Coming off a good-news, bad-news kind of season, Mississippi State will be looking to ride its fleet-footed quarterback to a better result in 2017 as it kicks off the season Saturday afternoon against visiting Charleston Southern. The Bulldogs made it to a bowl game despite a .500 record, and head coach Dan Mullen will need to get even more out of Nick Fitzgerald to return to the bowl party this season.
Fitzgerald was a menace on the ground - finishing second in the SEC in rushing yards (1,375) and first in touchdowns (16) - but he’ll need to do a lot more damage with his arm after completing just 54 percent of his pass attempts, throwing for 2,423 yards with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Fitzgerald will be relying on an offensive line that returns just two starters this season, while the defense is in flux with yet another new name at defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs face a reasonably stiff test in their opener, as Charleston Southern comes in as a top 15 team in the FCS rankings. The Buccaneers boast an impressive ground game and will look to hassle Mississippi State’s new-look offensive line after finishing 18th in the FCS in sacks last season.
TV: 4 p.m. ET, SEC Network. LINE: None
ABOUT CHARLESTON SOUTHERN (2016: 7-4): The Buccaneers have rolled to back-to-back Big South championships, and are coming off a campaign in which they ranked sixth in FCS in rushing yards. But it’s a transition year for the vaunted running game, with Mike Holloway and Darius Hammond - who combined for more than 1,450 yards on the ground last season - on the way out, and sophomore backups Chanin Hamilton and Ronnie Harris expected to shoulder the majority of the load in their absence. Also of great interest to Charleston Southern fans will be the development of sophomore quarterback Shane Bucenell, who began 2016 as the team’s fourth-string quarterback but rose to prominence as the starter, going 6-2 while throwing for a conference high-tying 15 touchdowns.
ABOUT MISSISSIPPI STATE (2016: 6-7): Fitzgerald will likely look to senior wideout Donald Grey as his top receiving threat in place of Fred Ross, who led the team and ranked sixth in the conference with 917 yards a season ago but was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the spring. The running game remains robust with Aeris Williams returning; he finished second on the team in rushing yards with 720. Todd Graham becomes the fourth Bulldogs defensive coordinator in as many seasons, and he inherits a stout defensive front seven highlighted by linebacker Leo Lewis, who had 79 tackles as a freshman, and SEC All-Freshman defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons.
1. Three of Mississippi State’s seven losses in 2016 came by three points or fewer, while another was a seven-point defeat in double overtime.
2. The Bulldogs are 57-15-1 all-time in season openers at Starkville.
3. Kameron Brown led Charleston Southern with 540 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 27 catches last season.
PREDICTION: Mississippi State 38, Charleston Southern 10