2020 Team Preview: Can Mississippi State Produce A Winning Record?

It was a hopeful time at Mississippi State a few years ago when Joe Moorhead was hired as head coach. Moorhead turned around James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State. He developed Saquon Barkley into an elite college player, and he took a raw quarterback named Trace McSorley and turned him into a high-level signal-caller. Penn State’s previously dormant offense took off. The Nittany Lions won the 2016 Big Ten championship. They scored 49 points in the 2017 Rose Bowl against USC. They then won the Fiesta Bowl against Washington one season later. Moorhead was a popular offensive coordinator who was picked up by Mississippi State. The Bulldogs thought they had a coach who would transform their offense.

It just didn’t work out that way.

Now the Bulldogs have hired another highly esteemed offensive coach. They will see if he can be the true author of a renaissance in Starkville.

Offseason Changes

The arrival of Mike Leach as Moorhead’s replacement dominated the headlines at Mississippi State. The prospect of Leach coaching against new Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin has set the state of Mississippi on fire with excitement. Leach has carved out a specific skill as a head coach: He doesn’t merely improve programs; he improves the under-the-radar schools which try to compete with the big boys. He did this at Texas Tech in the Big 12. He did this with Washington State in the Pac-12. Now he will try to do the same with MSU in the SEC. Leach won 11 games in a season at Texas Tech in 2008. He won 11 games at Washington State in 2018. He hasn’t won any conference championships, but he built lower-level schools into quality football schools. He will try to bring his air raid passing offense to the SEC and make it work.

The Bulldogs Will Succeed If…

They get the most out of K.J. Costello. Leach got to see what Costello could do in the Pac-12, where Costello played for Stanford before transferring to Mississippi State. Costello was a formidable force for Stanford against Washington State and the rest of the Pac-12. Stanford won the Pac-12 North Division championship in 2017 and reached the Alamo Bowl.

The big question mark with Costello is that he got injured later in his career at Stanford. He had terrible offensive line play, likely a central reason for his transfer to Mississippi State. The other thing to point out about Costello is that he played in a conservative offense at Stanford. The air raid is a much more aggressive offense. If Costello can handle this transition, Mississippi State’s offense could be a head-turner in the SEC.

The Bulldogs Will Fail If…

Their wide receivers can’t step up and deliver. Costello will need to quickly establish a rapport with a new group of receivers. Leach has to find a way to get his quarterback and receivers on the same page. The pandemic has prevented Mississippi State and other teams from having normal offseason practice and in-person gatherings where team-building and personal bonding occur. These realities are going to make it harder, not easier, for all the pieces to fit together on this offense.

Prediction

Mississippi State’s offenses the past several seasons have been led by running quarterbacks. Nick Fitzgerald was the man for multiple seasons. Garrett Shrader also got his turn at running the offense. The personnel Mike Leach is inheriting is not tailored for a high-octane passing offense. This team just doesn’t figure to have the right players for the new coach. It could get very ugly this year.

Prediction: 6th In SEC West

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