Can the Mississippi State Bulldogs win the SEC? I say to Bulldog fans: Dare to Dream.
I’m not trying to pump sunshine with that statement. I’m speaking reality. To win the SEC, teams must have three traits: good depth, elite talent and an elite defense. The Bulldogs have all three in 2014.
They rotated two-deep on both sides of the ball on Saturday, and there wasn’t a noticeable drop off. Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson, Jameon Lewis, De’Runnya “Bear” Wilson, Chris Jones, Benardrick McKinney are All-SEC caliber talents who must be accounted for every week. And the Bulldog defense, which has taken on the mantra “Psycho Defense”, is ferocious.
I like to keep things in perspective, though. I understand the Bulldogs have to get through Alabama, LSU and Auburn and the entire SEC West for that matter. But all you can do is play the games on your schedule, which is favorable to the Bulldogs. They don’t face an SEC opponent until the fourth game of the season. That’s enough time to work out the kinks and establish who the key pieces are on the team.
The first game, while against inferior competition, offered some insight into who are those key contributors.
The Bulldog offense started where it left off ending the season: dominating. After early troubles, the offense gained its footing in the second quarter and never looked back…making it look easy.
I know some feel Prescott played a tremendous game, but I don’t think he played up to expectations. I was disappointed that Prescott hasn’t progressed more mechanically in the pocket. He still was flicking the ball too much and throwing flat-footed at times. His mechanics came a long way last season. I thought he would be much further ahead after a full off-season of work. His numbers were eye popping, though. Four touchdowns and 286 yards through the air are nothing to sneeze at. But if he doesn’t fix those mechanical issues, it will show up against upper echelon opponents.
QB Position Now and Going Forward: I critcized Prescott’s performance. But I expect nothing less than an All-SEC season from him.
While Prescott is a superstar, I have concerns about whether Damian Williams is a capable back-up in the SEC. He performed admirably last season in spot duty. If I was to go off the first game, he didn’t progress much. I’m not comfortable he could get the job done if Prescott went down. With that said, Coach Mullen needs to get Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley ready and allow them to compete for the number two job.
Running Back (B)
The MSU running backs were probably the most unheralded of all the offensive positions headed into the season. Josh Robinson made those who underrated him and his cohorts take notice after his spectacular performance, though. He looked comfortable in the lead-back role. He was fast, physical and got stronger as the game went on. And he displayed some good hands with three catches for 49 yards.
I was a little discouraged with the other backs. Nick Griffin’s stat line looked nice (eight carries for 45 yards). But he ran out of gas quickly and lacks the necessary explosion to be a rotational SEC back. Brandon Holloway looked solid in a few runs. Solid isn’t going to get it in the SEC as a rotational back.
RB Now and Going Forward: Robinson is entrenched as the feature back, but he needs capable backups. Ashton Shumpert was suspended for the first game. He’ll take one of spots in the rotation in game two. The number three spot is where the trouble comes in. Again, Griffin isn’t a player you want as a regular rotation back.
What’s the answer? Pull the redshirt off of Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Aeris Williams. He’s too good of a player to sit down on the bench when there is a need at running back. With Robinson, Shumpert and Williams leading the charge, Holloway could settle into a specialty role where he fits best. Griffin could continue in his role as the Fullback. The unit would have depth with this rotation and stack up to the rest of the SEC.
Wide Receiver/Tight End (A)
I loved, loved, loved what I saw from the Bulldog receivers on Saturday. They got open, were sure handed and played with a level of aggression I’ve never seen from a collective group of Bulldog receivers. It’s the first time in a while I can say that at least four MSU receivers have that “dogg” in them: Jameon Lewis, De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Brown and Fred Ross. Lewis is already an All-SEC talent. But Wilson is “that” outside guy MSU has been waiting on since Dan Mullen took over. He doesn’t just have All-SEC potential…He has All-American potential. He’s big, tall and a proficient route runner. Many don’t know his name. But they will soon.
WR/TE Now and Going Forward: The Bulldogs have a legitimate two-deep at Receiver and Tight End. The three main targets are Malcolm Johnson, Wilson and Lewis. I’d take that. There needs to be some reshuffling on the depth chart, though. Robert Johnson would be my first change. The coaches have been waiting on him for a couple years now. He’s yet to take that next step. Brown, Ross and possibly Joe Morrow have passed him up. He deserves to be in the rotation. But one of those players needs to replace him in the starting line-up.
Offensive Line(C+) The offensive line was very Jekyll and Hyde Saturday Night. They did a good job making holes in the running game, but Prescott and Williams got hit way too many times. The struggles could be attributed to the constant rotation at the position. But there’s no excuse for a player like a Blaine Clausell, a two-year starter, to get dominated the way he did on a few plays. He has not only needs to step up but man up. He’s the Left Tackle and has to set the tone. He didn’t set the right one on Saturday.
OL Now and Going Forward: All the offensive line has to do is settle down, and they’ll be fine. Coach John Hevesy has to find his best seven and go with them. That ten rotation stuff is implausible. Most good teams don’t have seven good linemen and darn sure don’t have ten.
“Psycho Defense” was in full effect on Saturday. The Bulldog defense looked mean, aggressive and intimidating. This is the first time since the Joe Lee Dunn “Dawg” defense days that the Bulldogs have an identity on that side of ball. The rest of the SEC should be worried…very worried.
