It's hard to believe we're already halfway through the 2015 college football season. MSU sits with a 4-2 record after six games, not what most fans would have wanted but certainly acceptable when you look at the big picture of how bad the season could already be (see Auburn and Arkansas).
The theme to the season has been inconsistency. Not just from an execution standpoint, but from the coaching staff as well. We've seen flashes of positive moments and we've seen some moments we would rather just forget.
In assessing the season to this point, I have graded out all three phases of the game and the MSU coaching staff as well. Let's take a look at where they stand.
MSU's offense has been average at best thanks to the inability to run the ball effectively. They rank dead last in rushing yards in conference games with a unimpressive 98 yards per game. An even more worrisome stat is the number of points they have scored in those same games. MSU's offense has averaged just 17.7 points in SEC competition, a far cry from the 34 they averaged last season against conference foes.
State has been effective in the passing game at times, however, and they have thrown for around 272 yards per game. Fred Ross has had a breakout year in his slot position, tying for the SEC lead with 35 total receptions. But until the rushing attack comes around to compliment Dak Prescott and the receivers, opposing defenses will keep shutting MSU's offense down and stalling drives.
Manny Diaz's defense has been effective for the most part and is the only reason the team was still in the game in the fourth quarter of both losses. The defense was particularly solid against LSU and Auburn, giving up 21 and 9 points respectively. The biggest criticism of Diaz has been the slow starts and conservative play calling early in games. He changed that by blitzing more against Troy, so that's something to keep an eye on going forward.
Diaz's unit is top three in the SEC in pass defense, sacks, and tackles for loss. They are also first in touchdowns given up in the red zone. They haven't forced many turnovers. That needs to be fixed, but his relatively young defense should get better and better as the season continues. The defense needs to play four quarters in SEC games and get off to better starts, but overall you have to be satisfied with their performance after six games.
Special teams: A-
Westin Graves has been a welcomed surprise, going a perfect 7-for-7 on field goals. Not only that, he always splits the uprights and really hasn't come close to missing. It's relieving to finally have full confidence when an MSU kicker trots onto the field. Of course, that huge elephant in the room will be there the rest of the season after Mullen sent Bell out to kick the game winner against LSU. Graves has proved he has both the distance and accuracy to make that kick.
We haven't seen much in the way of long returns for MSU under Mullen, but there's already been a kick return and punt return for touchdowns this year (by Brandon Holloway and Fred Ross). There have been a couple of onside kicks recovered by opponents. That needs to be addressed, but the biggest issue with special teams and the only thing keeping them from an A+ is the inconsistency at punter. Bell and Cooke have both shanked several punts, and it costs the team horrible field position in the losses to LSU and Texas A&M.
Last year's 10-3 season raised expectations for MSU football, therefore fans are holding Dan Mullen and the assistants to a higher standard than in the past. Some questionable play calling -- both on offense and defense -- has been evident this season and definitely contributed to the two losses.
Mullen hasn't showed much creativity to get the running game going, and he hasn't taken many shots down the field to loosen up defenses. The toughest pill to swallow is the decision to let Bell kick the last second field goal against LSU and to end that game with a timeout still in hand. I think Mullen is one of the best player developers in the game, but his clock management and lack of creativity in play calling is holding him back right now.
As stated above, Manny Diaz has done a good job overall with the defense. However, he needs to put together a full game against a quality SEC offense before I'm ready to say MSU made the right hire. The sacks, tackles for loss, etc. are all a good sign, he just needs to call an aggressive game for four quarters.
We'll see how Diaz and Mullen learn from their mistakes going forward, but one thing is for sure -- their job is a lot harder than it appears from the stands or watching on television. All that being said, they have the team in a good position right now at 4-2. It's hard to say that when they have the talent to be 5-1 or 6-0, but MSU is still in position for a solid eight to nine win season. Not too shabby for what most people termed a rebuilding season.