This year’s Maroon and White Spring Game was played under an unexpected and rather unfamiliar question, “What should the college football world make of ESPN’s high expectations for the Bulldogs this season?”
The game took place mere days after ESPN released the projected win totals for each college football program, calculated by ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index (FPI), a system that many fans and experts alike take with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it provides some sort of glimpse at the upcoming season.
Surprising enough is the projected 8.2 total wins the program placed on Mississippi State, who finished at the tail end of the SEC West standings last season. The true shock, however, comes in the form of the FPI’s ranking system, which has Mississippi State currently sitting at No. 8. No, not No. 8 in the conference, No. 8 in the nation.
It’s important to note that a team’s previous season record (State’s was 4-7) is not the largest determining factor in the preseason FPI rankings, as it shouldn’t be. What is curious, is the apparent bias the system seems to have for programs that are returning the majority of its starters. Yes, this should cause teams’ stock to rise, but for State to sit at No. 8 is quite the leap.
Mississippi State does return 16 starters from last year’s team, so there is reason to expect a more successful campaign this season, with added excitement surrounding how many of the Bulldogs’ key contributors were freshmen last season. But should State fans truly raise their expectations to meet that of ESPN’s metric system? My guess: Probably not. But heck, let’s indulge. If State is to put together a top-10 season, it would start with a major leap forward in the consistency and execution of head coach Mike Leach’s zany pass-heavy system. So, let’s look at how the notable pieces of the upcoming season’s offensive unit fared in Saturday’s spring game.
Will Rogers and Jaden Walley
Most of the anticipation regarding this year’s offense likely revolved around the connection between quarterback Will Rogers and wide receiver Jaden Walley, both entering their sophomore seasons with Walley fresh off being named to last year’s Southeastern Conference all-freshman team. Walley emerged as Rogers’ favorite target late last season as the offense began to find some rhythm. Unfortunately, here lies the more disappointing elements of the scrimmage. Walley exited the game in the first half with an apparent leg injury, needing to be helped off the field. It’s unclear what the severity of the injury is thus far.
As for Rogers, the young quarterback struggled early and appeared quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the end of the first half that Rogers finally found the junior receiver, Makai Polk, for his lone passing touchdown of the day.
He also threw one interception off a deflection, and was largely inconsistent, forcing a few throws into double coverage that would normally be disastrous in a legitimate outing. It’s worth noting that Rogers was not playing with a full lineup of first-string weapons and lineman, so here’s hoping that Rogers’ play isn’t indicative of anything too worrisome.
Big Day for Receiving Corp
Outside of a couple of drops, it was a largely impressive day for State’s receivers. The aforementioned Polk caught a touchdown pass, as did senior Malik Heath on a fantastic display of concentration as he reeled in a bobbled ball in the corner of the end zone.
Junior Christian Ford, a walk-on, showed big-play ability, with the two most impressive grabs of the day (happening mere seconds apart) coming from junior Geor’quarius Spivey. Altogether, it was a strong and seemingly much-improved display by the unit as a whole.
The Enticing Play of One Jack Abraham
What will stand as the most eye-opening part of the day is the near flawless play of graduate transfer Jack Abraham, who joins the program by way of Southern Miss, where he started 27 games over three seasons throwing over 7,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.
In this year’s spring game, playing with a large portion of first-string skill players, Abraham showed a consistent ability to move the offense, connect on deep balls and avoid mistakes. He was the only quarterback to score twice on the day and presents an enticing and experienced option for Leach going into fall camp.
Another transfer quarterback, senior Chance Lovertich by way of South Alabama, also threw a touchdown pass. Incoming freshman Daniel Greek did as well. The latter two quarterbacks received snaps right at the end of the fourth quarter, and well after, as Leach simply decided he wanted his guys to keep playing. The day concluded with Leach standing on the field devouring a burrito as his players continued to run various scenarios for him well after the final whistle.
With the fall season approaching, he has much to think about.