Guess what? This isn't the 90s anymore, and Mississippi State hasn't been very good for five years now. While the offense has regressed the last 3 seasons, the defense has made great strides. The unit loses their best player and sack monster Willie Evans (DE), as well as solid contributors Clarence McDougal (LB) and Kevin Dockery (CB, Honorable Mention SEC Team). In the face of these losses, Mississippi State's defense looks to be even better in 2006. The defensive line returns three starters, all seniors. Their leadership will set the tone for the entire defense, which could lead to an improvement on their 3.7 ypc allowed in 2005. The lone non-starter from 2005 is JR DE Titus Brown, who has a solid freshman campaign at LB, but fell off in 2005 at DE. If he returns to his 2004 form, this defensive line will become a decent force in the SEC.
The best unit very well could be the Bulldogs' linebackers. Returning MLB Quinton Culberson lead the team in tackles in 2005, and he really anchors the entire squad. With more growth and maturity over the summer, he could very well be the 2006 Demeco Ryans. Culberson isn't huge at 6'0", but has serious bulk at 239 pounds. He very well could turn into an All SEC linebacker. Gabe O'Neal has been in and out of the starting lineup since 2004, but is healthy for 2006 and could have a breakout season. He started the last 5 games, and recorded 34 tackles on the season. I envision 75+ tackles in 2006 with 4 sacks, which would really open things up for Culberson and sophomore Jamar Chaney, who looks to have a nice season as well. Within a very solid defense, the linebackers stand out as the best unit.
The defensive backfield is another unit that lost arguably its best player in Kevin Dockery, who was All SEC Honorable Mention. Even with the loss, they return two starters, including FS Jeramie Johnson, who had 4 interceptions, 7 passes blocked, and 64 tackles in 2005. He, like Culberson, has another offseason of new maturity, growth, and intelligence. He also could very well find himself on the All SEC Team in 2006. At 5'11", he's not a huge safety, so his match-ups will be tough. However, many safeties in the SEC have been undersized and had great seasons. CB David Heard didn't pick off any passes, but was used in blitzing situations and played well against the run (3.5 tackles for loss). Johnson and Heard both provide senior leadership for sophomores Derek Pegues and Keith Fitzhugh (27 combined tackles, 2 combined INTs). Both Pegues and Fitzhugh were highly regarded high school prospects, and should provide solid coverage and run support. Watch for these two gentlemen over the next 3 seasons, as I think they have very high ceilings.
In the end, the defense as a whole, will carry this team to however many wins they can find.
Here is a little bit of common sense: if the defense is everything good with 2006 Mississippi State football, then the offense must be bad and ugly. The offense ranked last in yards per game in conference play. They also averaged 9th in ypc in the SEC with one of the best backs in the league (Norwood). The shortcoming can be heavily regarded as a problem on the offensive line. The line returns three starters, two of whom started at different positions last season. JR C Royce Blackledge has plenty of game experience, as well as the only senior on the line, RG Brian Anderson. Anderson is very tall at 6'6", and bulky enough at 307. SO LG Anthony Strauder played well last year at his position, and should really come into his own this season. The two linemen who, on the surface, would look like the weaknesses are actually quite promising. JUCO transfer JD Hamilton is big and was a highly touted player coming into 2006. SO LT Calvin Wilson played 8 games as a freshman and could be a huge force to reckon with. This kid is an absolute monster at 6'5", 356. The line's play may ultimately depend on how well he matures over the summer. If he can play up to his potential as a sophomore, the SEC will need to watch out. However, because he is still maturing and needs more SEC speed experience, the line still looks like a weakness.
Another area for the Bulldogs that looks like a weakness is the receiving corps. The 2005 unit was riddled with injuries to key players throughout the season, so 2006 could see a very improved attack. However, the fact still remains that their leading receiver only had 286 yards and 28 receptions. Will Prosser returns for his senior season, but may not even start. Former QB turned WR Omarr Conner looked like the team's best pass catcher at season's end, so you can pencil him into one slot. He has solid size for a WR at 6'1", 218, and he has some speed with that frame. Still, he had only 9 receptions last season, and some wonder if he can play 12 games in the brutal SEC. Even if he does, can he put up good enough numbers against the defenses of Auburn, LSU, West Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama? The main sparkplug for the passing game will be JUCO transfer Tony Burks. If he lives up to his hype, there should be three solid targets to throw to. Depth could be a problem as well. Joey Sanders is the 4th wideout, and he averaged an impressive 19.6 yards per reception last season. But again, he caught 7 balls, and one has to wonder how well he'll do over 12 games. TE Eric Butler is a junior, and could be poised to have a very solid year. He caught 14 passes last season amongst a depleted corps of receivers. If Conner, Prosser, and Burks have any kind of field stretching ability, pockets will open up in the middle of the field, and with an inexperience quarterback, he will surely be checked down to many times. That being said, the passing game averaged only 139 yards per game last season, and will need to improve instantly for their young quarterback.
