Mississippi State Football: Phil Steele not high on Bulldogs’ offense

LEXINGTON, KY - OCTOBER 22: Aeris Williams
LEXINGTON, KY - OCTOBER 22: Aeris Williams /

It remains to be seen where Mississippi State will land in the preseason SEC rankings. If Phil Steele has any say, it won’t be high.

Every year the national media under-estimates Mississippi State in the offseason. And almost every year, the Bulldogs prove the “experts” wrong.

Sure, Mississippi State only won six games last season, but the Bulldogs have made a habit of outplaying their preseason expectations under Dan Mullen.

Entering his ninth season in Starkville, Mullen has taken the Bulldogs to seven bowl games. The one he missed? The first season, in which State had many opportunities — including against LSU on the goal line — to find a sixth win. Yes, the APR helped State become bowl eligible in 2016, but nonetheless, Mullen has led Mississippi State to seven consecutive postseason appearances.

Mississippi State heads into 2017 with high hopes. Behind quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs are confident. First-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham looks to re-shape the Bulldogs’ defense.

Despite the high hopes in Starkville, college football writer Phil Steele isn’t so high on Mullen’s squad. Steele released his SEC positional rankings in his college football magazine. He foresees a mediocre offense in Starkville this fall. Here are his rankings for the Bulldogs’ offensive positional groups:

  • Quarterback – 4th

Steele ranks the SEC’s total offense leader during the 2016 season as the fourth-best player at his position. Nick Fitzgerald is ranked behind Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (tied-1), Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham (t-1), and Arkansas’ Austin Allen (3) in Steele’s rankings.

Hurts was the starting quarterback for the national runner-up, so that will definitely hold some weight in rankings like these. Sure, he has a good supporting cast, but he performed well over the course of the season. I won’t take anything away from his performance, unlike some try to do with Dak in Dallas.

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Stidham, meanwhile, hasn’t played division-1 football since the 2015 season. In ten games for Baylor, he threw for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He transferred to the JUCO ranks after the fallout surrounding Art Briles and the football program. Will he be able to live up to the lofty hype that he is receiving? That remains to be sen.

Allen is one of the toughest quarterbacks in college football. Much like his brother Brandon, the younger Allen gets up after taking nasty hits from SEC defensive linemen. The Arkansas signal caller threw for 3,340 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.

Fitz is obviously the best rusher at the quarterback position in the SEC, but does have some work to do through the air. The SEC is likely to be the best it has been at the most important position on the field in quite some time.

  • Running Back -13th

Mississippi State brings back their feature back, Aeris Williams. Williams burst onto the scene for the Bulldogs during the latter parts of 2016.

The West Point product rushed for a combined 331 yards and three touchdowns against then fourth-ranked Texas A&M and rival Ole Miss. As Mullen opened up the read-option as soon as he felt comfortable with Fitzgerald making the right decisions, the Bulldogs’ offense quickly became explosive. Williams took advantage of opponents fearing Fitz’s feet, making a nasty backfield duo. The Bulldogs expect 2015 four-star Nick Gibson and potentially 2017 four-star Kylin Hill to contribute this fall.

Despite that, Steele isn’t very high at all.

  • Wide Receiver – 9th

Mississippi State lost Fred Ross, but do bring back Donald Gray. Gray, standing at only 5-foot-9, is an explosive receiver that can line up all over the field.

The former JUCO All-American can return punts, play in the slot, and line up on the outside. He has the speed to burn defenders and the hands to bring down just about any catch. He will need to have a big 2017 campaign for the Bulldogs.

Behind Gray, though, are question marks. Question marks with potential, sure. But questions are still there nonetheless.

The Bulldogs will need Jamal Couch, Deddrick Thomas, Keith Mixon, Jesse Jackson, and Osirus Mitchell to step up in the receiving game. Mixon has proven to be a big play-maker and is likely to have a bigger role this fall. Couch, Jackson, and Mitchell are needed to develop into big outside targets for Nick Fitzgerald. Thomas is another option in the slot.

  • Offensive Line -13th

Mississippi State, according to Phil Steele at least, will struggle greatly on the offensive line in 2017.

While I do not expect an elite offensive line this fall, I do disagree with Steele’s judgement here. Elgton Jenkins developed into a strong offensive guard as the season went along. It was evident that he was opening up lanes for Williams, especially against the Aggies and in the Egg Bowl.

Furthermore, Martinas Rankin is highly regarded in NFL Draft circles. Rankin has the ability to play both center and offensive tackle. Rankin has been included in the first-round of numerous early mock drafts.

It remains to be seen whether it happens or not, but the Bulldogs are also after Texas grad-transfer Brandon Hodges. I wrote on why he would be a great addition to John Hevesy’s o-line room.

While the line may not be the best, Mississippi State should have decent line play this fall.

Next: Is Mississippi State college football's best developmental program?

Will Mississippi State outperform Steele’s low expectations? We’ll find out approximately 60 days!

You can look at the full list of rankings here.