Mississippi State Football: Is it fair for the national media to question this team?

Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive coordinator Zach Arnett against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Tucson, Arizona, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs defensive coordinator Zach Arnett against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Mississippi State Football fans are plenty familiar with national media having a low opinion of their team. But are those low opinions actually justified in 2023?

It’s an off-season tradition for Mississippi State Football: national media members have a low opinion of the Bulldogs. Despite being an annual bowl team since 2010 with seven 8+ win seasons in that timeframe, State has been perennially underrated by media outlets.

Programs that haven’t delivered such results but are perceived to be above State based on history and recruiting rankings are picked ahead of the Bulldogs each year. And inevitably, Mississippi State Football ends up finishing ahead of those teams in the final SEC standings. Just last season, State was picked 6th in the SEC West. They finished 3rd on the way to a 9-4 record and top-20 ranking.

You would think CFB media would’ve adjusted their expectations for the Bulldogs at some point, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened. And it’s clear those expectations haven’t been adjusted for 2023.

Michael Bratton of That SEC Podcast recently released his predicted Over/Under win totals for each SEC team. These aren’t actual predicted records, but rather a prediction for where oddsmakers will set win totals for each team. Bratton’s expectation for Mississippi State’s Over/Under win total is 6.5. State winning seven or more would be an “over”. Should they win six or less, they’d go “under”.

While not an official prediction for MSU’s final record, a win total set at 6.5 certainly suggests that Bratton doesn’t expect Vegas to be particularly high on the Bulldogs. And he would go on to say in a later episode of his podcast that he personally isn’t expecting much out of State this year, taking the “under” on that total of 6.5 (albeit with very low confidence).

Bratton isn’t alone in that line of thinking. Several other members of CFB media have expressed similar early opinions of Mississippi State Football going into the 2023 season. And naturally, Bulldog fans are not happy to hear that. Because on top of feeling annually disrespected by said media, State fans have pretty high expectations for the upcoming season.

Many of the MSU faithful view 2023 as a “cycle-up” season in Starkville. There is a belief that with the roster in place and the schedule dealt to State this year, the opportunity is there for a big season. Mississippi State Football has a veteran-laden offense, multiple key pieces back from a strong defense, and gets eight home games this coming fall. And while there were major changes to the coaching staff following the tragic passing of HC Mike Leach, there’s excitement around the staff assembled by new HC Zach Arnett.

So where is the disconnect between State fans and national media coming from? Well, there are several factors leading to media members viewing Mississippi State as a lesser team in the SEC this season. But unlike previous years, they may actually be justified in questioning the Bulldogs.

There are plenty of unknowns for this team, and coaching is amongst the biggest of them all. Mike Leach was one of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport. Following the 2022 Egg Bowl, it felt like he had his program trending toward a breakthrough. But then the unthinkable happened.

Now the program is in Zach Arnett’s hands, and many MSU fans believe he’s the right man to lead the program going forward. He did a masterful job with State’s defenses over the past three seasons and has long been viewed as a promising up-and-comer in the sport. In fact, he had been circled as the potential successor to Leach for quite some time before that ultimately came to fruition in the worst possible way.

There’s reason to be optimistic about Zach Arnett as HC. But he’s still only coached one game as an HC in his career. And while in that one game, he led MSU to victory in the midst of tragedy, that was still with the program structured in Leach’s mold.

MSU is now fully Zach Arnett’s operation, and we still do not know what that will look like. You have to think that his time working under coaching legends Rocky Long at San Diego State and Mike Leach will have plenty of positive influence on him. But it’s still fair to expect a learning curve. He’s a young, first-time HC that’s now in charge of an SEC program.

How well will the day-to-day operation of the program translate to the field? What will his game management look like? How much freedom will he give his play-callers, and what impact does that have on the game?

We can obviously assume the best for all of these questions, but we ultimately can’t know for sure until actual games are played. That uncertainty alone has prognosticators weary of buying into the Bulldogs in 2023.

From a personnel standpoint, there are plenty of questions facing the Bulldogs as well, particularly on defense. State fans got great news when defensive linemen Jaden Crumedy, Jordan Davis, and Nathan Pickering and linebackers Nathaniel Watson and Jett Johnson all announced they were returning to Starkville for another season. Those are five incredibly talented pieces in State’s defensive front 6.

