2016 SEC West Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

After being ranked No. 1 just two short seasons ago, Mississippi State appears to have fallen on difficult times. Will they be able to continue their success or even make a bowl game?

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Heading into his eighth season as the head coach of Mississippi State, Dan Mullen has the program and himself in a somewhat peculiar situation. He is arguably the top coach in the history of the Mississippi State football program, with the gem of his tenure being the 2014 season which was the most successful season in program history.

However, now that star quarterback Dak Prescott has departed to the NFL, along with several other talented players, the program finds itself in a bit of a downturn. After a 9-4 (4-4 SEC) 2015 that included a Belk Bowl victory, many expect a significant drop-off in 2016 for the Bulldogs. Will they be able to continue their success, or will they fall into the cellar of the SEC?

Strengths:

Beginning on offense, Mississippi State can feel confident in relying on its running game to help shoulder some of the load that must be accounted for now that Prescott is gone.

The backfield is headed up by Brandon Holloway, who led the Bulldogs’ running backs with 413 yards in 2015. What makes the position a strength, though, is the depth that the team has behind Holloway. Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee each averaged over five yards per carry as freshmen in 2015, and they figure to continue to make an impact on the field for Mississippi State.  Among the three players, the Bulldogs should feel good about the backfield situation going into the season.

On the other side of the ball, the linebacker position is another strength. The group is led by Richie Brown, a senior who had 109 tackles in 2015 which was fifth most in the SEC and added six and a half sacks as well. Behind Brown, the team features no shortage of talent either. Gerri Green and J.T. Gray round out a very solid group of players that should provide the backbone of the defense.

Weaknesses:

Offensively, the Bulldogs have two primary concerns. The first is obviously replacing Dak Prescott. Prescott is arguably the top quarterback in program history and was responsible for an absurd amount of the production and success that the team had in recent years. Whoever gets the nod to take over his gigantic shoes could develop into a strength for the team, but until that is shown, the uncertainty will be a weakness.

The other offensive concern for Mississippi State is the lack of returning pass catchers. While Fred Ross—who was one of only four players in the SEC to gain at least 1,000 yards receiving in 2015—is very talented, he is the only one of the top four wide-outs returning to Starkville for 2016. Along with that mass exodus of experience at wide receiver, Justin Johnson is the only tight end returning that caught a pass last season. There will almost certainly be some growing pains for the players who will assume the vacant spots, and that will not make the new quarterback’s life any easier.

Players to Watch:

QB Nick Fitzgerald, RS Soph. – Now that Dak Prescott has left Starkville, his spot as the starting quarterback is up for grabs, and there is currently a four-man battle for it. Dan Mullen insists that each player will be given an equal and fair shot at the job, however many expect Fitzgerald to end up with it. His blend of athleticism and arm talent give him the most upside on the team, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with it, assuming he wins the job.

WR Fred Ross, Sr. – Ross was the leading receiver for the Bulldogs in 2015, and one of only four players with over 1,000 yards in the league. Now that the other three of the top four receivers from last year are gone, Ross is the clear-cut No. 1 option. And with a new quarterback who will be looking for a reliable target, Ross could be in line for a monster season.

LB Richie Brown, Sr. – After some convincing from his teammates, Brown decided to return for his senior season, and the Bulldogs should be very happy that he did. Brown will lead what looks to be a very talented group of linebackers, which will help offset the loss of defensive line talent.

Games to Watch:

Sept. 10 vs South Carolina – In the second game of the season, Mississippi State will open SEC play against SEC East foe South Carolina. The Gamecocks appear to be one of the cellar-dwelling teams of the league in 2016, but nothing is for sure in the SEC. The game will be a tough one, and if the Bulldogs can walk away with a win, they will start off the conference schedule in a positive way.

Oct. 8 vs Auburn – One week after their bye, the Bulldogs will face off against Auburn in Starkville, Miss. With both teams likely vying for the middle of the SEC West rankings, this matchup could potentially be critical in each team’s quest for a bowl game. If Mississippi State can win this one, they could realistically begin the season 4-1 with two SEC wins. That would do wonders for their season, considering that the latter half of the schedule is much more challenging.

Nov. 26 @ Ole Miss – The annual Egg Bowl game is always a hotly contested affair, with no love lost between the two programs. Ole Miss has won three of the last four matchups, and the Bulldogs are surely eager to turn the momentum of the series back in their favor. With a win over the Rebels, Mississippi State’s season could be made, even if the team misses out on a bowl game.

Prediction:

5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Losses vs South Carolina, @ LSU, vs Auburn, @ Kentucky, vs Texas A&M, @ Alabama, @ Ole Miss

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image courtesy of Brian Norwood