Mississippi State football has dropped in the latest SP+ ranking update. Here’s what that actually means for the Bulldogs.
This off-season has definitely been an eventful one for Mississippi State football, with the aftermath of Mike Leach’s tragic passing; a new, first-time head coach; spring practices and some new commitments for the 2024 recruiting class.
But something that has passed with little hoopla is a drop from 12th in Bill Connelly’s final 2022 SP+ rankings to 25th in the most updated rankings post-spring.
Please read on before jumping in Bill’s Twitter mentions: he did not drop us in his rankings because he hates Mississippi State. I’ve been a fan of Connelly’s work since his days at SBNation, where every year his previews for Mississippi State were the de facto start of the football season in my eyes.
I can tell you he doesn’t rank anything off of the “eye test”, nor does he “helmet scout” and just throw blue bloods and hyped teams at the top. Bill’s rankings are based on completely objective sets of data that he plugs into his proprietary number machine.
So what gives? Why the drop in Mississippi State’s SP+ ranking?
Why did Mississippi State football drop in SP+ ranking update?
Likely the biggest reason is State’s returning production.
These numbers from ESPN show that MSU ranks 91st in overall returning production, 51st on offense and 118th on defense. The offensive numbers may be misleading with the context of a new offensive system under Kevin Barbay, but context is not a factor in returning production or SP+.
Being 118th on defense shouldn’t be surprising as State lost first-rounder Emmanuel Forbes and multiple defensive linemen to the NFL.
It should be noted that “returning production” goes deeper than other, lazier ways to gauge how much a team returns the next year (like previous starts). The numbers that Bill uses include individual stats like receptions and tackles. Even with a 91st overall ranking, Mississippi State fans should be glad that we kept players like Tulu Griffin from leaving via the transfer portal.
Another factor affecting our SP+ rank is recent recruiting. Regardless of how you feel about ESPN’s rankings (I prefer 24/7’s recruiting rankings), SP+ is now an ESPN product and uses rankings from their site. The last two years of recruiting have resulted in ESPN ranks of 28th and 27th respectively, but a 2021 recruiting rank of 38th may also be causing a bit of a drop in our overall SP+ ranking.
Again, if context were part of the formula, we might be affected by the differences in our new offensive scheme and how our previously recruited players fit the system, but SP+ looks at raw recruiting numbers.
Recent history is the final piece of the puzzle that Bill Connelly references in the changes from last year to this year in SP+. This likely doesn’t affect MSU negatively in an extreme way. Despite a 4-7 record in the COVID-19 abbreviated season, Mississippi State finished with a bowl win. They then improved in 2021 and finished with a ranking of 20th in last year’s AP Poll. State was also the highest ranked 9-4 team in SP+ last year.
What does this SP+ ranking update mean for Mississippi State football this season?
Well, it’s hard to say.
Per Bill Connelly himself, the SP+ isn’t meant to predict the final AP Poll rankings. What we can see from these rankings is that five of MSU’s 2023 opponents are ranked higher in SP+ and two other opponents rank immediately behind State.
If the games were played on SP+ paper, State would lose four games and have three other toss-ups (Kentucky is ranked only 3 spots higher in the most recent rankings). This would not include the trap game at South Carolina, which Ethan Lee included in his list of 5 toughest games in 2023, sandwiched between home matchups against LSU and Alabama.
There will be one more update to the pre-season SP+ rankings in August, but right now our likely record at the end of the year would be somewhere between 8-4 and 5-7. Taking into account the new coaching staff and other context, our goal may need to be bowl eligibility this year.