Miss State Breakdown

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Expectations are understandably high for Joe Moorhead’s first season as the head coach at Mississippi State. The former Penn State offensive coordinator under James Franklin went 38-13 as HC at FCS Fordham from 2012-15. Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen, who left Starkville to take the Florida gig after guiding the Bulldogs to eight consecutive bowl games during his nine-year tenure.

Moorhead walks into an outstanding situation. MSU returns nine starters on offense and eight on defense from a team that finished last year 9-4 straight up and 8-5 against the spread.

There are questions, though. The defense will have its fifth different coordinator in the past five years. Todd Grantham’s hire as DC before the 2017 campaign was a stroke of genius by Mullen. His 3-4 scheme turned around a stop unit in ’16 that allowed 31.8 points per game. On Grantham’s watch, the MSU defense gave up merely 20.9 PPG last season.

But this unit is going back to a 4-3 under veteran DC Bob Shoop, who was at Tennessee the last two years after running PSU’s defense in 2014 and ’15. Former South Alabama head coach was hired to coach special teams, while Moorhead’s first OC is Luke Getsy, who had been on the Green Bay Packers’ staff for the past four seasons, coaching WRs the last two years.

Another concern is the health of star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who sustained a dislocated ankle in the Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss in late November. If he’s healthy, Fitzgerald is one of the SEC’s premier signal callers.

His strength is his ability to make big plays with his legs. Fitzgerald garnered third-team All-SEC honors in ’16 when he finished second in the SEC in rushing yards (1,375) and tops in rushing touchdowns (16). He also threw for 2,423 yards with a 21/10 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Fitzgerald, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry in ’16, ran for 984 yards and 14 TDs last season while averaging 6.1 YPC. He completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,782 yards with a 15/11 TD-INT ratio.

With Fitzgerald going down in the first half vs. Ole Miss, it gave back-up QB Keytaon Thompson a chance to gain valuable experience as a true freshman. He ran for 121 yards and one TD on 26 carries against the Rebels. Then in a 31-27 win over Lamar Jackson and Louisville at the Taxslayer Bowl, Thompson rushed 27 times for 147 yards and three TDs.

His throwing is still a work in progress. Thompson completed just 11-of-20 passes for 127 yards with one interception vs. U of L. For the season, he connected on 48.5 percent of his throws for 388 yards with a 2/2 TD-INT ratio. Thompson ran for 446 yards and six TDs with a 5.9 YPC average.

The Bulldogs bring back their top six rushers, including junior running back Aeris Williams, who ran for 1,108 yards and six TDs with a 4.7 YPC average. They also return their top two WRs in Jesse Jackson and Keith Mixon.

The entire defensive line returns, including a pair of first-team All-SEC selections in senior DE Montez Sweat and junior DT Jeffery Simmons. Sweat recorded 48 tackles, 10.5 sacks (tied for tops in the SEC), five tackles for loss and four QB hurries, while Simmons produced 60 tackles, five sacks, seven TFL’s, five QB hurries and one PBU.

Phil Steele’s preseason magazine ranks MSU’s defensive line as the nation’s third-best in his national unit rankings. Steele has Sweat ranked as the country’s sixth-best DE in terms of projection to next year’s NFL Draft, while Simmons is slotted fourth among DTs who will be draft-eligible in the spring of 2019.

Another defensive standout is senior safety Mark McLaurin, who led MSU in tackles (79) and was tied for the SEC lead in interceptions (six). He also had six PBU, two TFL’s and 1.5 sacks.

The non-conference schedule has three home games (vs. SF Austin, vs. Louisiana and La. Tech) and a Week 2 road assignment at Kansas State. Steele ranks MSU’s schedule as the fifth-toughest in the SEC and No. 32 nationally.

The foes from the SEC East are Kentucky and Florida. The Bulldogs travel to Lexington to face UK on Sept. 22 and then they host UF and their former coach on Sept. 29 at Scott Field.

Two teams get an extra week of preparation for MSU. The Ragin’ Cajuns have an open date before coming to Starkville, as does Texas A&M for an Oct. 27 date. The Bulldogs are in a situational advantage at LSU on Oct. 20 since their open date comes the prior weekend. They get the Aggies at home one week after going to Baton Rouge.

