Yes, we’re all still reeling a little bit. The 2021 Mississippi State football season grew clunky down the homestretch, and I’m still recovering from an in-person Liberty Bowl experience.
But now that we’ve had a moment, let’s take a look back at the season as an entire body of work and make some sense of it.
Mike Leach and the Air Raid
I’ve said this before, and you’ll hear it again. Adapting to a system as niche as the Air Raid is more daunting than your typical scheme switch. In the modern college football era, most offenses feature varied takes on largely the same concepts. The Air Raid is a rare, and frankly somewhat ancient, exception. It needs time.
That said, there also needs to be consistent progress. In the second year under head coach Mike Leach, the progress showed. In Leach’s first season we saw what we call “proof of concept” in two to four games at most. This past season, evidence of the Air Raid’s viability in the Southeastern Conference was present throughout the majority of the season. The acclimation to Leach’s philosophy appears to be well ahead of schedule in Starkville, Mississippi.
A lot of the remaining room to grow, and there’s still plenty of it, comes down to execution. We saw a case of the drops plague the receiving core in the final two games, but this wasn’t present throughout the whole season. These things get a little contagious for a week or two but shouldn’t cause any alarm going forward.
The attitude of the Mississippi State fan base towards the season’s end is somewhat fragile and understandably so. But attitudes toward the overall trend of Leach’s tenure so far should be positive.
In his first full year as a starter, sophomore quarterback Will Rogers wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty darn good. Above all, he showed consistent growth while playing under the microscope of everyone else’s view of the Air Raid experiment.
I’m going to save my deep dive on Rogers for a separate piece, but for now, let’s just note that the overall trend looks positive here as well.
Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett has existed in a sort of quiet and blissful nothingness for two seasons now. With the nation’s eye on Leach and the Air Raid, Arnett has been able to do his thing without much fanfare.
His defenses have been consistently solid thus far, always hovering in the conversation as a top-25 unit, without having fully staked a claim there just yet. And that’s perfect if you want good results from the defense without having your defensive coordinator hired away, so let’s have that roost a little longer.
Leach and Mississippi State are a perfect marriage in the world of recruiting.
Mississippi State is not going to be able to recruit at the level a handful of its neighbors do, not consistently anyway. As much as you might hate to hear that, it’s just the truth.
The Bulldogs need someone who can get the most bang for their buck and make the most out of the quality of class Mississippi State typically brings in. Leach is exactly that. He is going to prioritize fit over best available because the air raid does not require the utmost natural talent to succeed. It requires execution by those who best fit the system.
Coming off a promising signing day, Mississippi State’s 2022 recruiting class sits at No. 17 on Rivals and No. 24 on 247sports.com
Players we said goodbye too
I’ll keep this brief despite my passion for this one. Yes, it’s sad to see junior wide receiver Makai Polk leave for the draft this early. Yes, it’s sad to see junior linebacker Aaron Brule leave for Michigan State. These guys were fan favorites and two crucial pieces to the success State saw in several games this season.
What you have to remember is this: The window college football players have to make the most of their careers or ensure that those careers will continue is very small. If Polk can get drafted this year, I want him to go. If Brule believes what’s best for him is to go to Michigan State, I want him to go. It’s that simple.
Support and root for these guys next year, wherever they are. And support and root for the guys who will have a chance to step up in their place next year. Keep the thoughts positive this offseason Mississippi State faithful.