Sunday evening concluded a magical season in a disappointing fashion, as the Bulldogs ran out of gas and fell to nemesis South Carolina in the National Championship game.
Despite that, the future - for all of Mississippi State sports - is very, very bright.
In fact, the state of Mississippi State athletics has never been better. Since 2013, Mississippi State is the only school in the nation to play for a College Baseball National Championship, make a New Year’s Six Bowl Game, and appear in a men’s or women’s Final Four.
Sure, the results were not the ones we wanted, but Mississippi State athletics is on the upswing in a big, big way. In addition to the above accomplishments, Mississippi State has also been ranked #1 in college football for five weeks, hosted College GameDay, had a Heisman contending quarterback, three former players started in the NFL Pro Bowl, Hunter Renfroe is becoming a young star in the Big Leagues, the baseball team won the SEC last season, and Dak Prescott became the center of the NFL on his way to winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Oh, and our women just knocked off the longest winning streak in college basketball history. The facilities have greatly improved, the coaching across all of the sports is becoming elite, and the fan support has grown to levels that have never been seen. The present and future are both extremely bright
Football and basketball struggled last season, but both programs show many signs of promise.
Much of the optimism surrounding the Mississippi State football program despite a 6-7 season is because of Nick Fitzgerald. After the school’s best player ever graduated and started his career in Dallas, the Bulldogs were looking to turn the reigns over to a new guy that was ready to continue the solid QB play in Starkville. The 6-5 junior quarterback was in a QB-battle last spring, but eventually took over the job. In an up-and-down season, Fitzgerald certainly had his struggles; however, showed off his talent in a big game versus South Carolina. Fitz threw for 178 and 2 touchdowns, while adding 195 more yards on the ground. After a struggle in Death Valley, Fitzgerald responded by throwing for 300 yards, rushing for 110, and accounting for 3 touchdowns. The game that really sold the first-year QB to the Mississippi State fan-base was against 4th-ranked Texas A&M. With the highly ranked Aggies in town, all Fitz did was throw for 209 yards, run for another 182, and score 4 touchdowns. In a rough season, this game gave State fans hope. To cap it off, Fitzgerald had one of the best games in Egg Bowl history - totaling 367 yards (258 of which came on the ground) and put up 5 touchdowns on the “Landshark Defense” in one of the largest wins in the rivalry's existence. In addition to the signal caller, State brings back Donald Gray at wideout, Aeris Williams in the backfield - who ran for 191 and 2 scores against Ole Miss - and a defense that should be much improved from last season after the hiring of Todd Grantham and the return of Leo Lewis, Jeffery Simmons, and Jamal Peters. Fitz has a full off-season as a “the guy”, the defensive staff has been improved, and Dan Mullen is considered to be a top-tier coach in the Southeastern Conference. Expect the Bulldogs to have a much better season this upcoming fall.
In hoops, Ben Howland is entering his third season in Starkville, a season which has proved to be successful for previous Howland teams. Quinndary Weatherspoon, a 2016-17 second-team All-SEC selection, will be back for his junior season - this time with a healthy wrist. All-SEC Freshman Lamar Peters will be leading the show at point, which should excite Bulldog fans. The young guard had his ups-and-downs, but turned out to be one of the better first-year players in the entire conference. Peters posseses extreme athleticsm, crazy handles, and a deep shot that has the ability to put fear into defensese. A year under Howland’s system will only help his basketball IQ and his adjustment to the college game. Meanwhile, Mario Kegler, Tyson Carter, Eli Wright, and Schnider Herard should all be better after gaining a year of college experience. I expect Kegler to make a huge jump next season, as the Oak Hill product showed flashes of potential throughout the season. As a stretch-four, Kegler can reach another level. Ben Howland has recruited well, but now it is time to teach his squad how to win. After being one of the youngest teams in all of major college basketball, this off-season is extremely critical for the development of this team. Fans are craving for a competitive and fun atmosphere in The Hump. Add 5-star guard Nick Weatherspoon and 2016 4-star center Abdul Ado and the Bulldogs are looking to make a push for their return to The Dance.
