At the beginning of the Mississippi State football season, the optimistic, yet still seemingly realistic, expectation was eight to nine wins.
After the Bulldogs’ 20-10 road loss to a struggling Tennessee team Saturday, that’s all out the window.
Instead, halfway through the year, the Bulldogs might just be lucky to win three of their final six games and qualify for a school record 10th consecutive bowl game appearance.
Coming off a bye week, MSU was a 6.5 point favorite entering Neyland Stadium. It didn’t matter that the Bulldogs had just taken a 56-23 beatdown at Auburn two weeks beforehand, the projection felt justified.
For all of MSU’s faults, Tennessee looked like it was much more of a mess before kickoff.
The Vols, 1-4 entering Saturday’s contest, were reeling internally after having to dismiss Jeremy Banks from the team. Video had recently surfaced of the former Vols player cursing at police following his arrest at a traffic stop last month. The dismissal made national news and didn’t exactly paint Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt in the best light.
On the field, Tennessee seemingly tried to fix its offensive line with Gorilla Glue, had quarterback play that no one in the league envied and saw its defense disappear in key moments time and time again. Outrage in Knoxville had never been higher in recent memory when Tennessee lost its season opener to a Georgia State team that won two games in 2018. Its previous lone win came against a mediocre FCS team.
And yet, somehow, Mississippi State left Knoxville appearing like it was the more dysfunctional team. Even worse, the Bulldogs had two weeks to prepare for this game, yet looked completely lost for most of the contest.
“It’s all my responsibility,” MSU coach Joe Moorhead said predictably. “We’ll get it fixed.”
You probably don’t need to log on to Twitter to find out Mississippi State fans are tired of hearing that same line over and over again. But to the second year coach’s credit, there is still time to correct MSU’s ongoing issues.
The problem is, the schedule only intensifies, and the issues in need of fixing are plentiful.
First, the mistakes: The Bulldogs were outgained 357-267, turned the ball over three times, had its star running back held to 13 yards on 11 carries, had far too many lapses defensively on third down, allowed a back-breaking 10-play, 91-yard drive to seal its fate and waited until halftime to turn the keys to the offense over to the quarterback that should probably have started all along.
There was a lot of fan outrage about not starting freshman signal caller Garrett Shrader over Tommy Stevens – and it appeared justified – but the bigger problem here lies with not finding ways to get Kylin Hill more than 13 yards on double-digit carries.
“We didn’t play well enough in all three phases in four quarters to beat an SEC team on the road,” Moorhead said. “Offensively, we just couldn’t get anything going until the second half.”
Another alarming trend: Mississippi State has continued to put up poor showings on the road under Joe Moorhead’s tenure, going 2-5 in those games and getting outscored 160-109.
And finally, let’s take a look at the next four games on the schedule for MSU: at home against Louisiana State, on the road at Texas A&M, Arkansas on the road and a home contest with Alabama. The Bulldogs will be heavy underdogs in three of those games, as they should be. You’d think they’d be favored to win against Arkansas, but after Saturday’s performance against the Vols added with MSU’s lackluster road performances, can anyone really guarantee a victory with confidence?
We’ve reached the halfway point of the season and yet the Bulldogs have given supporters more questions than answers. How they’ll respond to close the year is anyone’s guess.
“They’re upset that we lost and a little down that we lost. That’s the way it should be,” Moorhead said. “If you’re not in there and it doesn’t hurt and it doesn’t rip your soul out, you’re doing the wrong thing.”
Hodge is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.