|MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (2017: 9-4, 4-4 SEC)|
|Head Coach||Returning starters||2017 offense||2017 defense|
|Joe Moorhead||9 offense, 8 defense||419 YPG/32.0 PPG||302 YPG/20.4 PPG|
|1st year||85%, 80% of stat production||46th/41st in FBS||10th/24th in FBS|
All time series: Florida 33, Mississippi State 19, 2 ties
Last meeting: Mississippi State 10, Florida 7 (2010)
Synopsis: No preview of this year’s Florida-Mississippi State game is complete without mentioning that Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for Florida, so let’s get that out of the way in the first sentence. The truth is, what little success Mississippi State has ever had on the gridiron was almost all Mullen’s doing in the last nine years since he left his post as Florida’s offensive coordinator to become the Bulldogs’ head coach in 2009. Unfortunately for Florida, Mullen did a little too good of a job stockpiling talent in Starkville before he left. MSU returns over four fifths of its statistical production (83.4%, to be exact) from a 2017 team that barely scratched the surface of what it was capable of. Now, Joe Moorhead takes over that stacked roster, and will try to inject it with the same magic he injected into a one win 2011 Fordham Rams team to win 38 games over the ensuing four years. Finally, add onto all that the fact that Starkville’s Davis Wade Stadium has historically been a house of horrors for Florida despite the Gators’ vastly superior status as a program. Even Steve Spurrier has nightmares about this place, losing both times he brought his Gators there. None of this is to say that Florida can’t steal a win here- that’s why they play the games, right?- but this is definitely going to be an uphill battle.
Offensive breakdown: Moorhead followed up an impressive stint at Fordham by joining James Franklin’s staff at Penn State. The year before the two arrived, the Nittany Lions put up 348 yards per game; under Moorhead’s stewardship, Penn State ratcheted that up to 433 yards per game in 2016 and then 460 in 2017. And now Moorhead inherits an offensive personnel that’s not quite, “Hey, you get to work with this kid named Saquon Barkley,” but pretty close.
All indications are that quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will be back from the terrible ankle injury he suffered in the Egg Bowl last year, and that means two things. One, Florida is going to have to keep a QB spy on red alert all game. Fitzgerald is the definition of a dual threat, as last year he threw for 1,782 yards and ran for 984 more in eleven games plus a drive and a half in the Egg Bowl before suffering said ankle injury. And two, Florida better either find some defensive depth or create a whole bunch of turnovers, because Moorhead goes fast. With a third year starter at the controls like Fitzgerald who both has a high football IQ and can do the physical things that unlock the full playbook Moorhead liked to use with Trace McSorley at Penn State, Mississippi State is going to be a dangerous team.
But the offense is more than just Fitzgerald. There’s a whole running game that doesn’t even include him. Running back Aeris Williams quietly put together a 1,107 yard season on the ground, and Kylin Hill added 393 more in a reduced role (78 carries compared to Williams’ 236 and Fitzgerald’s 162). Both are back, and with Hill figuring to step into a larger role this year, the Bulldogs may try a somewhat more conventional rushing attack. They have the offensive line to do it, too, as four of the five starters from the 2017 unit that paved the way for the nation’s 11th most successful ground game are back.
This offense, though, will make its bread through the air. That’s always been Moorhead’s favorite thing to do, and that’s his number one goal in 2018. Fitzgerald did fine as a vertical passer last year, but the big chunk plays weren’t there and that’s critical to Moorhead’s fast paced offensive attack. Leading receiver Jesse Jackson is back, Keith Mixon is said to be back to full health after battling the injury bug last year, and now MSU has added JUCO receiver transfer Stephen Guidry with hopes of instantly making him the WR1.
Offensive Grade: A. Mississippi State might have the best offense the Gators will face this year pending how Georgia fares in their rebuilding project. It promises to be multi-faceted, methodical and now potentially explosive if Moorhead can keep his impressive trend going. It’s going to take the absolute best game this Florida defense is capable of playing to slow it down.
Defensive breakdown: The good news for Florida on this front is that the Gators have a history of embarrassing new MSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, as his last job was the one where he was responsible for this. The bad news is that Shoop takes over a defense that’s exponentially more talented than that defense, as what he inherits is nothing short of a gold mine.
Let’s start in the trenches, where all SEC coaches will tell you is where games are won. One more year like the one he just had, and defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons is well on his way to becoming a first round NFL Draft pick. He’s not built like a prototypical run stuffer, but he more than makes up for that with a sixth sense for the football and top level athleticism. He’ll have plenty of help from Montez Sweat, who complements him well as an effective edge rusher, and look for freshman Fabien Lovett to make an immediate impact somewhere on the line as well.
The linebacking corps is a few steps behind the line, but just because it’s this defense’s weakest link doesn’t mean it’s a very weak link. Leo Lewis showed promise before falling off a bit in 2017, and Gerri Green and Sweat are both hybrid players who can line up at multiple positions and have inspired high hopes from the coaches this offseason. You won’t see anybody here up for awards at the end of the season, but it’s not such a liability that it’s any more likely to cost the Bulldogs a game than any other unit.
