Josh Heupel turned around Tennessee in year one. Jeff Lebby looks to do the same for Mississippi State football

Josh Heupel inherited a total rebuild in Knoxville in 2021, but immediately turned things around. Jeff Lebby's Mississippi State football program is in a similar spot in 2024. He'll look to do the same.
Mississippi State Spring Football Game
Mississippi State Spring Football Game / Justin Ford/GettyImages
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How does 2024 Mississippi State football compare to 2021 Tennessee?

Now that we know the 2021 Tennessee Volunteers so well, what parallels can we draw to Mississippi State entering their first season under Jeff Lebby?

For starters, both teams lost a lot on both sides of the ball from the previous season's team. On offense, Mississippi State will also be turning to a Power 5 transfer QB in Blake Shapen, and though they're different types of players, Shapen's time at Baylor isn't that different than Hendon Hooker's time at Virginia Tech.

State went heavier after offensive skill talent through the portal, but in both cases, neither side is fielding skill players that have been highly productive previously. Although, WR Kelly Akharaiyi and RB Davon Booth have seen more success than any of Tennessee's 2021 WRs and RBs had before that season (acknowledging they're coming from the G5).

Tennessee returned more up front from the previous roster, as State may be relying on four transfers to start in 2024. But the total amount of starting experience is fairly similar between the two OLs.

Defensively, State has similar amounts of production returning in the defensive front. Tennessee's secondary brought back far more than the '24 Bulldogs, but as noted, that group wasn't exactly impressive. The Vols' portal additions on defense in '21 were probably better than State's this year, but it's not like that group was filled with guys who had starred at their prior stops. Those players blossomed in Knoxville.

All in all, the rosters are fairly comparable in terms of the proven pieces available in that there aren't many. Now it should be acknowledged that despite the losses they suffered to their roster, Tennessee's overall talent level, at least by recruiting rankings, was higher than what Mississippi State will have in '24. That raised the ceiling for what could be achieved with that group. But we aren't talking about a team fielding an elite roster by any means.

What about the schedule?

MSU plays six games this season in which they'll be a significant underdog. The '21 Vols weren't big underdogs in all six of their difficult games, but regardless, that's half their schedule consisting of teams they weren't expected to beat, same as MSU. And keep in mind that things change once the season starts. I will confidently say that not all the perceived "good teams" MSU plays this fall will prove to be unbeatable.

The biggest difference by far is the fact Tennessee was granted five easy wins on their schedule. Most pundits will only give State three such games entering 2024 between Eastern Kentucky, Toledo, and UMass while Arizona State, Arkansas, and Florida are viewed as toss-ups.

But State does have a significant talent advantage over ASU, and they get ARK and UF in Starkville. If the offense clicks for State like we expect, that could be enough to give them the edge in those matchups.

I don't expect Mississippi State to end up with a one-to-one replica of the '21 Volunteers this fall. That team had a few more things in their favor based off recruiting talent and their winnable games. Getting seven wins like Tennessee did that season will be very difficult.

But what I do expect is for MSU, like that Tennessee team, to be much better right away than expected entering the season and be good enough offensively to be competitive most weeks out. The brand of offense ran by Jeff Lebby and Josh Heupel lends itself to immediate improvement, often significantly.

We saw that with those Volunteers, and I believe we'll see it with Mississippi State.