MSU has 12/1 odds to win the SEC at [...]. The global website has the Bulldogs listed as three-point favorites at KSU in its Games of the Year. They’re three-point home ‘chalk’ vs. the Gators, seven-point home underdogs vs. Auburn (with a -120 price), three-point underdogs at LSU, four-point home favorites (with a -120 price) vs. A&M, 19.5-point road ‘dogs at Alabama and 10.5-point road ‘chalk’ at Ole Miss.

Moorhead’s squad has a win total of eight (-120 ‘under’, -110 ‘over’). MSU’s odds to make the College Football Playoff are 15/1 and it has 70/1 odds to win the CFP. The Bulldogs’ opener vs. SF Austin is not lined for now, but gamblers will probably get a spread for that game about 24 hours before kickoff.

Steele’s power rankings have MSU at No. 16 and his projection is for the Bulldogs to finish the season at No. 21 come January. I have the Bulldogs at No. 13 in my preseason power rankings.

When I first broke down MSU’s schedule, I marked it 6-1 with five swing games. Those five include at KSU, vs. UF, vs. Auburn, at LSU and at Ole Miss. As I explained last week, I’m on Mississippi State +3 at LSU. I lean to the Bulldogs +7 vs. AU, but that game falls one week after hosting the Gators. With all the emotion that’ll go into that UF game going against Mullen, I simply worry that a major letdown scenario could be in play if MSU beats UF.

I’m going to call for MSU to win at LSU and avenge last year’s Egg Bowl defeat. We saw Auburn get extremely fortunate to escape Kansas State with a win in 2014. With some uncertainty about how healthy Fitzgerald will be in September, I’ll say that MSU gets clipped by the Wildcats on the road in Week 2.

As for the back-to-back home games vs. AU and UF, I’ll call for a split. I have no idea what sort of QB play the Gators are going to get but if it’s decent, UF’s got a good shot in Starkville because MSU might be a little too amped for that game. If the Bulldogs can get past the Gators, that’s a tough spot vs. the Tigers, who host a pair of weak teams in Arkansas and Southern Miss in the two contests beforehand.

I loved Moorhead’s offense at PSU, but it’s a ‘wait-and-see deal’ with him as a head coach. I’ll call for a 9-3 campaign, but I’m not recommending a play on ‘over’ eight for the win total. That’s because I like to have a 1.5-game cushion to make a play on a win total. In other words, MSU’ tally would have to be 7.5 for me to push an ‘over’ wager or 10.5 to tout an ‘under’ bet.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

-- Here’s how Steele had MSU in his national unit rankings: No. 14 at QB, No. 19 at RB, No. 43 at WR, No. 20 on the offensive line, No. 3 on DL, No. 29 at LB, No. 18 at DB and No. 51 on special teams.

-- My rankings of MSU’s best players:

-- MSU has high hopes for DB Brian Cole, who redshirted last year after transferring from Michigan. Another transfer who adds depth to the defensive line is Chauncey Rivers, who started his career at Georgia before going the juco route.

-- The top two recruits in Moorhead’s first class are WRs. Stephen Guidry is expected to step into the starting lineup right away after the juco transfer chose MSU and participate in spring practice. The other is Devonta Jason, a four-star signee who left high school early to be in Starkville for spring practice.

-- Moorhead’s first recruiting haul was ranked 25th nationally by Rivals.com. There were 23 players signed, including seven four-star players and 14 three-stars.

-- MSU’s 2019 class is currently ranked 19th nationally at Rivals.com. There are 17 players verbally committed, including a quartet of four-star players and 11 three-stars. However, this class is ranked higher at 247Sports (12th as of 7/16/18).

-- 247Sports also has MSU assistant Mark Hudspeth ranked second nationally in its 2019 Recruiter Rankings. Hudspeth just completed a seven-year tenure as the HC at Louisiana before getting fired after a 5-7 campaign. He led the Ragin’ Cajuns to four straight 9-4 seasons to start his run with the school, including four straight wins at the New Orleans Bowl (three in which they were underdogs).

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.