Participating in the internet lately, it seems like most everyone outside the state (and probably a few in-staters to the north) is picking Mississippi State football to finish somewhere around last place in the SEC West this year, many wondering if the Bulldogs will even make a bowl game.
And here’s the thing: I get it. I completely get it. Sure, MSU finished second in the west last year and earned a berth in the Orange Bowl. They vaulted to No. 1 in the country after beating three-straight Top 10 teams and held that spot for over a month in the meat of the college football season. And yeah, State’s quarterback finished with the most Heisman votes by an MSU player in history.
But it’s easy to see why folks expect a dropoff. Seven starters from a record-breaking offense are gone: three offensive linemen (including one All-American), a second-team All-SEC running back, two receivers and a tight end – roughly 17 years of starts. On the other side of the ball, goodness, eight starters are gone. Three out of four defensive linemen, two out of three linebackers, half the starting corners and both the starting safeties. Included in that mix are two second round NFL Draft picks and four more players in NFL camps right now.
All that, and MSU still has to play in the SEC West. Tough luck.
So yeah, I get the lack of confidence in Dan Mullen’s team in 2015. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.
For one, there’s the return of All-SEC quarterback Dak Prescott. More on that later, but in a quick note dug up by Brian Hadad from Bulldog Sports Radio, 10 of the 12 returning All-SEC quarterbacks in SEC history have won at least eight games, while many have won more. There are always exceptions, though, and perhaps MSU is the exception this year, one could easily think. We’ll see.
But back to the missing starters. Statistics, as they say, can be made to prove anything. The numbers, in this case, don’t exactly provide the full picture. Let’s start at the offensive line, where three starters are gone. Big loss, to be certain, seeing a left tackle, center and award-winning guard all graduate. But take a look at those replacing them.
To begin, new guard Devon Desper isn’t a returning starter, but he’s started before. In fact, when MSU lost its center for a game last year, Desper got the nod at guard and helped pave the way for MSU’s offense to rack up 559 yards and 48 points against a ranked Texas A&M team. He’s a redshirt junior and a two-year letterman.
Next is Jamaal Clayborn at center, who most had penciled in last year as a starter before personal situations slowed his season and availability. Also a junior, he’s considered one of if not the strongest players on the team and was good enough to play as a true freshman in 2013.
Then it appears to be Rufus Warren at left tackle, who is every bit as athletic as departed starter Blaine Clausell, if not more so, and is entering his fifth year in the system. He knows the offense, he’s got the size, and it appears he’s beat out the top-ranked junior college offensive tackle in the country for the starting gig.
Now, it’s fair to ask how those three will do as full-time starters, or how Clayborn will do with the switch to center. I’ve got those questions, too. But these aren’t scrubs, and co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy has yet to have a season with a bad offensive line. The results speak for themselves, at a certain point.
Back to running back, I do expect the loss of Josh Robinson to sting a little early on, but MSU has as deep a stable of runners as ever, a position that hasn’t been an issue for State teams in a couple decades. Who will replace Robinson? I don’t know, but who was going to replace LaDarius Perkins, Vick Ballard, Anthony Dixon and Jerious Norwood? I don’t expect that line of successful starters to break in 2015 or anytime soon.
At receiver, Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis, along with their many yards, catches and touchdowns, are out the door. But the two best receivers down the stretch for MSU last year: De’Runnya Wilson and Fred Ross. Wilson will hold on to his starting spot, and the finally-healthy Ross is primed to take over for Lewis in the slot, who was hampered by injuries last year. Replacing Johnson is some combination of senior Joe Morrow – who quietly had a solid and consistent 2014 averaging a team-high 20.2 yards per catch – and Donald Gray, one of the most highly-recruited junior college receivers who was called by one scout “the best athlete in the state of Tennessee” his senior year of high school.
Switch over to defense, and it actually gets better for MSU. Will Redmond is projected by some as a first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft and is rated by Mel Kiper as the No. 1 senior cornerback in the country, but he’s never “started” a game. But he played as many reps as any corner on the team in 2014 and he “replaces” the missing starter at corner.
Chris Jones is the same story, the No. 2-rated player in his signing class but, technically, a “backup” the last two years. He’s a new starter under the strict definition, but he’s the most-talented member of the front line and, like Redmond, got starters reps even if he didn’t actually get called a starter in 2014.
At linebacker, junior Richie Brown played just as much as Benardrick McKinney and was actually tied for the team-lead last season with three interceptions. Sure, they all came in one game, but you get the point.
A.J. Jefferson, now a junior defensive end, had nine quarterback hurries, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles in 2014. He’s a “new” starter in 2015. Similar story for Kendrick Market, the hardest hitting defensive back MSU has, maybe the most intelligent player on the roster, but a “new” starter at safety, despite leading all members of his position in tackles last season by a longshot.
MSU fans often took to complaining about the frequent substitutions last year, an understandable frustration at times, but it looks like it’ll pay off pretty well now. The label of returning starters just doesn’t really apply for MSU’s defense, and much of its offense, too.
Plus, there are those who do get the gracious label of returning starters. Beniquez Brown, the brains of MSU’s defense. Taveze Calhoun, the heart behind it. Ryan Brown, the previously mentioned Prescott and Wilson and the Justins Malone and Senior on the offensive line. There are a combined 17 years of playing experience in that group.
Beyond all the above-mentioned players is the rest of a roster which, after seven signing classes under the current regime, has finally started to look the way Mullen envisioned it when he took over in 2009. For all the talk of returning starters and new starters, there are a solid half dozen true freshmen or redshirt freshmen who could leap into those jobs, as well as another half dozen who will almost assuredly have significant roles in some form or fashion.
And then, finally, is that vaguely indefinable but very obvious thing: the Prescott factor. In nearly every game MSU plays, it will likely have the best player on the field. To boot, Prescott plays the most important position on the field. And, as a dual-threat player, he’s got the capability to make up for any possible shortcomings as the “new” starters get broken in. Not to mention that he will have what ought to be the best group of receivers under Mullen at MSU, possibly in the history of the program.
This has been a bit long-winded, I know, and I say all that to again admit I understand why people are picking against Mississippi State. But it’s like one of my favorite childhood cartoons taught me – with the Bulldogs in 2015, it’s more than meets the eye.