Gather the student body for tryouts, because the Bulldogs need some serious help at quarterback and running back. Mississippi State's two most glaring weaknesses are at possibly the two most important positions. They lost 2005's starting running back, Jerious Norwood, who ran for over 1,100 yards and 8 total touchdowns in 2005. The backup, Brandon Thornton, racked up a whopping 225 yards. The very faint light at the end of the long tunnel is Thornton averaged 4.8 yards per carry. I doubt he can maintain the average throughout the long season. Even with Norwood, the Bulldogs rushed very poorly against the better teams in the conference (81 @ Auburn, 49 v. UGA, 56 v. LSU, 109 @ Florida, 26 v. Bama). The best part? Thornton, even with his experience, might not start. True freshman Anthony Dixon is a heralded recruit who has nice size and speed. Keep your eyes on him, because by 2009, he could have two 1,000 yard seasons in Starkville. Courtney Jones, another solid recruit, is penciled in as the 3rd string back, and with a backfield chocked full of inexperience, he may get a solid number of carries. The group has a lot of potential in the long term, but 2006 will be a very tough learning experience for the tailbacks.
The biggest weakness the 2--6 Bulldogs will have to overcome is quarterback play. The position was inconsistent and shaky in 2005, and I'm not sure how much better it will be this fall. Omarr Conner moved to wide receiver, even after he posted far better numbers than 2006's scheduled starter, Mike Henig. Conner wasn't amazing as it was, completing 51.5% of his passes with a 8:5 TD-INT ratio. Henig was a redshirt freshman in 2005 and completed only 44.4% of his passes, with a poor 2:5 ratio. However, Henig is the man in 2006, which should worry Bulldog fans. I truly would not be surprised if we see redshirt freshman Tray Rutland at some point in 2006. New offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey was the running backs coach at Tennessee, so I'm not sure how well he can teach young quarterbacks.
Aug. 31 - South Carolina (L)
Sep. 9 - Auburn (L)
Sep. 16 - Tulane (W)
Sep. 23 - @ UAB (L)
Sep. 30 - @ LSU (L)
Oct. 7 - West Virginia (L)
Oct. 14 - Jacksonville St. (W)
Oct. 21 - @ Georgia (L)
Oct. 28 - Kentucky (W)
Nov. 4 - @ Alabama (L)
Nov. 18 - Arkansas (L)
Nov. 25 - @ Mississippi (L)
The Best Case Scenario
Mississippi State will probably have a better team on the field in 2006 than in 2005. However, their schedule is brutal in terms of where the games are played. I cannot see the Bulldogs beating Auburn, LSU, WVU, Georgia, Alabama, or Arkansas. If they can find an upset at home against South Carolina, another @ UAB, and win the Egg Bowl, Croom's squad will find themselves at 5-7, just 1 game away from a bowl. However, they will be dogs in all of the games I just listed, so winning all 3 would be a feat in itself. If Miss State finishes 5-7 with a 3-5 record in the SEC, Croom might get a lifetime extension. It will be a miracle.
The Worst Case Scenario
I researched as hard as possible, and can only find two sure fire wins for the Dogs: Tulane and Jacksonville State. Kentucky at home should turn into a victory, but the Wildcats have more talent than the Bulldogs, so who knows? UAB is right there in talent with State, and the game is in Birmingham. Auburn, LSU, WVU, Georgia, Alabama, and Arkansas should all sniff or cement themselves in the top 20, and Mississippi State has little chance in those games. It could get ugly after the UAB game if they lose. However, go ahead and write in victories against Tulane and Jax State. The rest? You could see 2-10 overall with no wins in the SEC (0-8).
With so many questions on an already poor offense, I just can't seem to find an improvement in record for Sylvester Croom's third campaign. Their defense will keep them in games against mid-level opponents, and they may even scare Alabama and South Carolina. I think 3-8 (1-7) is a pretty fair prediction for this team. If Henig and the running back unit progress into good talents, watch for a very improved team. Also, watch for good bets on Mississippi State to cover against South Carolina, Alabama, and Tulane.
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