BYU's Ula Tolutau (5) is tackled by Mississippi State defenders Leo Lewis (10), Fletcher Adams (43) and Tre Brown (96) during the first half of a game at Davis Wade Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Starkville, Mississippi. All three Bulldogs players return this season. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Football

Our 10th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 17 Mississippi State breaking in a new head coach

Dan Mullen built the Bulldogs into a consistent winner over nine years, but he's now at Florida. Oh, and guess who comes to Starkville on Sept. 29?

Posted July 12th, 2018

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?

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No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

No. 20: Their big names gone, USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

No. 19: For West Virginia, when there’s a Will there’s a way

No. 18: Boise State (For No. 18 Broncos, the sky is the limit in Boise)

Today’s team: No. 17 Mississippi State

The Bulldogs’ best-case scenario: The Bulldogs take to their new leadership and surprise the SEC with a strong run and nine or 10 wins. Even the best of seasons won’t compete with Alabama and Georgia, but it would help ease the loss of head coach Dan Mullen, who’s now at Florida.

Their worst-case scenario: The wheels fall off under new coach Joe Moorhead, who isn’t used to the competition level on the field and in the coaching booth that’s present in the SEC. Missing a bowl game would derail the momentum built under Mullen.

Inside the Bulldogs

Coach: Joe Moorhead (first year; 38-13 overall at Fordham)

2017: 9-4, 4-4 in the SEC (beat Louisville 31-27 in the TaxSlayer Bowl)

Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense

Goodbye: HC Dan Mullen (Florida); OT Martinas Rankin (3rd, Texans); TE Jordan Thomas (6th, Texans)

Spring cleaning: The biggest loss for the Mississippi State program since Dak Prescott left for the NFL happened when Mullen left for Florida. He quietly built a consistent program within a tough division of the best conference in the country. How can Mississippi State remain relevant without its leader in a conference featuring Alabama, LSU, Georgia and now a Florida program led by Mullen himself?

Nick Fitzgerald (7) of the Mississippi State Bulldogs shakes hands with Keytaon Thompson (10) as he is carted off the field during the first half of an NCAA football game against the Mississippi Rebels at Davis Wade Stadium on November 23, 2017 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Nick Fitzgerald, 159-286-1,782, 15/11 (1st); Keytaon Thompson, 32-66-388, 2/2 (2nd)

RUSHING: Aeris Williams, 236-1,107-6 (1st); QB Nick Fitzgerald, 162-984-14 (2nd); QB Keytaon Thompson, 75-446-6 (3rd)

RECEIVING: Jesse Jackson, 27-276-0 (1st); Deddrick Thomas, 22-227-4 (4th)

TACKLES: S Mark McLaurin, 79 (1st); S Johnathan Abram, 71 (2nd); DT Jeffery Simmons, 60 (4th)

SACKS: DE Montez Sweat, 10.5 (1st); DT Jeffery Simmons, 5 (T-2nd); DE Gerri Green, 5 (T-2nd)

INTERCEPTIONS: S Mark McLaurin, 6 (1st)

Returning All-SEC players (2)

Offense: None

Defense: DE Montez Sweat (1st); DT Jeffery Simmons (1st)

FYI

A new regime: Mullen led Mississippi State for nine years. Now it’s time for Moorhead, the former offensive coordinator at Penn State, to continue that momentum with a squad full of experience, including quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. Moorhead gets an early chance to prove himself with an out-of-conference contest at Kansas State in the second game.

Focusing on Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald suffered a major leg injury in the regular season-ending loss to Ole Miss. He had thrown for more than 1,500 yards and accounted for 29 total touchdowns before the injury. It’s never easy for a new coach to put a stamp on his first year at a school, but having a senior at quarterback with the experience and respect of his teammates should help Moorhead build some early consistency on offense.

3. Moorhead is known as an offensive guru who excels at play-calling. He’ll rely on Fitzgerald to lead the offense and on new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to mastermind a talented and experenced defense. The Bulldogs ranked 10th in the country in yards allowed per game and return starters on all three levels of the defense, including two all-conference first-teamers on the defensive line in Sweat and Simmons.

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 41st (32.0 ppg) — right above No. 42 Arizona State, right behind No. 40 North Carolina State

Points allowed: T-26th (20.9 ppg) — tied with Iowa State, right behind No. 25 South Carolina

Passing: 112th (166.9 ypg) — right above No. 113 Boston College, right behind No. 111 Old Dominion

Rushing: 11th (251.7 ypg) — right above No. 12 Oregon, right behind No. 10 San Diego State

Total offense: T-46th (418.6 ypg) — tied with Troy, right behind No. 45 TCU

Total defense: 10th (306.3 ypg) — right above No. 11 San Diego State, right behind No. 9 Ohio State

Malik Dear (22) of the Mississippi State Bulldogs celebrates with teammates after catching a pass for a touchdown in the first half of a game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Oxford, Mississippi. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Sept. 1 (6:30, ESPNU)Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 8 (11, ESPN)at Kansas State
Sept. 15 (6:30, SECN)Louisiana-Lafayette
Sept. 22at Kentucky*W, 45-7
Sept. 29Florida*
Oct. 6Auburn*L, 49-10
Oct. 20at LSU*W, 37-7
Oct. 27Texas A&M*W, 35-14
Nov. 3Louisiana TechW, 57-21
Nov. 10at Alabama*L, 31-24
Nov. 17Arkansas*W, 28-21
Nov. 22 (6:30, ESPN)at Ole Miss*L, 31-28
*SEC game

The key game: Oct. 6, Auburn. This game, played one week after Mississippi State hosts Florida, will help define the season. A win keeps the Bulldogs’ SEC West hopes alive. A loss could mean a struggle to reach a bowl game with LSU, Texas A&M and Alabama still on the schedule.

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGSBOWL, RESULT
20137-6 (3-5)— / —Liberty, W
20149-4 (6-2)— / 7thOrange, L
20159-4 (4-4)— / —Belk, W
20166-7 (3-5)— / —St. Petersburg, W
20179-4 (4-4)— / 19thTaxSlayer, W
Total40-25 (20-20 SEC)4-1 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final rankings.

Our Top 25, by conferences

2 schools:

SEC — No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 24 LSU

Big 12 — No. 19 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas

Pac-12 — No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon

1 school:

Mountain West — No. 18 Boise State

ACC — No. 21 Florida State

AAC — No. 22 Central Florida

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 16 team

Want a hint?

This school has played in 25 straight bowl games, the nation’s longest active streak. It all started with a 1993 Independence Bowl win over Indiana.

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