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Evaluating Tennessee’s potential two additional opponents for 2020

(Photo by Logan Kirkland of Mississippi State Athletics)

Most favorable matchup: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State and Ole Miss are built similarly funny enough, and there isn’t a huge difference between the two heading into 2020. Mike Leach inherits an offense that might be ready to score now, while the defense must replace quite a bit.

Leach brings to Starkville a fellow Pac-12 companion in KJ Costello who takes over as Mississippi State’s starting quarterback following an injury-plagued season at Stanford. Costello is viewed as a potential first round draft pick by some publications after throwing for 6,151 yards, 49 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in 29 Pac-12 games.

Costello will rely on running back Kylin Hill. Hill is viewed as one of the best running backs in the country after rushing for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago. The wide receiver position is the biggest concern on the offensive side of the ball, which could hamper Costello’s production in his lone season as a Bulldog.

It’s no secret that Leach likes to throw the football. Whether or not State has enough quality receivers to compliment Leach’s philosophy is a serious concern. Osirus Mitchell was the third-leading receiver a season ago, and he’s the only receiver returning from last year’s top five pass-catchers.

Mississippi State must replace three starting offensive lineman following the departure of Stewart Reese, who transferred to Florida. Seniors Dareuan Parker and Greg Eiland return at left guard, and right tackle, respectively. Former five-star signee Charles Cross and Alabama grad transfer Scott Lashley are expected to be key pieces in their first season starting for the Bulldogs.

Only four starters from a season ago return for Mississippi State’s defense. Like Ole Miss, the lack of talent, experience and depth is why the Bulldogs are the most favorable opponent for Tennessee.

Senior linebacker Erroll Thompson is the most important piece of the State defense. Thompson was the team’s leading tackler a season ago. After him, there’s serious questions about who is going to step up next to him as State must replace Leo Lewis and Willie Gay Jr.

The situation is the same in the secondary. Marcus Murphy returns at free safety next to C.J. Morgan at strong safety, but the group that allowed 246.8 passing yards per game a season ago has much to improve on.

State’s defensive line is in a much better position than the other levels of the defense. All-SEC freshman Nathan Pickering returns at defensive tackle next to fellow starting tackle Jaden Crumedy, and starting defensive end Marquiss Spencer. The group struggled last season, but is in a position to be better in 2020.

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