Note: There are a lot of important decisions that will be made in the next two or three weeks that could ultimately decide if we have a season and how that season plays out. We will continue our preview series until the SEC officially alters/cancels the season and the preview series will continue until updated and completed.
Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
How much destruction can one man do while pretending to pee like a bulldog? Ask Elijah Moore.
The Ole Miss wide receiver caught a touchdown pass in the waning seconds of the 2019 Egg Bowl against hated rival Mississippi State and proceeded to pretend to be a naughty puppy and pee in the end zone, a gesture mocking Mississippi State’s mascot, Bully the Bulldog.
The penalty for fake peeing pushed the extra point try back 15 yards and the Rebels proceeded to miss the extra point, allowing Mississippi State to win 21-20.
The fallout of this three second act are lengthy and hilarious, but for our purposes today, the result of the phoney pee pee caused MSU to go to 6-6 instead of 5-7 and give them a bowl berth. Not only did the Bulldogs lose that bowl game to a rebuilding Louisville, but the team got in a fight and quarterback Garrett Shrader was punched in the face by star linebacker Willie Gay. Due to the embarrassing loss and embarrassing lack of discipline, MSU fired coach Joe Moorhead after just two years. Because some guy pretended to go potty in Mississippi.
Enter: Mike Leach. The Dread Pirate was always quirky but has become much more crotchety in his later years. Still, the dude can still coach up an offense. His offenses at Texas Tech never finished outside of the SP+ Top 10, his last two offenses at Washington State were Top 15, and he’s only had four losing seasons as a head coach. However, his personality is abrasive which is why he’s only gotten gigs in remote places of the college football world. But the dude gets results! And while his offense is simple to install, it is reliant on tons of repetition, something that this (possible) season won’t have much of. It is true that he has fielded three defenses in the Top 30, but let’s be clear, defense has never been his calling card; the SEC is stocked with elite defenses and recruits who specialize in defense so this will be a true test of the pirate’s coaching skills. Oh, and the Bulldogs only return 51% of last year’s production, 110th in the nation. Ok good luck!
Here’s what Mississippi State did in 2019:
Mississippi State was almost perfectly predictable: if a team was better ranked in SP+ they beat the Bulldogs and if MSU was the higher ranked SP+ team they won. And while Joe Moorhead struggled to replicate the Penn State attack that got him the job in Starkville, Leach has always found ways to maximize the offensive talent around him at the cost of defensive success. Leach (apparently) has become incredibly predictable in his play calling so it’ll be interesting to see how he does against SEC defenses. Also...with all that defensive talent in their own back yard, can he field a Top 25 defense without really trying? It’ll be fun to figure it out!
Mike Leach - 1st Year - 0-0 (0-0)
Leach’s Texas Tech teams were criminally underrated. If it weren’t for the fact that they were stuck in the Big XII South bashing their heads against Oklahoma and Texas they would have seen 1-2 more wins per year and consistently cranked out 9- and 10-win seasons with his five-straight Top 20 SP+ finishes, four in the Top 10. His rebuild of Washington State was a little slower — and featured the only four losing seasons he’s ever had — but he quickly improved the offense and was truly unstoppable when he still had Alex Grinch (that’s a familiar name!) coordinating his defenses. Leach doesn’t care much about recruiting or defense so he stocked his staff with guys who were good at just that. It might take a few seasons to get the Bulldogs going, but if history is any indicator, Leach will have MSU winging the ball around effectively.
Zach Arnett - Defensive Coordinator: just like Eli Drinkwitz with our Tigers, and Joe Moorhead did in his two seasons in Starkville, Leach is acting as his own OC and quarterbacks coach. That leaves a whopping six other coaches to manage the defense while Leach calls plays and develops the offensive side. Arnett was tapped as the coordinator of Leach’s defense which, in my mind, was an excellent choice. Arnett was with the San Diego State staff under 3-3-5 defensive master mind Rocky Long. He started as a graduate assistant, then was promoted to linebackers coach for four years, then spent the last two calling plays. The Aztecs’ defense ranked 24th and 15th in his two years which is crazy awesome for a G5 team from the Mountain West. The 3-3-5 is a speed-focused defense and pairs well with an air raid offense. The SEC hasn’t seen a ton of base 3-3-5 defenses before so, if Arnett does stick with that base, it’ll be yet another unique style brought to the premier college football conference.
