Change Can Be Good
National pundits typically underrate the Mississippi State Bulldogs, and this year is no exception. For example, despite their 9-4 2022 season and a majority of the offense returning, ESPN predicts State will only win six games and has them ranked at #32. Michael Bratton, of That SEC Podcast, sets expectations for oddsmakers. He ranked the SEC West in over/under terms for predicted wins. The Dawgs were ranked at 6.5 wins, last in the division, just behind Texas A&M, predicted by Bratton to have eight wins. What can we reasonably expect from Mississippi State 2023?
There is still hope for those MSU fans to prove those naysayers wrong.
The tragedy of Head Coach Mike Leach’s sudden and heartbreaking death last year might have been a catalyst of determination for the fans, and the state, but more importantly for the coaches and players.
But, a new spark seemed to emerge following their bowl win over Illinois. Especially in the way they did it. This was new head coach Zach Arnett’s first game after being thrust into the position by the direst of occurrences.
There are many elements to that spark to give the Maroon-Faithful gleeful anticipation for the coming season.
We’ll take a look at some of those positive elements that have brought about a lot of change to the program. There will be subsequent articles going more in-depth about each of these elements, so consider this a teaser for things to come.
Meet the New Boss, Not the Same as the Old Boss
Arnett was arguably in one of the toughest positions a coach could be in. One minute he’s defensive coordinator to one of the best coaches in the country and the next he’s asked to be head coach following Leach’s death. All eyes from the fan base were now on him. What’s a coach to do?
Arnett stepped up, rallied his team, and won their New Year’s Day bowl game against Illinois, in a suck-it-up, win-one-for-the-Gipper fashion. For those wondering, State came from behind in the 4th quarter, and scored 16 points to win 19-10. It was right out of a movie.
But after the last cowbell rang that night, Arnett was left with the daunting job of getting ready for the 2023 season. That means all the many things that come with being the head coach of a Power 5 football team.
Arnett takes it from a simple point of view, “I feel like I’ve got to do what I believe in,” Arnett said on SiriusXM. “You try to be someone else; it’s obviously going to come through as inauthentic and the players are going to read through that right away. But I got a chance to spend 3 years under, what in my opinion, is a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach. I mean the guy’s won every year he’s been.”
Given that frame of mind Arnett set out to make his own mark, but keeping some of the values he learned from the former head coach, Mike Leach.
Replacing Air Raid
Arnett and his Bulldogs had an impressive showing at their bowl game, showing a lot of character in their come-from-behind victory over Illinois.
But, Arnett was working with an offense and a team that was the design of Leach. This is next season we’re talking about, when some of last year’s players will be gone, and new ones arrive. Also, the coaching staff has shuffled due to a couple of key exits.
The answer is that everything is new, from the athletic director, Zac (with no H) Salmon, Arnett as head coach, and the other new kid on the block, offensive coordinator, Kevin Barbay.
Barbay brings in a new, more balanced attack with an emphasis on hard running combined with long passes. We saw a good example of what to expect in the Spring Game with Will Rogers returning. He threw the long TD completions to Lideatrick “Tulu” Griffin, along with hard-nosed running from Jo’quavious “Woody” Marks.
It would seem that Air Raid is a thing of the past, at least at Mississippi State.
Mississippi State 2023; A Promising Season to Come for the Dawgs
The Bulldogs have a lot going for them as they approach the new season. One advantage they have is the schedule for 2023.
State has eight home games and only four on the road. By means of this schedule, they play the heavyweights Alabama and LSU at home. Davis-Wade Stadium is even the site of The Egg Bowl this year. They’re on the road for South Carolina, Arkansas, Auburn, and Texas A&M. As a side note, Alabama has sometimes had problems when playing in Starkville. Maybe it’s the cowbells.
There is a veteran crew returning on offense including the record-setting Rogers in his fourth season. Returning up front is a veteran group along with exemplary skills guys like Griffin.
On the other hand, the defense is another story. The secondary was decimated. Four of the five starters are gone. Emmanuel Forbes went in the first round of the draft. Up front, the defensive line is still intact with five of their six players returning. Arnett should be able to shore that up considering he’s the one who put in the schemes 3 years ago.
It’s been a tumultuous, yet cathartic time for Mississippi State. Out of it there seems to be a new energy on the Starkville campus these days. It started with Leach and he seems to have passed that down to Arnett. Regardless, as with every new season at MSU, hope springs eternal.
Photo courtesy: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports