2019 Opponent Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    (Photo via Mississippi State Athletics)

    2019 Record: 3-2 overall (1-1, SEC)

    Head Coach: Joe Moorhead (2nd year, 11-7  overall)
    Location: Starkville, Mississippi

    Leading Passer: Garrett Shrader (Fr.) — 40-of-68, 511 yards 2 TD, 1 INT
    Leading Rusher: Kylin Hill (Jr.) — 108 carries, 596 yards, 5 TD, 5.5 YPC
    Leading Receiver: Osirus Mitchell (Jr.) — 19 receptions, 277 yards, 4 TD
    Leading Tackler: C.J. Morgan (Jr.) — 36 tackles (19 solo), INT

    Total Offense Rank: 75th (398.0)
    Passing Offense Rank:
    108th (191.8)
    Rushing Offense Rank: 35th (206.2)
    Scoring Offense Rank: 65th (30.2)

    Total Defense Rank: 77th (401.4)
    Passing Defense Rank: 83rd (243.4)
    Rushing Defense Rank: 70th (158.0)
    Scoring Defense Rank: 81st (28.6)

    While Tennessee is coming off of a 43-14 loss to No. 3 Georgia, Mississippi State is coming off a bye week. In the Bulldogs’ last game out, however, they lost to Auburn 56-23 on the Plains. The loss marked State’s second defeat of the season. After starting the season off with a 38-28 win over Louisiana and a 38-15 win over Southern Miss, the Bulldogs fell to Kansas State 31-24 in week three. They then welcomed Kentucky to town and beat the Wildcats 28-13 before losing to Auburn.

    As is the case for Tennessee, this Saturday’s game between the Vols and Bulldogs is a crucial one for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have a four-game SEC grind ahead with three of those contests consisting of long road trips. If State is going to make a bowl game in year two under Joe Moorhead, Saturday’s noon kickoff in Neyland Stadium is crucial.

    State and Tennessee will be linking up for the first time since the Vols traveled to Starkville in 2012, which resulted in a 41-31 loss. It’ll be the first time the Bulldogs travel to Knoxville since they lost to UT 34-3 in 2008.

    Here’s a complete preview of Tennessee’s opponent this Saturday, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

    Offense

    Mississippi State enters Saturday’s game with several question marks surrounding the quarterback position. Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens earned the starting job during fall camp, but he was injured against Kansas State, resulting in true freshman Garrett Shrader having to enter the game.

    Stevens and Shrader have essentially split the offensive snaps through the first five games of the season. Stevens is completing 63.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for 448 yards and five touchdowns to two interceptions. Shrader has thrown for 511 yards and two touchdowns to one interception, while completing 58.8 percent of his passes. Stevens has been more efficient through the air, but Shrader has been more dynamic in the running game, rushing for 312 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries. He’s averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

    Against Kansas State, Stevens looked less than 100 percent, and after throwing two interceptions, he was pulled for Shrader who entered the game and sparked the offense. A week later, Shrader led State to a win over Kentucky while Stevens was out due to injury. Then, against Auburn, Stevens suffered a leg injury which once again resulted in Shrader coming in and leading the offense to multiple scoring drives.

    It’s unclear who will be the quarterback on Saturday against Tennessee, but whoever it is, they will have a dynamic running back in the backfield with them in Kylin Hill. The junior has been as great as any back in the country this year, rushing for an SEC-best 596 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Hill is averaging an SEC-best 119.2 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry thanks to the help of his offensive line.

    Arguably the best unit on Mississippi State’s roster, the Bulldogs’ offensive line is led by center Darryl Williams — who has an NFL future ahead of him. The senior is flanked by fellow senior Tyre Phillips at left tackle, junior Dareuan Parker at left guard, junior Stewart Reese at right guard, and junior Greg Eiland at right tackle.