Rounding out this defense is a opportunistic defensive backfield that finished 12th in FBS against the pass last year. Both safeties and the team’s top two tacklers from 2017- Jonathan Abram and Mark McLaurin– return to their posts, and McLaurin led the pack with six interceptions last year, although both starting corners will have to be replaced. MSU added Michigan, then East Mississippi Community College DB Brian Cole; maybe he’ll fill one of those spots. But unless both corners struggle mightily, this secondary will again be stout.
Defensive grade: A-. It wasn’t just getting torched by Feleipe Franks. I question a lot of Shoop’s tactical decision making, period, and in fact have been suspicious of him since his days at Vanderbilt in 2011-2013. But even if he ultimately doesn’t work out in Starkville, it’s virtually impossible for anybody to screw up with a roster like the one he has in 2018 without trying to. This is a nasty street fighter of a unit that just scraps and claws to make plays and gets stuff done.
Key matchup: the line of scrimmage. That goes for both sides of the ball. Florida absolutely has to keep Simmons and Sweat out of the backfield if they want any chance of getting their offense into a groove. On the other hand, the Gators could steal a possession if they can invade the MSU backfield and pressure Fitzgerald into making a mistake.
Florida key to victory: Force turnovers. A lot of them. After watching tape of both Mississippi State with Fitzgerald last year and Penn State with Moorhead, I am left feeling objectively terrified of what the two of them together are going to do to Florida’s defense- particularly if Todd Grantham gets overly blitz happy as he’s done countless times before, most recently against Alabama on the Tide’s game winning touchdown against MSU last year. But the best way to ensure that the other team doesn’t run you all over the field is to take the ball away from them. That’s Florida’s equalizer in this game.
Mississippi State key to victory: For all he does well, Fitzgerald has shown a penchant for letting negative things snowball sometimes. Like last year, when MSU got off to a bad start against Georgia, so Fitzgerald became desperate much earlier than the game flow indicated that he should, and a bad start quickly deteriorated into completing less than half his passes for the day and throwing interceptions on the first two drives of the second half- and then that turned into an even worse performance against Auburn the following week. That cannot happen.
Fun fact: Florida and Mississippi State haven’t played in eight years, having last squared off in 2010. That ties for the second longest Florida has ever gone in between matchups with an SEC opponent since the league’s inception in 1933, and is the longest hiatus since a ten year gap against Kentucky in between 1957 and 1967. The Florida-Auburn rivalry will also join that distinction, having played last in 2011 and being pitted against each other in 2019, unless the two teams meet in the 2018 SEC Championship Game.
Summary: Sometimes, when Florida plays one of those SEC schools with a significantly lower level of prestige, fans like to label it a trap game, and particularly on the road. But let’s be clear: this Mississippi State team on the road isn’t a trap game. This Mississippi State team on the road is a potential buzz-saw.
First, the history there. There’s just something about Starkville, Mississippi that affects the Gators like rattlesnake venom. The last time the Gators went out there, the #1 ranked 2009 Florida team barely escaped Davis Wade Stadium alive. Even on that day, though, even in a win, the one and only Tim Tebow was afflicted with the disease, throwing not one but two pick sixes to Johnathan Banks in a game that so thoroughly pissed him off that he refused to talk to the media after the game for the first and only time of his career. And for the first and last time in his career, Caleb Sturgis actually missed an extra point. Missed, meaning without it being blocked. Somehow, Florida survived that nightmare of a game against a Mississippi State team that would finish 5-7 with a 29-19 victory. But each of the four Gator teams that went to Cowbell Land before Tebow weren’t so lucky. Ron Zook’s not great, not terrible 2004 squad lost to a 3-8 MSU team that lost to Maine, Steve Spurrier’s #3 ranked and eventual SEC Championship team in 2000 gave up 47 points to a State team that finished fourth in the SEC West, Spurrier’s 1992 SEC East winning team got blitzkrieged 30-2, and the mediocre 1986 team lost there without a true reason to be upset about it, but it continues the pattern of abuse Florida has suffered there so it’s worth mentioning.
Now, I’m well aware that none of the players on those teams are involved in this game. In fact, the only constant whatsoever will be those damned Cowbells. History, by itself, is not a legitimate reason to pick a certain team to win a football game. But here’s where it’s worth remembering what Mullen left Mississippi State with, and how Moorhead has made a habit of winning quickly wherever he goes. True, he’s never had the keys to an SEC program before, but he’s got a team filled with hungry veterans who are now going to be seeking blood in this game given that Florida poached not only Mississippi State’s football coach but their athletic director and several recruits as well.
Florida does, mind you, have a path to win: harass Fitzgerald and force him to make a laundry list of bad decisions, and then capitalize off of said bad decisions. But the far more likely scenario is that this game turns into an absolute ambush with the run-pass option threat Fitzgerald brings, being something that Florida has not seen before this year, cannot accurately simulate in practice and thus are not truly and adequately prepared for. So I see this game slipping away from the Gators and getting out of control, a la the 2005 Alabama game (or for newer Gator fans, the 2016 Arkansas game). Be prepared to call it a growing pain, a teaching moment, and let’s improve and learn from this and take out our frustrations on LSU the following week. Because I wouldn’t bet a hundred dollars for a Mercedes on this one.
Projection: Mississippi State 41, Florida 13