But for the defense as a whole, the Bulldogs are losing a lot. MSU ranks 118th in the country in returning defensive production per Bill Connelly’s SP+ ratings. Only Alabama brings back less production on defense in the SEC. 4/5 starters in the secondary are gone, including a potential 1st round pick in ball-hawking CB Emmanuel Forbes. MSU’s two best pass rushers, SLB Tyrus Wheat and DE Randy Charlton, are also gone.

Those are major blows to the Bulldog defense. State worked hard in the transfer portal to address the needs in the secondary and has talented options to step up as pass rushers. But in terms of proven commodities, they’re lacking. On top of this is the fact that Zach Arnett is no longer in charge of the defense. With Arnett taking over as HC, he’s passed DC and play-calling duties over the LBs coach Matt Brock.

Brock handled that role exceptionally well in the bowl win over Illinois. But that is still the only game he’s called as a DC in his career. How does he perform over an entire season with a far less experienced defense in 2023? The defense has been the side of the ball Mississippi State fans tend to simply trust will be good on a yearly basis, and that’s justified given history. But that’s a unit that has tons of question marks this year.

Offensively, experience isn’t an issue. Will Rogers is entering his 4th season as the Bulldog’s quarterback after having passed for nearly 10,700 yards and 82 TDs in his career. A deep and explosive WR room led by Tulu Griffin and a dynamic RB in Woody Marks gives MSU a formidable group of offensive skill players. And a veteran offensive line group paves the way up front.

The question is what will this offense look like? Zach Arnett made the decision to go away from the Air Raid with the hire of OC Kevin Barbay. Barbay comes from a “pro spread” background and is implementing an offense that will put a much greater emphasis on the rushing attack and deep passing game.

Barbay has said on numerous occasions that MSU’s offensive approach will be dictated by the personnel they have. Based on that, you can still expect to see plenty of 4-wide, drop-back passing out of Rogers and Co. But there’s still a big shift to be made.

Bulldog fans had mixed feelings on the Air Raid, but regardless of your thoughts on that system, leaving it means there are lots of “new” to learn offensively. New terminology. New concepts. New blocking schemes and protections. There’s even a new position with the return of the tight end. Rather than being in a system that the roster knows like the back of their hands and using this offseason to further master execution, they’re working on learning something entirely different.

Is that for sure a negative? Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible the shift in identity could be beneficial, as State’s offense had its fair share of struggles last season. But that’s far from a certainty. Mississippi State fans saw in 2018 that switching offensive systems with an experienced unit isn’t always an easy transition.

Finally, let’s talk about the schedule. On the positive side, Mississippi State Football gets eight home games, has an incredibly manageable non-conference slate, swaps out Georgia for South Carolina, and gets the Egg Bowl at home. That all sounds enticing. But upon closer examination, it’s not as favorable as it seems.

Though playing South Carolina as opposed to Georgia is great, that game is on the road. Williams-Brice Stadium is genuinely one of the most difficult places to play in the country when Gamecock fans are invested. And after a strong season last year, they’ll be plenty fired up when MSU travels there.

Tricky road games is a theme here. Of the six games on the schedule you’d label as “toss-ups” (South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss), four of them are on the road. Home games against LSU and Alabama are great for ticket sales, but realistically, those aren’t games you can expect to win. When you’re looking to maximize your potential in a season, it’s better to have the games you’re unlikely to win on the road and the majority of toss-ups at home. Mississippi State Football does not.

So if you’re someone in CFB media trying to evaluate Mississippi State Football going into 2023, what do you see? You see a first-time HC that’s replacing one of the sport’s legendary figures, a defense that loses a ton of experience and production, an offense that’s learning a brand new system, and a schedule where most of the key games are on the road. Even if this was happening at a program with more notoriety than Mississippi State, that’s more than plenty to give you cause for concern.

It’s pretty easy to see why the outside opinions of State are not particularly positive this year. It’s not because of bias or disrespect. It’s that Mississippi State Football has a ton of unknowns going into 2023, and it’s hard to have confidence in a team with so many question marks.

That’s not to say Mississippi State Football fans shouldn’t be optimistic about this team. The potential is absolutely there for a great season if everything comes together. But the last part of that sentence is key. There’s a lot that has to come together and go right in 2023. Having that cycle-up year many fans are expecting isn’t nearly as sure thing as some think.

We know there’s a history of CFB media not giving Mississippi State its due and underrating the Bulldogs. It happens nearly every year, and the MSU faithful isn’t wrong in being frustrated with that. But we need to be able to recognize that this is a season where doubting State may very well be justified. There are a lot of questions about this team in 2023, even if the fanbase expects big things. Let’s hope those questions get answered in a positive way.