Today at No. 40: Mississippi State
Coach: Dan Mullen (61-42, entering ninth season; 61-42 overall)
2016 record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 Southeastern Conference; tied for fifth in West Division
Look back: Entering the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs were wallowing during coach Dan Mullen’s eighth season in Starkville — and the first without quarterback Dak Prescott. But a 55-20 road win against rival Ole Miss and an unexpected bowl invite ended an otherwise uneventful season on a high note.
While Prescott, the school’s greatest player, thrived with the Dallas Cowboys, the Bulldogs experienced a rough transition to a new era. A season-opening loss to South Alabama was one of five defeats during the first seven games. A 35-28 win Nov. 5 over Texas A&M was a rare bright spot until the late-season run.
The Bulldogs’ high team APR score and lack of bowl-eligible teams landed them in the St. Petersburg Bowl, where a blocked field goal earned Mullen’s team a feel-good win over Miami (Ohio).
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 4
Defensive starters lost: 7
Key losses: WR Fred Ross, OT Justin Senior, DL/LB Johnathan Calvin, LB Richie Brown, PK Westin Graves
Top returnees: QB Nick Fitzgerald, RB Aeris Williams, WR Donald Gray, DL Jeffery Simmons, LB Leo Lewis, WR Keith Mixon
Strengths: Nick Fitzgerald emerged from a four-man race to replace Prescott and become one of the SEC’s most dynamic quarterbacks. The sophomore led the conference in total offense (3,798 yards) and accounted for 37 touchdowns (21 passing, 16 rushing). Fitzgerald’s completion percentage of 54.3 and 10 interceptions are areas to improve, but a lot of teams around the league would be giddy to have him.
Following the loss of No. 1 receiver Fred Ross (72 catches, 12 touchdowns), Fitzgerald will look to senior Donald Gray. He finished 2016 with 41 catches for 709 yards (17.3 yards per catch) and five scores. Aeris Williams filled the Bulldogs’ long-standing void at tailback, tallying 514 yards during the season’s final five games. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound junior added 10 pounds during the offseason and is poised for a big season.
Two freshmen, defensive end Jeffery Simmons and linebacker Leo Lewis, were bright spots on a defense that was 12th in the 14-team SEC. The 6-foot-4, 307-pound Simmons had 39 tackles, while Lewis had 79 (4.5 for loss) to land on the Freshman All-SEC team.
Weaknesses: Fitzgerald’s success and Williams’ continued emergence in the run game hinges on the improvement of an offensive line with just two returning starters. Senior Martinas Rankin moved from left tackle to center during the spring, while the Bulldogs turned to two redshirt freshmen — Greg Eiland and Stewart Reese — to man the edges.
New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham arrived from Louisville to rebuild a defense with just four returning starters, including three in the secondary. But the back end of the defense has to improve after it allowed an average of 4.5 passes of 20-plus yards — 125th of 128 teams nationally. Beyond Simmons and Lewis, the team’s front seven is filled with question marks. Freshman linebacker Willie Gray is an intriguing prospect with playmaking ability.
Outlook: The Dak Prescott Era produced four winning seasons, a No. 1 ranking in 2014 and a slew of offensive records. But Mullen showed the Bulldogs’ offense will be OK without Prescott. The unit averaged 29.3 points against SEC foes last season. The West Division schedule is brutal once again, but if the defense can take a step forward in 2017, a seven- or eight-win season for the Bulldogs is within reach in the toughest division in college football.