reason to be more confident on D?
Coleman: MSU’s defense will be an unknown in the early part of the year. New coordinator Peter Sirmon is incorporating a new style unlike what we’ve seen in past years in Starkville. The defense will be multiple, with some 4-3, some 3-4, etc. Losing guys like Chris Jones and Beniquez Brown hurts, but there are several high-profile recruits ready to step in and contribute.
Jeffery Simmons, after sitting out the first game due to his suspension, should step right in and looks like a junior or senior physically. He’s of course just a true freshman and was one of the top D-line recruits in the nation. Leo Lewis will help fill Brown’s shoes at linebacker. Lewis was the nation’s top inside linebacker recruit a couple of years back. That’s not to mention other guys at those spots like A.J. Jefferson and Gerri Green who have already made significant impacts. At safety, anyone who watched Brandon Bryant (below) last year knows he is a special talent.
My opinion is that State’s only noticeable weakness on defense is at corner. That’s a huge question mark, no doubt. I think Sirmon’s new style will hide that deficiency a little bit because of the different ways he has described defending the pass. Overall, though, I think State’s defense will be improved. How much improved it is will depend on how Sirmon’s new style aids the corners.
SDS: I like Mullen. He’s gotten more out of MSU than anyone in recent memory. However, this season in particular, I’m having a hard time seeing him being competitive in the West. Agree or disagree?
Coleman: People underestimate Mullen. He’s like the cool girl in high school that would always be up for a night out. Maybe she’s not the prettiest, but she’s cute and you know you’ll at least have fun.
Mullen may not be Nick Saban or even Les Miles, but he’s consistent. Look back at his tenure. He doesn’t suffer upset losses. He wins all the games he is supposed to win. Sure, he can be knocked for not winning big games — save for 2014 when MSU rose to No. 1 — but point out to me the times that someone beat MSU when MSU was favored to win. You won’t find many at all.
SDS: The schedule isn’t overly difficult outside the division. Drawing Kentucky and South Carolina from the East is lucky. A Friday night roadie at BYU is curious. But at LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss?
Coleman: State is for sure winning three non-conference games. Personally, I think they go to Provo and win. It won’t be easy, but I believe State is just better.
You already mentioned South Carolina and Kentucky. I think State will be favored in both of those games, and Mullen is almost a lock to win the games he’s favored in. That’s six wins already.
Let’s say I’m wrong on one or two of those. Well, Auburn comes to Starkville. Mullen has owned Auburn in recent years, and Auburn isn’t exactly in the best of shape right now. They don’t know who their QB is. They’ve kicked their expected starting running back (Jovon Robinson) off the team. Sure, they have four- and five-star talent, but Mullen has beaten that four- and five-star talent in three of the last four years. And it’s at home. Mullen has dominated at home. I just don’t see Auburn winning right now.
How about Arkansas? State has beaten Arkansas for four straight years. They’ve lost Brandon Allen. They’ve lost Hunter Henry. How exactly is this Arkansas team so much better that they’re just going to waltz into Starkville and win?
We’ve only talked about eight games there. I think State wins at least six of those eight.
That leaves LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Those four teams are unquestionably better than State in my opinion. LSU and Bama are for-sure losses. I’d favor A&M, but I wouldn’t be totally shocked if State got another home win there.
As for Ole Miss, the Rebs are better than MSU. In my lifetime, it doesn’t matter which team is the better team in the Egg Bowl. For recent examples, see ’09, ’12, ’13, ’14 — in fact, in this rivalry, it seems the best team always loses.
SDS: Clearly, you’re a lot more confident in the Bulldogs for this year than I am. Prescott did it all, plus the West is stacked. It’s quite a gauntlet these days. Those are my reservations for MSU.
Coleman: I’m not trying to paint it out like State is going 10-2. There are a bunch of questions. But I will say this: I think MSU is closer to being a 9-3 or 10-2 team than being a 4-8 team. For the record, I’d put State at 7-5 with losses to LSU, Bama, A&M, Ole Miss and one of either Auburn or Arkansas.
As for being competitive in the West, I don’t expect that. State will finish no higher than fifth in the division. But if I was a betting man, I’d bet I’m covering a bowl game some time around the turn of the year. As hard as it is for folks that haven’t been around here for years to see, I think Mullen has built this program to the point that bowl games are a near certainty. It’s just a matter of which one.
Coleman is on the Mississippi State daily beat and much closer to the program than I could ever be.
Nevertheless, it’s not unheard of for reporters to become stricken with Stockholm Syndrome here and there. Coaches use the media to shape the message. There is more than enough Kool-Aid for everyone.
But Coleman is correct. Mullen tends to win the games he’s supposed to win. He has been handed very few upsets during his time in Starkville. The Bulldogs lost four games last season, and all were to ranked SEC opponents — two at home, two on the road. Perhaps 7-5 is a realistic forecast.
That being said, no Prescott is a huge void. MSU can win in 2015, but it can’t win the way it did a year ago. The running game needs to rebalance the offense. The defense must get off the field, too.
I’m not anti-Dogs. I need to see this squad after Prescott, that’s all. Legends cast long shadows.