Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm.
No. 19 Mississippi State
2018 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
Stevens or Thompson?
Gone is quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, one of the most productive quarterbacks in Mississippi State history. During his senior season in 2018, Fitzgerald broke Tim Tebow’s SEC record for most rushing yards by a quarterback. He’s also the No. 2 career rusher in Mississippi State history and ended up as the team’s No. 3 player in career passing yards.
His replacement will be either Tommy Stevens or Keytaon Thompson. Let’s start with Thompson, who spent the last two seasons as Fitzgerald’s backup.
Like Fitzgerald, Thompson is a dynamic rusher. He’s carried the ball 99 times over the previous two seasons for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns. His passing, like Fitzgerald’s, could use a little work. He’s just 50-of-105 passing for 846 yards in his career. If he had posted better passing numbers in those two seasons, it’s fair to wonder if Stevens is even at MSU this season.
Stevens arrived as a graduate transfer from Penn State this offseason after he was beaten out by Sean Clifford for the starting job in State College. Stevens has familiarity with Joe Moorhead’s offense as Moorhead was his offensive coordinator in 2017. Stevens is a dynamic athlete — he’s rushed for over 500 yards in his Penn State career and also has 14 catches over three seasons. It’s a small sample size, but he’s also shown himself to be a more efficient passer than Thompson, too. Stevens has completed 24 of the 41 career passes he’s thrown.
“And I think Tommy is a kid with a lot of physical tools,” Moorhead said at SEC media days. “Strong arm. He can really run. He's accustomed to the system so he's going to understand it for the most part coming in. And, you know, I think he brings a lot of talent to the position, and I think the competition is going to be an exciting one. It's going to make the position better, it's going to make our offense better, and it's going to make our team better.”
We’re guessing that Stevens wins the job out of fall camp, but won’t be surprised if both quarterbacks end up seeing significant playing time over the course of the season.
Replace three first-round picks on defense
Clemson’s defense was one of the biggest stories of the NFL draft’s first round as three defensive linemen were selected in the top 17 picks. Mississippi State also had three players picked in the first round, although they were all selected after Clemson’s players.
DL Jeffery Simmons went off the board first to the Tennessee Titans at No. 21. Then Montez Sweat went to Washington with pick No. 26 and Johnathan Abram was selected with the next pick by the Oakland Raiders.
That’s a ton of talent to replace on a defense that brings back just four starters from last year. Abram was the team’s leading tackler. Simmons led the team in tackles for loss. Sweat was the only Bulldog who had double-digit sacks.
After allowing fewer than 14 points per game in 2018, this unit will likely take a step back in 2019. That’s OK. It should still be pretty good. Linebacker Erroll Thompson is back and leads a corps that could be the best in the SEC. Junior CB Cam Dantzler could be a first-team All-SEC selection.
Survive the toughest division
At the risk of spoiling a portion of the 18 teams remaining in our top 25, it’s entirely possible that Mississippi State finishes fifth in the SEC West in 2019 and is still a top-20 team. That’s how good the West looks this season.
The Bulldogs have a manageable non-conference schedule. A home game against Kansas State is the toughest of the four and as new coach Chris Klieman builds his program in Manhattan, Mississippi State should win that game easily.
The Bulldogs’ two East opponents are Kentucky and Tennessee. While the UT game is on the road, MSU would be favored in that game if it was played this week. Pencil in two wins there and four from the non-conference slate and there’s six. Add in Arkansas and Ole Miss (though rivalry games aren’t a guarantee) and there’s eight games where MSU should be favored.
After that, it’s a crapshoot. The Bulldogs have to travel to Auburn and Texas A&M — the two schools it’s closest to in the middle tier of the West — and host LSU and Alabama. Anything from 2-2 to 0-4 throughout those four games wouldn’t be a surprise.
Biggest game: at Auburn (Sept. 28)
A win against the Tigers could potentially put MSU at 5-0 heading into its first bye week of the season. It could also put Mississippi State ahead of Auburn in the standings before a four-game stretch that includes three road games and a home game against LSU.
RB Kylin Hill
Hill emerged as the primary running back in Moorhead’s offense in 2018 and all he did was average over six yards a carry. Hill had 117 carries for 734 yards in 2018 and was the team’s second-leading rusher behind Fitzgerald.
With both Fitzgerald and Aeris Williams gone, Hill figures to end up as Mississippi State’s leading rusher in 2019, even if Moorhead wants to have an offense that passes the ball more efficiently this season.
“I think our biggest challenge for the offense this year will be our ability to balance out the run and the pass game,” Moorhead said. “I think we were second in the SEC in rushing last year, averaged roughly 225 a game, and were able to run it successfully on most teams. But for us to be the type of offense we want to be and the team that we want to be to compete for a championship, we need to improve our efficiency and our explosiveness in the pass game.”
Mississippi State has to replace every starter on the defensive line. That’s a big ask, especially when you’re finding new starters for the likes of Simmons and Sweat. Players coming back had just 15.5 of the 39 sacks that Mississippi State tallied in 2018. The linebackers will be exceptional. Will the defensive front drop off significantly?
“I think the defensive end position between Marquiss Spencer, [Kobe Jones], Fletcher [Adams], and Chauncey Rivers, we have some talent there,” Moorhead said. “Those guys played snaps last year. On the inside, Kendell Jones, Lee Autry, Fabien Lovett, Jaden Crumedy, Devon Robinson, we have guys that are talented. We just need a bunch of reps for them.”
WR Stephen Guidry
The junior college transfer had 19 catches for 440 yards and three scores in 2019. That’s a per-catch average of 23 yards in an offense that barely completed over 50 percent of its passes. If Stevens (or Thompson) makes the downfield passing attack better in 2019, then Guidry should be a big beneficiary.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
CB Cam Dantzler
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The redshirt junior has grown nicely into his 6-foot-2 frame and quietly is one of the best cover men in the SEC. Despite most teams preferring to attack the other side of the field last season, Dantzler thwarted most passes in his direction when teams did try to go after him. According to Pro Football Focus, he only allowed a completion percentage of 43.1, 0.72 yards per coverage snap and a passer rating of 42.9 (which was second-best in the SEC among qualifiers) last season.
Dantzler, who turns 21 in September, was named second-team all-conference last season with two interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss and 11 passes defended. He has great ball instincts, ideal size, natural coverage ability and fluid hips. Look for him to have even more chances to make plays on the ball with the Bulldogs moving him from the boundary to the field side in coverage this season.
The redshirt junior might be flying under the radar now nationally, but we predict he’ll be more of a household name — especially in NFL draft circles — if Dantzler keeps up his strong play for another year against a ton of NFL-caliber receivers in the nation’s toughest and most talented conference.
Whoever wins the quarterback job
This isn’t a copout. Unless you’re playing in an SEC-only league in Yahoo’s college fantasy football, you probably aren’t going to have Mississippi State’s quarterback on your radar. You should if you’re looking for a high-upside quarterback pick late in the draft. The winner could end up surpassing the 29 touchdowns Fitzgerald accounted for in 2018.
Mississippi State has the look of an 8-4 team thanks to its presence in the SEC West. 9-3 wouldn’t be a surprise in the slightest, but it feels too risky to predict.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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