The two men leading the charge of both the football and the basketball program were recognized as the fourth-best football/basketball coaching duo in the conference by Athlon Sports. Needless to say, Mississippi State has some big time coaches at the helm.
Baseball and Softball have bright futures.
Both sports on the diamond are set up to be successful going forward. On the softball diamond, the Bulldogs are having a solid season. Vann Stuedeman’s squad is currently 26-12 on the year entering a game against Jackson State and a series versus South Carolina during Super Bulldog Weekend. This is a huge stretch, in what will be a very eventful weekend, for the Bulldogs in order to continue a solid campaign and gain some momentum for the rest of conference play.
Coming off a SEC Championship last season, John Cohen decided to step down from coaching to replace Scott Stricklin as Athletic Director. Enter Andy Cannizaro. The former MLBer, New York Yankee scout, and LSU assistant is in his first year of being a head coach. While this season started off rocky, the Diamond Dawgs are currently riding a seven-game win streak, a sweep over Ole Miss in Oxford, and are back in the polls. State’s RPI has sky-rocketed from the 90s to 21st entering the week. Brent Rooker has been on absolute fire this season, leading the entire SEC in batting average (.422) on-base percentage (.511), and RBIs (43), while second in the conference in both hits (46) and homers (9). The bullpen has been depleted so much that Jake Mangum is becoming a regular on the mound, so expecting a repeat SEC Championship is a bit of a stretch. That said, Cannizaro has done an overall fantastic job during his first two months on the job.
Brent Rooker leads the SEC in BA (.422), SLG (.890), OBP (.511), RBI (43), 2B (18), TB (97) & SB (14), while ranking 2nd in H (46) & HR (9). pic.twitter.com/iqaeyTyoJq— daWWWWWWWgs ⚾ (@HailStateBB) April 3, 2017
Women’s basketball is now a premiere sport on Mississippi State’s campus.
Before the hiring of Vic Schaefer, women’s hoops was a complete afterthought in Starkville. If the men were struggling, like they have been for the last seven or so years, State fans would turn to baseball and look forward to football’s spring practice. That has certainly changed. After reaching the Sweet Sixteen last season, Mississippi State was top-7 in attendance in the nation, including multiple sell-outs on the way to a historic season.
March Madness featured a run for the ages. Playing the best possible team in every single round, the Bulldogs knocked off every obstacle in their path leading up to the final game of the season. Kelsey Plum stood no chance and Morgan William took down Baylor with her legenday 41-point, 7 assist, 0-turnover performance in the Elite Eight. What happened next will never be forgotten. Entering the game as a 22-point underdog, Mississippi State pulled off one of the biggest wins in women’s hoops history. In a classic game for the ages, State took UConn - a winner of 111 straight - to overtime. After a controversy flagrant foul, Mississippi State was able to prevent the Huskies from scoring in order to have the final possession of the game. This is what happened next:
The game, the shot, and everything about the moment will go down in sports history forever. Although the championship game did not go as planned, Vic Schaefer has turned Mississippi State into one of the elite programs all across the entire nation. With the core of Morgan William, Victoria Vivians, and Teaira McCowan going - along with the arrival of 5-star PG Myah Taylor - State should be a top 3 team heading into next season with the opportunity for playing for another national title. This postseason run has put the Bulldogs among the nation’s elite and into the hearts of Bulldogs fans everywhere. And, unlike the 1996 men’s team, this program has been built to last. Next order in buisness? Pay Vic Schaefer.
Mississippi State fans have been through years and years of agony and disappointment, but that looks to be changing. With the elite coaches on campus, a die-hard fan-base, and the best facilities the program has ever had, the state of Mississippi State athletics is in the best shape that it has ever been in.