SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #18 Mississippi State
The college football staff at SQ have created a rankings list of the top-25 teams heading into the 2015 season. To prepare our readers for this upcoming season, we are previewing each team. Today's focus: #18 Mississippi State.
Team: Mississippi State
SQ Ranking: 18
2014 Record: 10-3
Finish in AP Poll: 11
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (7th year)
Key Arrivals: RB Nick Gibson, WR Donald Gray, ILB Leo Lewis, OT Martinas Rankin, S Jamal Peters.
Key Departures: RB Josh Robinson, S Jay Hughes, S Justin Cox, FB Malcolm Johnson, C Dillon Day, OLB Preston Smith, ILB Benardrick McKinney
Previewing the Mississippi State Offense: Dak Prescott was the engine that drove this offense in 2014, passing for 3449 yards with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His passing ability helped Mississippi State rank 4th in the SEC in passing offense. He was also dangerous on the ground as he ran for 986 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Everything about Mississippi State's offense revolves around him. However, he won't be the only unit's contributor.
RB Josh Robinson, who rushed for 1,203 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014, has moved on to the Indianapolis Colts. Could Prescott, who was the team's second leading rusher, be the team's leading rusher in 2015? It's certainly possible. Brandon Holloway will most likely be the team's starting running back and while his 2014 rushing yards stat may not look convincing (294 rushing yards), he did average a higher yards per carry (6.5) than Robinson did (6.3).
Overall, Mississippi had a very strong rushing attack, ranking 23rd in the nation and 3rd in the SEC. Robinson is the only major departure, so Mississippi State should once again have a very solid rushing offense.
Mississippi State's offensive line was slightly above average in 2014, conceding 23 sacks, which was 42nd in the nation. It will have to be even better in 2015 in order to protect Prescott.
One x-factor to look out for is De'Runnya Wilson. He was the team's leading receiver in 2014 (680 receiving yards, 9 receiving touchdowns) and could see his stats increase if Prescott becomes even better in 2015.
Previewing the Mississippi State Defense: Mississippi State's defense in 2014, for the most part, was not that good. The team was 80th in the nation in total yards allowed (123rd in passing defense and 21st in rushing defense) and gave up about 22 points per game. There were some bright spots however. They had 70 passes defended, which was by far the best in the SEC, and 37 sacks, which was good enough for 2nd in the SEC. They also had the best red zone defense in the nation, allowing only a 63.6 scoring percentage in the red zone.
ILB Benardrick McKinney, the team's 2014 leading tackler with 72 tackles, has moved on to the Houston Texans. OLB Preston Smith, the team's 2014 sack leader with 9 sacks, is now with the Washington Redskins. These are two huge departures that could have an impact on Mississippi State's defense.
Beniquez Brown will most likely be the team's main contributor in tackling (he was 2nd on the team in tackles in 2014 with 62 tackles), while Ryan Brown's sack production could improve (4 sacks in 2014, tied for 2nd on the team).
As for the x-factor, look for Beniquez Brown and Ryan Brown to be both the team's pivotal players on defense.
Three Key Games:
1. Mississippi State vs. LSU, September 12th: The LSU Tigers have historically not been kind to the Mississippi State Bulldogs, holding a 71-34-3 record over them and beating the Bulldogs for 14 straight years from 1999-2013. Mississippi State finally beat LSU in 2014, but they will want to prove that last year's win wasn't a fluke so this game should be very important to them.
2. Mississippi State at Auburn, September 26th: Mississippi State beat Auburn last year pretty convincingly with a 38-23 victory. Auburn, however, returns a much stronger team this year and is a heavy favorite to be one of the four playoff teams. If Mississippi State wants to prove its legitimacy, it will have to take down powerhouse Auburn for a 2nd straight year.
3. Mississippi State vs. Alabama, November 14th: Alabama is still the king of the SEC until proven otherwise. Taking down the "king" could prove Mississippi State's worth. The good news? The game is played in their stadium. The bad news? They have not beaten Alabama since 2007.
Final Analysis: In the end, all eyes will be on QB Dak Prescott, the team's heart and soul, to once again carry the team to respectable heights. While their offense should be solid for the most part, their defense is a bit concerning. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has agreed to become the defensive coordinator for the Florida Gators football team, so the Bulldogs may need time to adjust to new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
If Prescott can maintain his 2014 form, this team could definitely win around 9-10 games and be a bowl team. However, it will not be easy as Mississippi State has a brutal schedule playing teams like LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas. All of those games are definitely winnable, though, as long as Prescott drives this offense smoothly and makes little mistakes.