Matt Bock - Special Teams Coordinator
Eric Mele - Running Backs
Steve Spurrier, Jr. - Outside Receivers
Dave Nichol - Inside Receivers
Mason Miller - Offensive Line
Jeff Phelps - Defensive Line
Tony Hughes - Nickelbacks
Darcel McBath - Cornerbacks
Jason Washington - Safeties
Joe Moorehead was hired away from Penn State to bring the dynamic Nittany Lion attack to Mississippi State with SEC athletes. And in his two seasons the offenses were good. Not great...32nd and 36th, specifically...but good. Unfortunately, you don’t want to work to hire away the guy and pay the amount they paid just to see “good” results. Even bringing his old backup quarterback, Tommy Stevens, down with him did nothing to give the Bulldogs any semblance of a passing attack. Bully was Top 25 while rushing the ball and Top 40 in standard downs but were only 63rd when trying to pass and fell apart in passing downs, ranking 84th. Nick Fitzgerald in 2018, and Stevens/Shrader in ‘19 were good with their feet but dreadful when they tried to pass. This led to a lot of painfully one-dimensional attacks that couldn’t effectively complement the defense. Leach has an elite passing offense no matter where he goes so it’ll be quite the whiplash effect for fans in Starkville. Only 54% of last year’s offensive production returns — 87th in the nation — so Leach will have an easy time to hold open competitions with no need to play favorites with the established guys.
Quarterback - K.J. Costello - Redshirt Senior
Speaking of whiplash, K.J. Costello comes to Mississippi State, an ag school in the south, from Stanford, which is....just decidedly the opposite of the south and an ag school. In fact, he’s doing the reverse Gardner Minshew, who left Mississippi for the West coast to work with Leach! Costello was injured last year, but had run David Shaw’s pro-style offense that threw more than it wanted to and was overly reliant on big explosive plays. Now he’s in Leach’s throw-literally-every-play for an efficiency first style. Leach runs super simple route concepts that have the quarterback make quick decisions off of pre-snap reads and have the receivers make a play off of quick stop-and-pop routes. It requires accurate reads, quick-twitch reflexes, sure-handed receivers, and good downfield blocking from the skill position guys. Costello could definitely fit in here: he has solid accuracy (over 61%), good sack rates (under 5%), and is used to having make plays to carry his offense. Leach asks a lot from his quarterbacks so if Costello doesn’t cut it, Shrader will be quick to come in. In fact, don’t be surprised if Leach plays both; he isn’t afraid to make that move to have his quarterbacks prove themselves.
Running Back - Kylin Hill - Senior
Hill is probably better known for his offseason activism in getting Mississippi to change their state flag but he’s also the SEC’s returning leading rusher and a dark horse Heisman candidate. He was truly incredible last year: 1,345 yards on 242 rushes, 10 touchdowns, 6.13 highlight yards per opportunity (yards rushed after getting getting 5 yards) and a 46% success rate. Leach offenses don’t like running the ball with the running back (or at all, mind you) so either Hill gets more active in the passing game - 18 catches for 180 yards last year - or Leach bucks 20 years of coaching instinct and gives Hill more carries. He’s an excellent athlete, regardless, who will be dangerous in whatever capacity he has the ball. Only one other running back with experience is on the roster so Hill will be the main focal point unless some other guys — possibly blue-chipper Jo’quavious Marks or Dillon Johnson (?) — rise up.
Wide Receiver - Osirus Mitchell - Redshirt Senior
Of the top five receivers on 2019’s team, only Mitchell returns. He led the team with 430 yards on 49 targets, and oddly enough had the best success rate on the team (55%) with the third worst catch rate (59%). Imagine what he could do if he held on to a few more balls every game! The Bulldogs loaded up on receivers in the ‘20 recruiting class, bringing in 4 guys - including blue chipper Malik Heath - to add immediate depth to Leach’s preferred style of offense. Again, you don’t need to be an other-wordly talent to succeed in Leach’s air raid, just have a solid set of hands and be able to shake a few dudes, so expect the freshmen to have plenty of opportunity. The passing offense last year was, as previously mentioned, an albatross on the Bulldog attack so an infusion of young blood will be necessary. MSU might not immediately become the Red Riders of yore but the style should be familiar.
