Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State: Which team is better?
The Rebels and Bulldogs each enter the 2018 season with new beginnings, but one constant remains from the past few years– talented players – still rings true.
Yes, the two programs from Mississippi, which are historically looked down upon by much of the SEC, enter 2018 with a lot of talent, similarly to the past few years. Remember, over the past four years, Ole Miss has had 14 players drafted while Mississippi State has had 13. For comparison’s sake, traditional blue bloods like Auburn and Tennessee have had 16 and 9, so it’s not like they’re the also-rans of bygone days.
After previously breaking down which of the two programs had a better offense, and which had a better defense, we now reach the question of which has the better team as a whole. If you haven’t read the prior two installments of the series, I recommend you do because it’s Hemingway-quality literature, but if you don’t have the time, we essentially reached the conclusion that Ole Miss has the better offense and Mississippi State has the better defense.
The Rebels return 9 starters on an offense that was 18th nationally in yards per game with 462.3, including the 11th-ranked passing attack that compiled 328.4 yards per game. They bring back their starting QB, Jordan Ta’amu, who was a catalyst for the late season success and he should be even better this year after a full offseason of improving timing with his receivers.
The receiving unit, which is arguably the best in the country, returns 4 of its top 6 receivers, led by All-American AJ Brown, who is considered the No. 1 receiving prospect in the 2019 NFL Draft class. Along with Brown they return All-American candidates in DK Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge, in addition to an All-SEC candidate in TE Dawson Knox. They also return 4 of 5 starters on the OL, led by LT Greg Little, another All-American candidate who is being hyped as a potential top-10 pick.
Having said all of that, the big question that remains on offense is whether they’ll replace RB for Jordan Wilkins, a fifth-round draft pick last spring who became just the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in school history. They need someone from the pool of Scottie Phillips, Isaiah Woullard, Eric Swinney or even Armani Linton to step up and provide some balance to what should be one of the most explosive passing attacks in the country.
Mississippi State returns 7 starters on an offense that was No. 46 nationally in yards per game with 418.6. They should once again feature a brutally strong rushing attack, as they return their top 4 leading rushers after finishing the 2017 season No. 11 with 251.7 yards per game.
QB Nick Fitzgerald, who should be fully healthy after the gruesome ankle injury suffered in the Egg Bowl, is back and they return both of their top 2 RBs in Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill, the former of which racked up over 1,100 rushing yards last year. Fitzgerald and Williams have been staples of the rushing attack, and have combined for a whopping 4,186 rushing yards the past two seasons. Like Ole Miss, they return 4 starters on the offensive line and are especially strong along the interior.
The biggest question is whether they’ll be able to pass the ball effectively. Fitzgerald regressed as a passer last year and the receiving corps had to essentially be rebuilt in the offseason. There’s reason for optimism that Joe Moorhead will be able to balance out the offense and unlock the keys to the aerial attack, but until it’s proven we still don’t know.
Defensively it’s not even close. The Bulldogs, hands down, have the better defense. They have the better defensive line, the better linebacker corps and the better secondary. The latter of which isn’t necessarily ‘hands down’, though, because the Rebels should have a solid defensive backfield.
The Bulldogs have one of the best defensive lines in the country, led by All-American candidates in DE Montez Sweat and DT Jeffery Simmons. Both are likely first-round picks next spring. Gerri Green is making the transition to DE, where he should be an excellent fit and see plenty of one-on-one opportunities. The linebacker corps return Leo Lewis, Erroll Thompson and Willie Gay, three high upside and talented guys who should be a good fit in the new scheme installed by Bob Shoop.
The secondary returns Cam Dantzler, Chris Rayford and Jamal Peters at CB and Jonathan Abrams and Mark McLaurin at S, the latter of whom tied for most INTs in the SEC last year with 6. There’s also high expectations for NB Brian Cole.
The bottom line is that the Bulldogs return nearly all of the major players on a defense that finished 10th nationally in yards allowed per game, and it should be even better this year.
The same can’t be said for the Rebels, who are retooling at numerous places in their front seven.
They’re replacing 2 All-SEC DEs in Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes. They’re also replacing LB DeMarquis Gates, who led the team in tackles each of the past three seasons. Those three guys combined last year for 220 tackles, 29 TFLs and 16.5 sacks. That’s an awful lot of production to replace.
The interior of the defensive line looks solid with Josiah Coatney and Benito Jones, but just like we don’t know who’s going to step up for the Bulldogs at WR, we don’t know who is going to step up for the Rebs at LB. The secondary will be solid as they return a plethora of both talent and experience in the form of Myles Hartsfiled, Ken Wesbster and Javien Hamilton at CB, and Zedrick Woods, Jaylon Jones and C.J. Moore at S.
Can the Rebels stop the run? That’s the biggest question. They were 123rd nationally in rushing yards allowed per game at 245.3 and against their most talented opponents – Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State – they were gashed for 365, 326, 393 and 294 yards, respectively. This simply can’t happen again if the Rebels are going to stay out of the cellar of the SEC West.
From a positional perspective, I’d say they’re a wash at QB. I like both QBs. Ta’amu is the better passer and Fitzgerald is the better runner, but both have the overall upside and talent for an All-SEC caliber season.
MSU clearly has the advantage at RB, and we don’t really need to elaborate.
Ole Miss clearly has the advantage at WR, and we don’t really need to elaborate.
OL is practically a toss-up, but I’ll give the edge to Ole Miss because of Little.
MSU has the better defensive line.
MSU has the better LB corps.
For the secondary, I have to give the edge to MSU, because of their proven success (12th in passing yards allowed last year), though there’s not a huge gap between the two.
Special teams also lean in the direction of State. Ole Miss is replacing 4-year starters in PK Gary Wunderlich and P Will Gleeson, two of the best in program history. State will be breaking in a new punter but at least returns PK Jace Christmann, who was rock solid last year. Both have talented return men.
Finally, which team has the coaching advantage? We really can’t answer this yet. Matt Luke made a damn fine impression at the tail end of last year, but his head coaching career begins in earnest this fall. Moorhead had success as the head coach of Fordham, but that hardly indicates similar success in the SEC. We’ll learn a lot about both coaches this season, that much we do know.
So, which is the better team? Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have a deeper roster overall and can do the two things that you simply have to do for success in the SEC – run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.
They have a roster built to compete for the West this year, and if they can get the passing game going, they’ll really be a factor in the SEC. Ole Miss will have a heck of an offense, but the defense simply has to improve as a whole.