    Mississippi State’s O-line has helped Hill and the Bulldogs rush for 206.2 yards per game this season, which is the fourth-most in the conference. The group has allowed 11 sacks on the season and is much more susceptible in the passing game. State’s passing offense ranks dead last in the SEC at 191.8 yards per game.

    Defense

    Bob Shoop will be coaching with an edge on Saturday afternoon when Mississippi State’s defense is on the field. His tenure as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator didn’t go according to plan, and he’ll be looking to prove a point.

    Defensively, junior safety C.J. Morgan is the top playmaker for the Bulldogs. He’s totaled 36 tackles on the season and has one interception. Morgan’s sidekick in the secondary, junior corner Cameron Dantzler, is expected to match up with Jauan Jennings.

    Safety Brian Cole also plays a key role in the Bulldog secondary. Starting at the STAR/nickel position, Cole leads the Bulldogs and is tied for seventh in the SEC in tackles for a loss with 5.5. Alongside Cole and Dantzler, senior Maurice Smitherman is the other starting corner. Senior Jaquarius Landrews is the other starting safety along with Morgan.

    Mississippi State’s pass defense ranks 10th in the SEC. They’re allowing 243.4 yards per game and have given up six passing touchdowns compared to picking off four passes.

    The ongoing saga with Mississippi State has surrounded the 10 players who must serve an eight-game suspension due to academic fraud involving a tutor. The Bulldogs are barred from announcing the details of the suspension, however, due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Acts (FERPA). This protects the privacy of student education records and doesn’t force Moorhead to announce who is suspended. It also allows Moorhead to pick which games the players serve their suspension.

    Each week, just before the game, the media is given a list of players who won’t be playing in the game. While most of the 10 players weren’t expected to have much of an impact on the team, Willie Gay Jr. and Lee Autry have been the two biggest names involved that have had to miss time.

    Gay is Mississippi State’s best NFL prospect and is expected to play on Saturday against Tennessee. Paired with junior Erroll Thompson, the two form one of the better linebacker duos in the SEC.

    In Gay’s place, senior Leo Lewis has done a good job of filling in. Lewis is second on the team in tackles with 34, has forced two fumbles, and has 2.0 tackles for a loss. State has five seniors that play at linebacker. Gay and Lewis play the WILL linebacker position, while Thompson is the MIKE. Senior Tim Washington starts as the SAM linebacker.

    Along the defensive line, State has really missed Autry, who starts as the defensive tackle. Chauncey Rivers starts at defensive end, as does junior Marquiss Spencer. Senior Fletcher Adams backs up Rivers, and junior Kobe Jones backs up Spencer. On the inside, freshman Fabien Lovett starts at tackle next to Autry. When Autry doesn’t play due to suspension, Jaden Crumedy, Kendell Jones, and James Jackson fill in.

    Mississippi State’s front seven is allowing 158 rushing yards per game, which is 11th-most in the SEC. The Bulldogs have sacked the opposing quarterback just nine times this season, which is the 11th-fewest.

    Special Teams

    Juniors Jace Christmann and Jordan Lawless split time as Mississippi State’s kicker. Christmann is 3-for-4 on the season with a long of 47 yards, while Lawless is 1-of-2 with a long of 37 yards.

    Sophomore Tucker Day serves as State’s primary punter. On the season, he’s punted the football 19 times for an average of 44.0 yards per punt and a long of 59 yards.

    Scott Goodman is Mississippi State’s kickoff specialist. The sophomore has sent 10 of his 23 kickoffs through the end zone this season. Opponents are averaging 23.6 yards a return. Kansas State returned one kickoff for a touchdown against the Bulldogs in that match-up.

    Multiple Bulldogs have served as the kick returner this season. JaVonta Payton has returned three kicks for an average of 18.7 yards while Isaiah Zuber and Brian Cole have each returned two kicks. Deddrick Thomas has also returned a kick for 14 yards.

    Malik Dear is State’s punt returner. He’s returned four punts for an average of 12.2 yards a return.



    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.

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