In 2018, the Mississippi State defense was ranked #1 in SP+, powered by the 3rd best passing defense paired with a 12th ranked rush defense that absolutely snuffed out any offense in passing downs situations. In 2019 the Bulldog defense ranked 70th. What the heck happened? Four things happened, to be precise: four guys left! Johnathan Abrams and Mark McLaurin were a dynamic safety duo that graduated, while pass rushing specialist Montez Sweat and interior wrecking ball Jeffrey Simmons were drafted by the NFL. And with two corners graduating as well the Bulldog defense, truly, had no choice but to regress...but a 70-spot drop is drastic. Instead of being elite at everything they were...well, not good against the rush and a total sieve against the pass. They do lose another four starters in 2020 but, based off of their performance, that might not be a terrible thing. 48% returning defensive production (113th in the nation) is never a good thing but when it’s from a defense this bad...let’s just say the bar is low to clear.
Defensive Line - Marquiss Spencer - Senior
Spencer will be joined by fellow battery mate Kobe Jones to provide an edge rush in the new defense. 3-3-5 defenses are excellent at hiding pressures and flooding the field with defenders who can clog pass lanes so the role of these two might be a little bit different. Regardless, Spencer and Jones are the leading returners in tackles for loss and sacks and will be providing mentorship to blue-chipper Jordan Davis.
Linebacker - Erroll Thompson - Redshirt Senior
Thompson lead the team in total tackles and run stuffs and is basically the only linebacker returning (freshman Aaron Brule only logged 4 tackles). Leach brought in four linebackers in the most recent recruiting class so the guys around Thompson will be young and unfamiliar. Linebackers in a 3-3-5 are mostly used to create pressure but Thompson, from his Mike linebacker spot, will be excellent as a tackle vacuum. However, this will be one of the weak spots of the Bulldog defense unless the new guys end up being studs from day one.
Defensive Back - C.J. Morgan - Redshirt Senior
State played a steady rotation of 11 guys in the secondary; of the 11 only three graduated and the majority of the remaining eight are still sophomores and juniors. You know what I’m going to say next: success in defending the pass is overwhelmingly tied to experience so as the Bulldogs get older in this unit the better they should get, in theory at least. Even with the youth, there’s still some experience here so they should at least be able to avoid being ranked 107th against the pass again. Unfortunately, ranking a still nasty 90th would be tremendous improvement so it might be one more rough year. Incoming blue-chip signee Emmanuel Forbes, Jr. should get plenty of chances to see the field.
So what does it all mean?
Don’t think for a second that this is the schedule that MSU will be playing in 2020, if there is a season in 2020. But this is how it’s currently constructed.
If the conference portion stays the same, Missouri will he hosting State after the Bulldogs have played FOUR STRAIGHT Top 11 teams, with Alabama and LSU on the road in back-to-back weeks. Does that mean that MSU will be beat up and ripe for a loss at the hands of Drink and his Baby Tigers? Perhaps! The defense is projected to improve but still rank in the 70s while the offense is projected 24th, not even taking into consideration Leach’s philosophical implementations. The Tiger secondary will be breaking in some new faces so the Bulldogs should have an advantage in the style they want to play and have enough of a defense to limit what we perceive as the Tigers best offensive asset: the ground game.
As Bill Connelly cited in his preview, and BK discussed last week, Missouri’s fate will be decided by its swing games and this is one of those swing games. Our Tigers will be at home and hosting a beat up young team; the Bulldogs will be better on paper and have distinct advantages over what the Tigers’ strengths are. Gary Pinkel’s Tiger squads enjoyed a 3-1 advantage over Leach’s Red Raiders and it would be awesome for Drinkwitz to carry on that tradition. This will be a tough matchup but a fun one....ya know, if the season is played and all.