We’re reviving a popular series from last season, where I get the latest on Oklahoma State’s upcoming opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
Brad Locke covers Mississippi State for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. You can read his work here or follow him on Twitter at @bradlocke.
I know last season ended in very disappointing fashion for Mississippi State. Still, Dan Mullen has built this into a solid program. What’s been the biggest key to accomplishing that? And what are expectations like around the program this season? Is eight wins and a solid bowl game still enough, especially in the SEC?
The biggest initial on-field impact Mullen made was with his spread offense, which turned a moribund unit into something defenses really had to reckon with. That helped fuel fan excitement – as did the 2009 Egg Bowl win over rival Ole Miss – and Mullen has done a good job of building up the talent base and developing depth at most positions. Now, after three consecutive winning seasons, Mullen, the players and the fans are eager to be more than a middle-of-the-pack SEC team. That’s best illustrated by the fact that going 8-5 last year was deemed just OK, the 7-0 start spoiled by the poor finish. Eight wins and a bowl game would, quite frankly, be quite a feat for MSU against this year’s schedule, but that won’t satisfy everybody. It won’t put Mullen on the hot seat, but the expectation level is higher than it once was.
Bigger concern entering the season: Replacing the top three receivers or replacing both starting corners?
I’d say the cornerback situation is slightly more concerning, especially because of the higher level of quarterback play in the SEC this year. Plus, the receivers have fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell to guide them along, and a strong running game to balance things out. The corners are very talented but just haven’t had a chance to show it yet. Junior Jamerson Love has the most experience, but some younger guys will have to step up in a rotation that could go five or six deep.
Speaking of Tyler Russell, Mike Gundy called him an NFL quarterback last week. He’s obviously got the size and arm strength and set tons of school records last season. But what’s the scouting report on him? Where did he most develop in his first season as the full-time starter? And where does he need to most improve this season? His last performance in the bowl game obviously was not a good one.
Russell’s ability has never been questioned. He has a strong arm and can make the types of throws you see NFL quarterbacks making. I believe he’s been limited somewhat by the personnel around him, mainly at receiver and the tackle positions. He’s become a more savvy QB since he arrived, and now his comprehensive knowledge of not only the offense, but the philosophy behind the offense, should pay further dividends this fall. You’re right, the season ended poorly for Russell with two interceptions against Ole Miss and four against Northwestern, and if there’s one thing people are still skeptical about regarding him, it’s his ability to play well against really good teams.
An intriguing storyline for this game is Fred Ross, a longtime OSU commitment for the 2013 class who flipped to Mississippi State the night before Signing Day. How has he looked in camp and how much do you expect him to play Saturday?
The media was only allowed to view the first four days of practices, but what we saw of Ross, he was impressive. He’s got good size (6-foot-2, 185 pounds) to go with speed and reliable hands. He’s been banged up this preseason with a groin injury, and so I’m not sure how much we’ll see of him against OSU. But he should have a fairly significant role this season. A freshman receiver you might want to keep an eye on Saturday is 6-5, 215-pound De’Runnya Wilson.
What’s the key matchup/factor/etc. that you think will decide this game? Where can Mississippi State most attack the Cowboys, and vice versa?
The big story line here has been how well those new cornerbacks will hold up against the Oklahoma State passing game. It’s a group that should be fast enough to keep pace vertically, so the real issues will be how well they communicate, make pre-snap adjustments and cover the different kinds of routes OSU runs. As for MSU’s offense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of running plays and plays to the edge to test out that Oklahoma State team speed, and perhaps catch them being overly aggressive.