Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
No. 17 Mississippi State
2017 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Welcome to Starkville, Joe Moorhead
The former Penn State offensive coordinator enters his first season as a head coach at college football’s top level in 2018. The innovative Moorhead inherits an experienced offensive line with nine returning starters. And he showed at SEC media days that he wasn’t coming into Mississippi State with a plan to force the returning players to fit into a preconceived offensive style.
“I think a lot of it is you have your base scheme in place,” Moorhead said. “And always as coaches you want to make sure that your scheme is fitting your personnel; not your personnel fitting your scheme.
“Throughout the course of us running this offense, I don’t think we’ve been ever over 55 percent one way or the other. So we could be a little bit more run heavy, if that’s what we do, and more effective in running the ball and scoring points. If we end up being a team that can pass it a little more, we may gravitate more towards that.”
Mississippi State threw the ball 634 times in 2017 compared to 353 pass attempts under former coach Dan Mullen. Expect the distribution to be a little more balanced but still run-heavy given the strengths of Mississippi State’s offense.
A healthy Nick Fitzgerald will go a long way
If you’re ranking QBs in the SEC then Nick Fitzgerald is probably in the top four. He accounted for 29 total touchdowns in 2017 — 15 passing and 14 rushing — before suffering a gross broken ankle in the regular-season finale against Mississippi.
Fitzgerald should be ready to start the season and it’s tantalizing to think about what he can do in Moorhead’s offense. Trace McSorley emerged as one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football under Moorhead’s tutelage and Fitzgerald offers more on the ground than McSorley did. He was Mississippi State’s second-leading rusher in 2017 with 984 yards.
Fitzgerald also returns his top two receivers from a year ago, though it’s worth noting that Mississippi State’s top two receivers in 2017 didn’t match up very well statistically to other SEC teams. Jesse Jackson and Keith Mixon combined for 501 yards receiving.
The passing attack should improve in 2018. It needs to improve. And if Fitzgerald somehow misses a game or two in 2018 then Keytaon Thompson should be more prepared. Thompson held his own in a Belk Bowl win over Louisville and is primed to be Mississippi State’s starter in 2019.
Don’t sleep on the defensive line
If we’re putting Fitzgerald inside the top tier of SEC quarterbacks we need to do the same with Mississippi State’s defensive line. All four starters on the line return including Montez Sweat, a player who had 10.5 sacks in 2017. Jeffery Simmons should get even better in 2018 and it’s easy to see how MSU could improve upon the 36 sacks it recorded in 2017.
Former Tennessee and Penn State assistant Bob Shoop will coordinate the defense.
“Coach has been a guy that’s had top 10, top 15 defenses in the majority of spots he’s been,” Moorhead said. “So I think he was a good natural pick for us in terms of the formation of the staff knowing each other, having familiarity, and having experience. And certainly what he brings to the table knowing the SEC.”
Aeris Williams, RB: Williams was undisputed RB 1 in 2017 with 1,107 yards and six touchdowns. He could pass those numbers up in 2018 as he’s the sequel to Saquon Barkley in Moorhead’s offense.
Comparing Williams to Barkley is unfair because few players can be compared to the No. 2 NFL draft pick. But with Fitzgerald providing cover as a player defenses need to worry about, Williams could rush for even more yards in 2018. A 1,400-yard, 10-touchdown season isn’t out of the question if things break right for Mississippi State.
Game to watch: Oct. 20 at LSU
The game at LSU comes after a bye week and home games against Auburn and Florida. That’s quite a four-week stretch for Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs need that LSU game if they want to finish in the top half of the SEC West. The same goes for a home game on Oct. 27 against Texas A&M. If you presume that Alabama and Auburn are the top two teams in the SEC West (and we do), then Mississippi State needs to gain the head-to-head edge over the Tigers and Aggies.
Mississippi State pulls a home upset against Auburn on Oct. 6. That paves the way for a second-place finish in the SEC West behind Alabama and the Bulldogs go to a New Year’s Six bowl game for the first time since after the 2014 season.
The LSU game is a loss and so is the Texas A&M game. That leaves Mississippi State fifth in the SEC West and closer to 7-5 than 9-3 and contending for a top-tier bowl game.
Mississippi State finishes third in the West and beats both Kentucky and Florida, its two SEC East opponents. Losses to Alabama, Auburn and someone else mean a 9-3 regular season and a berth in the Citrus Bowl or the TaxSlayer Bowl.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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