Last week’s NCAA outdoor track and field championships officially closed the door on the 2021-22 academic year for Mississippi State athletics.
A strong showing on the track at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, capped an overall uneven year for the Bulldogs.
Sports like softball, volleyball and women’s golf put up stellar seasons. The football team made strides despite a young roster, and women’s basketball impressed despite having just seven players and an interim coach.
But a disappointing year for men’s basketball and a baseball team going first to worst put a damper on MSU’s athletic success.
Here are five takeaways from how the Bulldogs fared in 2021-22.
Football on the upswing — but not there yet
Mike Leach’s second season as Mississippi State’s head football coach featured a thrilling comeback win against Auburn, a road victory in College Station and dominating performances against NC State and Kentucky at home.
But the Bulldogs reminded fans they aren’t ready to join the Southeastern Conference elite just yet.
They needed a furious late comeback to nip Louisiana Tech in the season opener. Although a bad call didn’t help, they fell on the road at Memphis. They were blown out by Alabama and missed opportunities to beat Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, both at Davis Wade Stadium.
A shorthanded loss to Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl gave the Bulldogs a 7-6 season overall. Mississippi State broke into the bottom of the AP Top 25 and College Football Playoff rankings but ended the season unranked.
MSU returns quarterback Will Rogers and several top players from last year but lost offensive lineman Charles Cross, cornerback Martin Emerson and wide receiver Makai Polk to the NFL.
Baseball capable of bad years, too
Mississippi State baseball fans have come to expect great things from the Bulldogs year in, year out.
MSU gave its fanbase the best gift it could in 2021, capping a third straight College World Series trip with its first national championship.
But the Bulldogs proceeded to remind supporters they’re only human.
Thanks to the departures of Tanner Allen, Will Bednar, Rowdey Jordan and more, injuries to key pitchers and an at times inconsistent offense, MSU sank from first to worst in the Southeastern Conference standings.
Landon Sims, Stone Simmons and Brooks Auger all tore their UCLs and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. Even before Sims and Simmons were hurt in early March, Mississippi State was off to an uncharacteristic start with a series loss to Long Beach State and a loss to Northern Kentucky at Dudy Noble Field.
MSU missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 and failed to qualify for the SEC tournament.
Softball raises its ceiling
Playing on the road each time, Mississippi State softball made three consecutive NCAA regional finals in 2018, 2019 and 2021 but got no further.
After a loss to South Florida in their first game of the 2022 Tallahassee Regional, the Bulldogs appeared destined for the same fate if not an even earlier exit.
But two standout days on the Florida State campus changed not only the trajectory of MSU’s season but perhaps of its entire program.
The Bulldogs won four straight elimination games, beating No. 2 national seed FSU twice on May 22 to earn the right to host in Super Regionals. MSU became the only team in NCAA history to upset a No. 1 or No. 2 overall seed in regional play.
Mississippi State lost to Arizona in two games in Super Regionals, but hosting that round at Nusz Park for the first time was a watershed moment for the MSU program.
MSU will have to follow up its success without catcher Mia Davidson and pitcher Annie Willis in 2023.
Basketball posts a season to forget
Mississippi State men’s and women’s basketball both put up forgettable years in 2021-22, finishing slightly below the middle of the SEC and missing their respective NCAA tournaments.
Of course, the circumstances around each team were vastly different.
On the men’s side, a talented roster featuring guard Iverson Molinar, forward Tolu Smith and four key transfers never got things going. Smith was in and out of the lineup, Michigan State transfer Rocket Watts disappointed while dealing with injuries as well, and the Bulldogs lost a host of close games.
Ultimately, coach Ben Howland was fired on March 17, a day after MSU lost in the first round of the NIT.
The women’s team did its best to contend under interim coach Doug Novak, but a tiny roster couldn’t compete down the stretch. The Bulldogs lost their last five SEC games and exited in the first round of the conference tournament.
But Mississippi State showed fight despite having as few as seven available players. MSU beat Alabama and Auburn on the road in close games and posted home blowouts of Missouri and Texas A&M.
Novak was not retained after the season, and MSU hired Louisville assistant Sam Purcell to take over the program.
Olympic sport success flies under radar
Factoring in softball, it was in Olympic sports where Mississippi State enjoyed by far its most success this past year.
The Bulldogs’ volleyball team, typically an SEC bottom-feeder, flipped its history on its head in a standout 2021 season. MSU’s campaign ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Hawai’i, but not before coach Julie Darty Dennis’ team finished second in the SEC with a 16-2 conference record.
In women’s golf, MSU also posted a stellar year. Spanish freshman Julia López Ramírez burst onto the scene to help the Bulldogs reach the NCAA championships, where they finished 17th.
The Mississippi State men’s tennis team qualified for the NCAA tournament, finishing with a 14-13 record.
And the Bulldogs sent four athletes to the outdoor track and field championships, topped by Navasky Anderson finishing as the national runner-up in the men’s 800 meters. Long jumper Cameron Crump and javelin thrower DJ Jónsson also qualified for the finals in their events.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.