It’s OK if you’re not familiar with Zach Arnett, SEC fans. You’re either going to hear his name a ton in the next couple of years or he’ll be replaced because of his ineffectiveness in Starkville.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the hoopla surrounding Mike Leach’s hiring was the fact that he turned around and stole Arnett from Syracuse … where he agreed to become the new defensive coordinator just 11 days earlier.

Why did multiple respected Power 5 coaches hire a 33-year old to lead their defenses in areas of the country he had never worked in? Well, when you lead the No. 2 scoring defense in America, people notice. That’s what Arnett did as San Diego State’s defensive coordinator in 2019. While working under Rocky Long, Arnett quickly rose up the ranks and became a hot commodity this offseason.

And now, he holds the key to MSU’s upside under Leach.

That seems like a lot of responsibility for someone who’s just 2.5 years from being a Group of 5 position coach. Some would push back on that notion and say that Leach’s ability to efficiently run the Air Raid offense and recruit in the South will determine MSU’s upside. Those will certainly factor into how Leach is perceived in Starkville.

But those who followed Leach’s teams during the 21st century know the defenses determined how good his teams became.

Everyone remembers Gardner Minshew’s mustache taking the college football world by storm in 2018. That season yielded Leach’s only ranked finish at Washington State. Not coincidentally, that was the only time in Pullman that he had a defense finish ranked in the top 1/3 in FBS.

At Texas Tech, Leach had 1 top-20 defense. It was the 2005 team, which was actually closer to finishing in the top 10 than the 2008 team that lit up scoreboards with Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell. That 2005 Texas Tech squad had 3 losses. One was to Vince Young’s unbeaten Texas squad that eventually knocked off USC in that all-time BCS National Championship. The 2 other losses came via a go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds left against Oklahoma State and a walk-off field goal against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Without 1 of those 2 finishes, Texas Tech would’ve certainly finished as a top-10 team.

I say that because Leach’s best defense at Washington State yielded his best finish ever as a head coach — No. 10. That’s for a guy who has 12 seasons of 8-plus wins in 18 years as a head coach. As impressive of an accomplishment as that is, that screams “the guy has a ceiling.”

That brings us back to Arnett.

I’ll say it right now. Playing in the SEC West, I’d bet the farm that Arnett won’t finish the 2020 season with the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense. I’ll take it a step further and declare that Arnett won’t lead the nation’s No. 2 run defense, either. Excuse the “the SEC is a different animal” cliché, but it goes without saying.

Mississippi State ranks No. 113 in percentage of returning defensive production. That’s for a group that allowed 37.2 points per division game and was the SEC’s No. 12 scoring defense in 2019. Even with Arnett’s 2 years of successful defenses at SDSU — he led the nation’s No. 32 defense as a first-year coordinator in 2018 — the bar for Year 1 should be relatively low. The fact that a pandemic prevented MSU’s defense from getting full reps with Arnett’s 3-3-5 certainly doesn’t bode well for the Year 1 outlook, either.

The good news is that Arnett will build his defense around Erroll Thompson, who seems like he’s entering his 8th year in Starkville. Marquiss Spencer and Kobe Jones will add some needed experience on the defensive line. If MSU is going to improve the SEC’s No. 10 run defense, it seems like Arnett is going to rely on those 3 guys to play a big part.

He needs MSU’s veterans to buy into their 3rd defensive coordinator in 4 years. Around a month ago, Arnett admitted to Sports Illustrated that the personnel mystery is staring MSU’s defense right in the face:

“I think you could give some B.S. answer and say, ‘We know we have this’, or, ‘We know we have that.’ We haven’t got to have a single practice with them. How could any coach honestly know what your guys are good at doing, what you’re good at and what maybe you struggle with? It really is a waiting game. We have to get on the field and practice and figure out in a hurry, ‘Alright, these are our best players. This is what we do well. Now, how do we build the package around those skills and those guys – those top 11 guys?”

If there were ever a unit hoping to take advantage of this new 2-week OTA-like period for FBS programs because of COVID-19’s spring cancelations, it’s MSU’s defense.

It’ll be interesting to see how Arnett’s defense responds to Leach’s pass-heavy offense, which isn’t exactly concerned with time of possession. It’s not surprising to think that Leach only had 1 season of a top-20 defense in 18 years as a head coach. It’s sort of assumed that’s what you sign up for when you hire a coach who runs the Air Raid.

If MSU can keep its head above water defensively in Year 1 with Arnett, that would be a win. If we’re talking about a significant improvement and even flirting with a top-20 run defense in Year 2, Leach will have knocked that hire out of the park. Shoot, if that happens, Arnett will be getting FBS head coaching interest.

Leach has never had a defensive coordinator leave his team to pursue a head coaching gig (Leach was fired at Texas Tech before Ruffin McNeill got the job at East Carolina). He’s never had a defensive coordinator put together consecutive top-50 defenses, either.

Leach’s last defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys, resigned 5 games into his second year on the job. That was a year after he led that aforementioned 2018 defense that was Washington State’s best during the Leach era. The news of Claeys’ resignation came as a shock, though it was following Leach’s viral postgame comments that Washington State players were “fat, dumb and happy and entitled.”

If those 4 words are used to describe Arnett’s defense at any point, MSU won’t be rising above mediocrity anytime soon. Leach was brought to Starkville to elevate expectations back to the levels of the latter half of the Dan Mullen era … and then rise above that.

The only way that’ll happen is if Leach’s most important hire turns out to be his best hire.

Photo credit: MSU Football