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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: Mississippi State

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Yep, this is a Mike Leach team.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Date: October 23, 2021

All-time series record: Mississippi State leads, 14-7-2

Last meeting: November 7, 2020; Mississippi State won, 24-17

Last season: 4-7, 58th in SP+, 54th in Sagarin

Head coach: Mike Leach (second year, 4-7; 20th year overall, 143-97)

Mike Leach’s offensive system can take a minute to implement — his first teams at, respectively, Texas Tech and Washington State finished 61st and 109th in points per game — which is why it seemed a bit off when everyone overreacted to his first game at Mississippi State, a 44-34 win on the road over the defending national champions.

The Bulldogs then scored 30 points — total — in their next four games. For the season, they averaged 21.4 ppg, and even that was inflated quite a bit by the season opener and the final game of the regular season, a 51-32 win over Missouri. Outside of those two games, Mississippi State averaged 15.6 ppg. For reference, Vanderbilt averaged 14.8 ppg last season.

That said, it doesn’t usually take Mike Leach’s teams that long to figure out the offense: his second Texas Tech team finished 22nd in points per game, and his second Washington State team improved to 52nd. It’s probably a good bet that Mississippi State will put up points this season. But what of the defense? It’s kind of a mistake to assume that Leach’s teams always bleed points; to be sure, some of them have, but he’s also fielded teams with defenses that were just fine or even good. His first team at Mississippi State finished 58th nationally in points per game; this year’s team has some question marks in the front seven, but the secondary has some legitimate playmakers.

Offense

You would think that Will Rogers (239-346-1976, 11 TD, 7 INT) would have a strong hold on the starting job at quarterback after coming on strong in the second half of 2020. Throw out his first three games, and he completed 69 percent of his passes (nice) for 10 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

But you might be wrong about that. Mississippi State brings in four new quarterbacks to the program, including two graduate transfers with FBS experience. Jack Abraham completed 69 percent of his passes in three seasons at Southern Miss; Chance Lovertich, in six games at South Alabama last season, completed 54 percent of his passes and threw for 619 yards. Leach also has two true freshmen entering the program, including Sawyer Robertson, the #16 quarterback prospect in the class according to 247 Sports, and Daniel Greek, who enrolled in time for spring practice. I would still bet on Rogers being the starter, but this is Mike Leach we’re talking about here, so nothing is certain.

Leach was also active in the transfer portal at the wide receiver position, adding Washington State transfer Jamire Calvin (17-183-1 in four games in 2020) and Cal transfer Makai Polk (ironically, the exact same stats as Calvin.) But State also returns three of its top four receivers from 2020 in Jaden Walley (52-718-2), Austin Williams (43-372-3), and Malik Heath (37-307-3.) In other words, the quarterback (whoever it is) will have no shortage of receivers to throw to. Actually Mississippi State’s leader in receptions last season was a running back, Jo’quavious Marks, who took over as the team’s starter after Kylin Hill left the team and caught 60 passes for 268 yards, in addition to 70 carries for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns. Mississippi State won’t run the ball much, but they’ll still make use of Marks and backup Dillon Johnson as pass-catchers.

The offensive line returns three of five starters and that includes 6’5”, 310-pound redshirt sophomore Charles Cross, a former five-star who’s now showing up as a potential top-10 pick on mock draft boards. The Bulldogs will have to replace both of their starting guards, but having Cross is a good starting point.

Defense

If nothing else, Mississippi State’s secondary should be good. One starting cornerback, junior Martin Emerson, is popping up as a potential first-round pick on draft boards — and he might not even be the best cornerback at Mississippi State. On the other side, Emmanuel Forbes came in as a true freshman and had an SEC-leading five interceptions — with three returned for touchdowns. Three starting safeties — Londyn Craft, Shawn Preston Jr., and Collin Duncan, the last the younger brother of former Vanderbilt star C.J. Duncan — all return as well, and the Bulldogs added reinforcements in the form of Texas transfer Jalen Green.

