As the offseason approaches, we’ll begin looking at the key questions facing each team in the league. We started with Vanderbilt; now we turn our attention to Mississippi State:
1. What does the next step look like for Nick Fitzgerald?
The sophomore quarterback’s introduction to Mississippi State was, shall we say, uninspiring. Remember how he couldn’t complete a pass and was pulled during a loss to South Alabama in the season opener? How about his two picks in a double-overtime loss to BYU? But he took his lumps and kept improving. Down the stretch, he began playing with more confidence, making plays with his arm as well as his feet. In the Bulldogs’ last three games, he accounted for 13 touchdowns and had no interceptions. Now, with QB coach David Johnson off to Houston, the question becomes where does Fitzgerald go from here? If he can get into the 60s in terms of completion percentage, it would go a long way in improving the balance of Dan Mullen’s offense.
2. Will Year 2 be kinder to Peter Sirmon?
It couldn’t get any more brutal than his first season as defensive coordinator. State couldn’t stop anyone, giving up more yards than any team in the SEC, in addition to the second-most points in the conference. What’s more, it forced the third-fewest turnovers. But taking a step back, Sirmon was in a tough situation to begin with. He had an entirely new staff, from coordinator on down to graduate assistant. So familiarity and comfort alone should aid him in 2017. The problem, however, is that he’ll have to watch as stalwarts like linebacker Richie Brown and defensive linemen Nick James and A.J. Jefferson all turn pro.
3. What happened to State’s running game?
Let’s go back to the glory days for a moment, back when Anthony Dixon, Vick Ballard, Ladarius Perkins and Josh Robinson were all running wild in the Mississippi State backfield. Remember them? It feels like forever ago, doesn’t it? For the past two seasons, Mullen hasn’t been able to find any semblance of a feature back. Instead, he’s relied upon the legs of quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald. And while Fitzgerald was fantastic running the ball this past season, rushing for 1,500 yards, it’s a lot to ask a quarterback to take a pounding like that. Getting the offensive line in order and finding a feature back will be a big boost to the offense overall, as well as the development of Fitzgerald as a passer.