As we enter the summer, the expectations in Starkville are high. Over the past 4 seasons the Bulldogs have posted a 34-18 record. In 2017 they went 9-4 and the season culminated in a 31-27 win over Louisville in The TaxSlayer Bowl. However, the end of the season was overshadowed by a cringe-worthy ankle injury for JR QB Nick Fitzgerald in the Egg Bowl. In 2018, the outlook is optimistic and there’s a lot of excitement around this talented group who have added Joe Moorehead at Headcoach. For Mississippi State to elevate to a double digit win team and a chance to win the SEC Title, they’ll need to improve enough to stand up to the Georgias and Alabamas of the SEC. Here’s how they do it.
1. Assuming health, the biggest question facing soon to be Senior QB Nick Fitzgerald is improving his accuracy. In his Sophomore and Junior year, Fitzgerald threw 647 times and completed 54% of those passes. His 55.6% in 2017 was good for 91st in the NCAA. On the flip side, what Fitzgerald has been able to add with his feet has been game breaking. Over the past two seasons he’s amassed 2,359 yards, which was good for 6.6 yard per carry. In 2016 he was in a 3 way tie for 21st in Rushing yards in the Nation. You tally on 30 rushing Touchdowns in that span, and Nick has shown the ability to be the guy that can lead this offense to a championship level. In total, Nick has 6,573 total yards and 66 Touchdowns the past two seasons. If Fitzgerald is as explosive as he was before last season's gruesome ankle injury, and can bring more consistency in the Passing game, the Bulldogs can have an elite offense.
2. Moorehead will be tasked with getting the most out of Fitzgerald and the offense, a job he should be equiped for given his background. It is safe to say however, this will be the highest pressure gig for him to date. In his second stint as a Head Coach, his 38-13 record will be put to the test and let’s not forget that Fordham and the Patriot League are in a different universe than the SEC. In 2017 as the Offensive Coordinator at Penn State, Moorehead’s offense ranked 19th in the nation in total offense. While having Saquon Barkley certainly helps, the stats are the stats. This is Moorehead’s time to shine, and if his creative offensive mind can push Mississippi State from 46th in the league into the top 25, the immediate impact will be felt throughout the SEC.
3. Jeffery Simmons. Pro Football Focus put out an article on Players to watch for 2019, and they had Simmons ranked as their second interior defensive lineman. They have him pegged as a “Future First Rounder”, and gave him an overall grade of 88.2. They are on the Simmons hype train and you should be too. Coming off of a season where he had 12 Tackles for Loss, 5 sacks and 2 Forced Fumbles, Simmons is poised for a monster 2018 campaign with his draft stock at stake. Again, according to Pro Football Focus, Simmons had the number 2 pass rusher production in the nation last season. If Simmons can build on his 2017 season, he can help this defense repeat as a top ten unit, and he can alter the state of the SEC.
4. Perhaps, the biggest question facing Mississippi State on defense this season will be how good of a job Bob Shoop can do. While the Bulldogs ranked top 30 in most statistical categories last season (Total Defense, 3rd Down conversions, Rushing Defense, Scoring Defense), Shoop’s Unit in Tennessee did not. It will be incumbent for them to be consistently good, especially while rolling through the SEC gauntlet. It’s clear that Mississippi State is extremely talented on the defensive side of the ball, but the biggest immediate area to improve would be their red-zone defense. While they only allowed 30 red-zone opportunities last year, they gave up 17 touchdowns and 24 total scores in those 30 attempts. That had them in a 5 way tie for 36th in the nation, and was a contributing factor in why they finished tied for 26th in Points against. If Shoop can lead this defense in to the top 20 in both of those categories, this can be an elite defense. With a Pass Defense that gave up the 12th fewest yards per game, high end pass rushing talent, Shoop will mainly have to work to develop the thin LB core to help this defense reach it’s full potential. According to the Sporting News, Shoop will be deploying a 4-2-5 formation to aid in this. It’s cliche, but Defense travels, and bringing a top 20 unit on the road to Alabama will be a major key.
5. The Bulldogs have to be better vs. The SEC this year. Last year they were 4-4 in conference and were blown out in 2 of those games on the road in Auburn and Georgia. Pulling off an upset against Alabama will most likely be necessary, and they can ill afford more than a loss in conference if they want to take the SEC crown.
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