Defensive Line (A)
Unstoppable is the only word I can use to describe this unit. The Southern Miss line just couldn’t slow them down. They bull-rushed, ran through and ran around the Golden Eagle offensive line the whole night. Chris Jones was, well, Chris Jones. And Preston Smith announced himself as the next breakout star in the SEC. He got to the quarterback a couple of times, had an interception and blocked a kick. Smith and Jones give Coach Geoff Collins two dominant pieces to build his defense around.
DL Now and Going Forward: The unit rotated ten defensive linemen in the first game. Those numbers probably need to get trimmed. I would also do some reshuffling. First, Kaleb Eulls has to get demoted in favor of Chris Jones or Nelson Adams and reduced to a spot duty role. With Adams back at Defensive Tackle, there are two options for the other defensive end spot: Use Gerri Green or Dezmond Harris at DE to maximize talent or reduce the rotation to three players: Smith, Ryan Brown and A.J. Jefferson. Hopefully, Torrey Dale steps up and solves the problem.
I’ll say this about the Bulldog linebackers: They aren’t afraid to hit anybody. Matt Wells, Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown will step up in hole and meet running backs at the point of attack and bring the pain. Their backups weren’t half bad, either. Christian Holmes led the team in tackles and Richie Brown was noticeable the whole night. I do have one gripe from the group and that’s with its leader: McKinney. He made a couple nice tackles, but he wasn’t as disruptive as an All-American should be on a play-by-play basis. He needs to make his presence felt, and he didn’t make himself known on Saturday.
LB Now and Going Forward: I don’t think many changes need to be made to the linebacker position. The redshirt getting pulled off Gerri Green, the Bulldog’s heralded freshman linebacker, could change a few things, though. He’s good enough to take a spot in the two-deep. And I think he would do that if Mullen elects not to redshirt him.
Defensive Back (Incomplete)
It’s hard to grade the defensive backs–as they didn’t really get tested all night. They played well in run support. But defensive backs are ultimately judged off their pass-coverage ability, and they get to display that on Saturday. MSU’s defensive line didn’t give USM’s quarterback time to throw the ball. I can more accurately judge them when MSU plays an SEC opponent.
DB Now and Going Forward: I didn’t grade this unit, but I think they could be one of the SEC’s premiere secondaries. Taveze Calhoun, Jamerson Love, Tolando Cleveland and Will Redmond form a nice foursome at cornerback. Cedric Jiles eventual return will provide even more depth at that spot. At Safety, the Bulldogs are not as strong but still pretty good. Justin Cox moved back to his junior college position of Free Safety and looked more natural there. Jay Hughes, the starting Strong Safety, showed no ill effects from his Achilles injury suffered last year–returning a blocked kick for a touchdown. Kivon Coman, Kendrick Market and Dee Evans provide the Bulldog with capable backups at the spot.
Special Teams (D)
The Bulldog special teams need work. No surprise there.
Kicking/Punting: I don’t know the name of either kicker. I don’t think it matters. They’re both bad. On the bright side, Devon Bell looks top notch at punter after struggling the past two years at Kicker. He put three balls inside the 20. You can’t ask for better than that.
Return Game: Cox and Redmond didn’t get a chance to show their stuff-as the Bulldog defense pitched a shutout. But Lewis and Holloway returned a few punts and were average at best.
ST Now and Going Forward: I don’t think there’s much that can be done at Kicker except for new players. And that’s real. I just hope a game doesn’t come down to a kick. Bell, in my opinion, should have a stellar year at punter. I won’t say that he’ll be All-SEC but he’ll help tilt the field position in the Bulldog’s favor on several occasions.
I don’t know what to expect from Cox and Redmond. But they both can run…like 4.3 speed run. That can’t hurt when returning kicks. I’ve always thought that Lewis could be a great punt returner, but he’s never lived up to it. Let’s see if he can finally do it in 2014.
I think the coaching staff did what they needed to do in the first game while not showing too much.
Game Management: Mullen excelled in this area for a change. He rotated evenly at every position got his key players out when he needed to get them out.
Offensive Play Calling: It seems Mullen has finally seen the light now that people know he’s really the one calling the plays. The offense had a fluidity to it that I haven’t seen in the Mullen Era. And that’s while being vanilla. He protected his main asset, Prescott, by not calling many zone-reads or QB Power plays. I liked the run-pass balance, as well. My praise comes with one caveat: The red-zone play calling was generic and confounding. Why doesn’t Mullen makes things easier on himself? He has a 6’6 Bear at receiver (Wilson), a tight end he can flex(Malcolm Johnson) and a quarterback that gives you the run-pass option(Prescott). I wouldn’t run anything but a zone-read, bootleg or fade route inside the ten.
Why do anything else?
Defensive Play Calling: There wasn’t much to critique. Collins didn’t want to show much. So, his play calling was vanilla. If the defense was that good running their base set, think how good they’ll be once the aggression is turned up.
The Bulldogs are poised for a great season. They will not only compete in the SEC but potentially win it.
Jeremiah Short, Peach State College Sports Contributor
Dare to Dream of Atlanta.