(Part 6 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
Seeking to build on an encouraging finish, Mississippi State sets out to improve upon last year's 6-7 (3-5 Southeastern Conference) finish.
Dan Mullen enters his ninth year in Starkville, having guided the Bulldogs to seven straight bowl games.
State ranked seventh in the SEC in scoring (30.4 points per game), fifth in rushing (230.5 yards per game), ninth in passing (209.7 ypg) and seventh in total offense (440.2 ypg).
Quarterback was a major question mark going into the 2016 campaign following the graduation of Dak Prescott, who went on to earn Rookie of the Year honors for the Dallas Cowboys. A year later, the Bulldogs appear to be set behind center for the present as well as the future. Junior Nick Fitzgerald proved to be a worthy successor to Prescott, setting nine school records. Starting all 13 games, Fitzgerald threw for 2,243 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Equally dangerous with his feet, he averaged 7.1 yards per carry while rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 scores.
MSU landed another potential future star when Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year Keytaon Thompson of Class 5A state champion New Orleans Landry-Walker enrolled in January.
Junior running back Aeris Williams (137 carries, 720 yards, 4 TDs) thrived after being inserted into the starting lineup over the final three games.
Senior Donald Gray (41 receptions, 709 yards, 5 TDs), junior Malik Dear (23-264-2) and sophomore Keith Mixon (19-228-2) are being counted on to help offset the loss of wide receiver Fred Ross (72-917-12).
Farrod Green (11-121-1) returns at tight end.
State's offensive line will have to grow up fast. Senior left tackle Martinas Rankin and junior right guard Deion Calhoun are the only two full-time holdover starters. Junior Elgton Jenkins is listed as the left guard after making five starts. Redshirt freshman Stewart Reese and sophomore right tackle Harrison Moon are the projected starters at center and right tackle, respectively.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Bulldogs are working under a new defensive coordinator. Todd Grantham, formerly of Louisville, inherits one of the SEC's most porous units. State ranked 13th in the circuit in scoring (31.8 ppg), seventh in rushing (177.5 ypg), last against the pass (281.5 ypg) and 12th in total yardage (459.1 ypg).
Sophomore nose tackle Jeffery Simmons (40 tackle, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles) heads up an otherwise inexperienced front three. Junior Cory Thomas (24 tackles, 4.5 TFL) is the tackle, with East Mississippi Community College transfer Chauncey Rivers taking over at end.
Sophomore Leo Lewis (79 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack) and senior J.T. Gray (71 tackles, 8 TFL, 1 sack) finished 2-3 on the team in tackles a year ago. Also projected to start at linebacker are junior Gerri Green (43 tackles) and senior Traver Jung (25 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks in 7 games).
Led by junior strong safety Brandon Bryant (62 tackles, 1 INT) and junior free safety Mark McLaurin (51 tackles, 2 INTs), the secondary is State's deepest area of defense.
Junior Chris Rayford (23 tackles) and senior Tolando Cleveland (42 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 blocked kick in 2015) are the cornerbacks. A former Landy-Walker standout, Cleveland took a medical redshirt last season after starting 10 games in 2015.
Junior college transfers Jonathan Abram and Brian Cole could be difference-makers at the safety positions. Abram originally signed with Georgia, appearing in 10 games with four starts as a true freshman prior to landing at Jones County Junior College. Cole spent a year as a wide receiver at Michigan before transferring to East Mississippi.
Senior Logan Cooke (44 punts, 40-yard average) is back, with redshirt freshman Jace Christmann taking on place kicking chores.
Keith Mixon returned 11 kickoffs for a 25.2-yard average in 2016.
2017 MISSISSIPPI STATE SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Charleston Southern TBA
Sept. 9 at Louisiana Tech 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 LSU* 6 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Georgia* TBA
Sept. 30 at Auburn* TBA
Oct. 14 BYU TBA
Oct. 21 Kentucky* (HC) TBA
Oct. 28 at Texas A&M* TBA
Nov. 4 UMass TBA
Nov. 11 Alabama* TBA
Nov. 18 at Arkansas* TBA
Nov. 23 (Thanksgiving) Ole Miss* 6:30 p.m.