Mississippi State football kicks off its 2022 season Saturday against a familiar foe.
At 6:30 p.m. Saturday, MSU will host Memphis, which beat the Bulldogs last September at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Evan Barnes, who covers Memphis football for The Commercial Appeal, previewed the Tigers ahead of Saturday’s season opener.
Barnes is in his fifth season covering Memphis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I know it’s hard to gauge in the preseason, but what are some of the expectations for this Memphis football team?
Barnes: I think first off, Memphis knows it has to get better from 6-6 last year. There were questions about the run game being disappointing. The defense had questions. There’s a general sense that this team has to get better and improve from 6-6. There’s a lot of talk about two new coordinators. There’s a lot of talk about reinvigorating the run game and just trying to find ways to re-spark this team. I think this team is looking to rebound from how disappointing 2021 was.
Memphis is a pretty young team. How big is the experience gap between Memphis and Mississippi State?
Barnes: If you look at Mississippi State’s depth chart, you see a lot of juniors and seniors. If you look at Memphis’ depth chart, you see about eight or nine positions where there’s a redshirt sophomore or younger listed. It’s wide. But the thing is, some of these young guys have played for Memphis. Seth Henigan has played a whole season at quarterback. Brandon Thomas has started seven games at running back. Greg Rubin started 11 games at cornerback. There are some young players who have played for Memphis and played some significant reps, but it does make you wonder, if injuries happen, if Memphis is going to have to turn some of that youth out. We’re going to see what happens: Does Memphis play like a young team and make a lot of mistakes, or do they play like a team that is well coached and can show that they are not afraid to compete again with a veteran Mississippi State team?
Besides Calvin Austin III, who else did Memphis lose from last year, and what impact will those losses have?
Barnes: Tight end Sean Dykes has graduated. He was their second-leading receiver, another pass weapon down the field. You also lose cornerback Jacobi Francis, linebacker JJ Russell and right guard Dylan Parham, who was a draft pick of the Raiders. You lose five players who played a lot of ball for the Tigers, and those roles are going to be key battles to look at this year. We need to see which receiver steps up, how the new tight end looks. Can the O-line — which returns four starters — fill Parham’s gaps? Defensively, filling JJ Russell’s and Jacobi Francis’ shoes will be another key question.
Seth Henigan had a solid freshman season. How has he looked so far in camp, and do you think he’s capable of going on the road and beating an SEC team?
Barnes: He looks bigger and stronger. You see his frame; it looks like he’s put on more muscle, as he’s told us. There’s a confidence in him. He fully knows this is his team. He’s not worried about a quarterback battle or anything like that. This is somebody who is confident in what he can do. He’s ready to face a hostile atmosphere. This is a young man who played in big games in high school. He played in some big games last year as a true freshman. His confidence and his ability are better than last year, and Memphis will need that, because they’re going to depend on Henigan to win some games with some questions about the skill-position guys around him.
Where do you see some of the mismatches in either team’s favor when you look at the depth charts for these two teams?
Barnes: I always look at SEC line play. That’s going to be something that Memphis has to counter; can they hang with the physicality of an SEC front? Now, they’re switching to a 4-3 defense under Matt Barnes, so there’s going to be a little more pressure up there, but I think that’s the matchup I’m looking for: Can Memphis’ defensive front counter Mississippi State’s O-line? Also, the Mississippi State secondary — I think there’s some good pieces there that I think will test the Memphis receiving corps to see if they can make big plays. Last year, Calvin Austin was the main one who did damage in the passing game. Can those receivers find holes against a secondary that’s long and athletic, and can they exploit that?
If you’re comfortable making a prediction, how do you see this game playing out?
Barnes: I think Memphis will put up a fight. I think Memphis will not be intimidated. But there’s fewer questions about Mississippi State. They’re more comfortable with that Air Raid offense. That defense is experienced. I think Memphis will put up a good fight, but it’s going to be a tall order to expect an upset down in Starkville. I think Mississippi State wins this game, but Memphis will get a chance to possibly show some things to give fans hope. This game is a tough one, so their main thing is, ‘Go in there and give it your best shot and see what happens next week facing Navy.’
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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