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Way Too Early Look at the 2017 Mississippi State Football Season

We still have a bowl game to play in, but now that the regular season is done, it’s never too early to look ahead to next season.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

So now that the 2016 season is over, we can all begin to think about the possibilities that await the Mississippi St. Bulldogs in the 2017 season. And thanks to the 55-20 beat down of the Ole Miss Rebels, things feel a lot better about the upcoming offseason.

Key Departures

  • Fred Ross
  • Brandon Holloway
  • Ashton Shumpert
  • Johnathan Calvin
  • Richie Brown
  • DeAndre Ward
  • A.J. Jefferson
  • Will Coleman
  • Justin Senior
  • Jamaal Clayborn
  • Devon Desper
  • Nick James
  • Nelson Adams
  • Damian Williams

At first glance, you might think this looks like a significant list. There’s 14 players leaving the program who made contributions to the team who will not return in 2017.

But a closer look tells a different story. The only player on this list who probably doesn’t have a more talented counter part replacing him is Fred Ross. Losing arguably the best receiver in program history is a major blow, but the rest of the players who are leaving all have much more talented players coming in behind them. The only one I could make a case for to go along with Fred Ross is Richie Brown. He was as good as they came at middle linebacker his first three seasons, but he struggled to make the adjustment to a 3-4.

Losing three offensive linemen will hurt, but the group as a whole struggled for most of the season. The unit did play better the last month of the season, but there is potential in the guys coming up behind them.

Johnathan Calvin did play well, but I always thought playing him at the Viper kept the position from the person who was best suited to play it, and that was Gerri Green. The sophomore linebacker struggled this season, but I think he was out of position. I’d love to see him move to the Viper this offseason and wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Key Returning Players

  • Nick Fitzgerald
  • Aeris Williams
  • Malik Dear
  • Keith Mixon
  • Donald Gray
  • Jamal Peters
  • Tolando Cleveland
  • Cedric Jiles (Probably)
  • Gerri Green
  • Cory Thomas
  • Chris Rayford
  • Brandon Bryant
  • Mark McLaurin
  • Deion Calhoun
  • Elgton Jenkins
  • Martinas Rankin
  • Justin Johnson
  • Farrod Green
  • Jordan Thomas
  • Dezmond Harris
  • Leo Lewis
  • J.T. Gray
  • Jamoral Graham
  • Lashard Durr
  • Traver Jung
  • Jeffery Simmons
  • Marquiss Spencer
  • Michael Story
  • Chris Stamps
  • Maurice Smithermann
  • Nick Gibson
  • Darryl Williams
  • Harrison Moon
  • Jamal Couch

There’s a few guys in there that didn’t contribute much this season, but I expect to contribute more in 2017. But the encouraging part for Bulldog fans should be the number of players in that list who weren’t doing anything and were liabilities at the beginning of 2016, but developed into solid players before the season was over.

Guys like Traver Jung, Jamoral Graham, and Martinas Rankin were hurting the team every time they stepped on the field early on during the season. But as the season continued, those guys got better and better and actually became play makers. They, as well as some of the others on this list, still have some needed development, but there are a ton of options the coaching staff is going to have to get this team going in the right direction again in 2017.

The biggest need will be to get the secondary corrected. Between Brandon Bryant, Jamal Peters, Mark McLaurin, Jamoral Graham, Chris Rayford, Maurice Smithermann, Tolando Cleveland, Cedric Jiles, and Lashard Durr, those guys have to figure out who is going to be able to cover the other team’s receivers and make plays. They all had their moments where they looked good (with maybe the exception of Bryant) but they all looked confused at other times. There is talent in this group, they just have to capitalize on it.

But the reason Bulldog fans can be extremely optimistic is the potential of Nick Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams. Nick Fitzgerald ended up accounting for 35 touchdowns and over 3,500 yards in basically 11 games. He did technically play against South Alabama, but not enough to truly make it matter. He was good for about 200 yards passing in those games with two touchdown passes and a little over 100 rushing yards a game and just over one rushing touchdown. I don’t know if Fitzgerald will be able to match what Dak Prescott did, but I now feel confident he can at least be in the ballpark with his legendary predecessor.

Aeris Williams has a chance to continue the tradition of great running backs Mississippi State has always had. Once the running game was completely turned over to him, the offense found another gear. Williams ended the year with a 5.2 yard per carry average and would have easily eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark if he simply been given the opportunity. He’ll get that opportunity next season, and he should have a solid backup in Nick Gibson, who averaged a little over six yards per carry on the few times he was given a chance.

Redshirt Freshmen

  • Cameron Dantzler
  • Korey Charles
  • John Michael Hankerson
  • Erroll Thompson
  • Stewart Reese
  • Greg Eiland
  • Daurean Parker
  • Kobe Jones
  • Christian Roberson
  • Dontea Jones
  • Osirius Mitchell

The 2016 signing class wasn’t celebrated by most anyone. But when you look at that list of people who will be returning to the team, you see that the 2016 class did exactly what was needed. Most of them were redshirted and they provided a lot of depth.

Of these guys, I don’t know that any will start right away, but there a lot who can play significant minutes in 2017. I’d start with Kobe Jones and Erroll Thompson on the defensive side of the football. They should play quite a bit and make significant contributions. After those two, look to offensive linemen Stewart Reese, Greg Eiland, and Daurean Parker. They’re big, strong guys who could be pave a path for Williams and Fitzgerald.

The Schedule

  • Charleston Southern
  • at Louisiana Tech
  • LSU
  • at Georgia
  • at Auburn
  • BYU
  • Kentucky
  • at Texas A&M
  • UMass
  • Alabama
  • at Arkansas
  • Ole Miss

Just having a general idea of what each of these teams is bringing back and what the Bulldogs are bringing back, the only game I think is a definite loss is Alabama. This doesn’t mean I think the Bulldogs are going 11-1, but there isn’t another team on the schedule that makes me think the Bulldogs won’t at least have a chance to win.

Winning all four non-conference games should be doable in 2017. With a much more experienced group, I don’t see a repeat of what happened with South Alabama next season, and I think the Bulldogs can take care of BYU when they come to Starkville.

The four road SEC games are against the teams Mississippi State usually is a better match with. Going 2-2 against those teams is a reasonable expectation, but winning all four isn’t out of the question.

The four home SEC games bring the two teams Mississippi State always struggles with plus Kentucky and Ole Miss. If the Bulldogs can beat the Coach O version of LSU, there isn’t any reason a 3-1 record against these teams shouldn’t be out of reach. But even if the Bulldogs’ struggles against the Tigers continue, 2-2 should be expected.

Before we even flip the calendar to 2017, I think a return to around 8 wins will be the expectation for the Bulldogs in 2017. If they do that, you could have the chance for a really special 2018.