Things are more unsettled up front. Middle linebacker Erroll Thompson, the team’s leading tackler in 2020, is gone, as are two of the Bulldogs’ three starters on the defensive line (Kobe Jones and Marquiss Spencer.) Jones’ graduation means that the Bulldogs’ incredible 2018 defensive line, which keyed a unit that allowed just 13.2 ppg, is entirely gone from Starkville, but again, the Bulldogs went to the transfer portal for answers, bringing in Randy Charlton from UCF. They also return starting nose guard Jaden Crumedy, and 6’3”, 275-pound senior Aaron Odom started a game in place of Spencer last season. But this is probably the least settled the Mississippi State defensive line has been in a while.

The linebacking corps does return two starters in Aaron Brule (74 tackles, 8 TFL, 4 sacks) and Tyrus Wheat (30 tackles, 6 TFL, 5 sacks.) The third spot is up for grabs.

Special Teams

Brandon Ruiz is a solid placekicker, converting all 24 extra points last season and 10-of-12 field goals, with one of the misses coming from 56 yards. His career long of 52 came as a freshman at Arizona State in 2017. Punter Tucker Day is decent, with a 42.9 yards per punt average that ranked 9th in the SEC last season.

Mississippi State might have stumbled onto a weapon in the return game in Lideatrick Griffin, who ranked seventh in the SEC in kick return yards in spite of returning just seven kicks all season, four in the bowl game against Tulsa. His 37.3 yard average would have led the SEC had he had enough returns to qualify.

Schedule

  • September 4 vs. Louisiana Tech 3:00 PM/ESPNU
  • September 11 vs. NC State 6:00 PM/ESPN2 or ESPNU
  • September 18 at Memphis 3:00 PM/ESPN2
  • September 25 vs. LSU
  • October 2 at Texas A&M
  • October 16 vs. Alabama
  • October 23 at Vanderbilt
  • October 30 vs. Kentucky
  • November 6 at Arkansas
  • November 13 at Auburn
  • November 20 vs. Tennessee State
  • November 25 vs. Ole Miss 6:30 PM/ESPN

That opening stretch is rough. After what should be a win against Louisiana Tech (normally a tough out, but the Bulldogs are projected 115th in SP+ this season), Mississippi State has a pair of tossup games against NC State and at Memphis before playing the trio of LSU, Texas A&M, and Alabama to open SEC play. In other words, it’s not completely insane to think that State could be 1-5 or 2-4 when they come to Nashville on October 23.

That means that bowl eligibility could hinge on the three-game stretch starting with the Vanderbilt game. The over/under is 6 wins and I would probably lean toward the under.

Recent series vs. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt has only played two games against Mississippi State since the Bobby Johnson era, a 51-0 loss in 2014 and a 24-17 loss last season. But for COVID-19, the 2020 game would not have happened; instead, Vanderbilt will play Mississippi State for the second season in a row.

Since World War II, Vanderbilt has only played 16 games against Mississippi State and won three of them, with the most recent win coming in Sylvester Croom’s first year there (2004.)

Outlook

Mississippi State’s decision to fire Joe Moorhead after two years and replace him with Mike Leach seemed like a strange one, on both counts. Moorhead actually won 15 games in two years, which isn’t normally a record that gets you fired after two years at a place like Mississippi State; Leach, meanwhile, has always seemed like an odd fit in Starkville.

With that out of the way, Mike Leach can definitely coach an offense, and we have about two decades worth of evidence of this. That made 2020’s offensive performance jarring, but not if you knew anything about Leach: his offenses haven’t clicked in his first year at either of his other two stops, and having practice time shortened due to COVID quite likely did not help matters. With a year to learn the system and a more “normal” year, it’s probably fair to assume that the offense will be improved in 2021.

The questions, then, are how much the offense improves, and whether the defense is adequate. Leach’s teams have never been known for defense, but with an offense that might be slightly above-average, whether Mississippi State is successful in 2021 will depend on whether the defense can get enough stops to let the offense outscore teams. Oh, yeah, and figuring out who the quarterback is. I don’t think this team is going to challenge the top of the SEC West, but just getting back to seven or eight wins would be a major improvement.