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2021 Mississippi State college football preview: Young talent looking to make an impact

In Year Two of the Mike Leach era, Will Rogers will need to take the next step for the Bulldogs.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Mississippi Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Air Raid heading to the SEC produced some mixed results in Mike Leach’s first season in Starkville.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs weren’t great by any metric except passing yards in 2020, but there is reason to be intrigued by this roster. Virtually every skill player on offense was a freshman or sophomore a year ago, and they now know what SEC football is like. That experience will be critical to the growth in the second year of the Leach experiment in the SEC. Can they make the traditionally-also-ran school more competitive?

2020 Season Review

  • 4-7, 3-7 in SEC, 7th in SEC West, Bowl result: Defeated Tulsa in Armed Forces Bowl
  • Grad transfer KJ Costello was supposed to lead the Bulldogs to a decent year under center, but an early-season injury forced him to miss time and he eventually lost his job outright to freshman Will Rogers.

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 26th
ESPN Returning Production: 79% overall (34th): 72% offense (62), 85% defense (16)
Returning Talent Index: 7th, Rank in Conference
Returning starters: XX/11 offense, XX/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Will Rogers, sophomore

There haven’t been any outward declarations saying that Rogers is the guy for 2021, but he’s widely expected to get the nod under center this season. The true sophomore started last season on the bench but took over in week six and the air-raid offense seemed to click immediately. He completed nearly 70% of his passes for close to 2,000 yards. He also threw 11 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. Costello threw seven scores and 11 picks during his time as the starter, most of his scores came in the first game against LSU as well.

A lot will be put on his plate this season, but if there’s one thing Leach is capable of it’s molding quarterbacks to be successful in his system. Once Rogers was inserted there was a clear difference about the offense. They weren’t necessarily winning games, but they were far more productive and able to move the ball down the field much more efficiently. With an entire offseason and the confidence of his team heading into year two, Rogers should improve upon his numbers.

Offense (non-QB): Jaden Walley, Sophomore WR (YEAR)

The true freshman was the Bulldogs' clear offensive weapon in 2020. He earned All-SEC Freshman honors and broke a 43-year-old MSU record for receiving yards in a season by a freshman. He finished the year with 718 yards and two scores, which is over 200 yards more than the next closest pass-catcher. He also averaged over 13 yards per catch, meaning he’s always good for a big play.

He really started to emerge one Rogers was inserted in as the quarterback, with his yards per catch average going from 6 with Costello to up to 15 with his classmate tossing him the ball.

Defense: Nathaniel Watson, LB (junior)

The Swiss army knife of a junior played every single linebacker role on the field last season. He’s expected to step into the middle linebacker role this season, which he played well in during limited time last season. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense here and since he’s well-versed in all linebacker spots during limited action his first two years, it should make it easier for him to communicate with his teammates and make sure nobody is too far out of position before any given play.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 58th overall: 79th offense, 49th defense, 11th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 44th overall: 69th offense, 32nd defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +50000
To win SEC: +10000
Win total: 6 (Over -113, Under -113)

2020 Against The Spread: 5-6
2020 Point Total: Over 4-7-0

2021 Mississippi State Schedule

2021 Mississippi State Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Saturday, Sep. 4 Lousiana Tech TBA N/A
Saturday, Sep. 11 NC State TBA N/A
Saturday, Sep. 18 at Memphis TBA N/A
Saturday, Sep. 25 LSU TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 2 at Texas A&M TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 9 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 16 Alabama TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 23 at Vanderbilt TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 30 Kentucky TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Arkansas TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 13 at Auburn TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 20 Tennessee State TBA N/A
Thursday, Nov. 25 Ole Miss TBA N/A