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2019 Tennessee Football Opponent Preview: Mississippi State

The Vols and Bulldogs set to meet for the first time since 2012.

Mississippi State v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Head Coach: Joe Moorhead (8-5, 46-18 overall)

Conference: SEC

2018 Record: 8-5

Returning Starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Mississippi State wasn’t expected to skip a beat in 2018 after the departure of Dan Mullen and the subsequent hiring of offensive guru Joe Moorhead from Penn State.

Still, the Bulldogs struggled to generate offense in five of their losses last season, scoring just 7, 6, 3, and 0 in their four regular season losses to Kentucky, Florida, LSU and Alabama, respectively.

The cupboard wasn’t exactly left bare in Starkville when Mullen took the Florida job, but for whatever reason, Moorhead’s team struggled to duplicate the offensive production he oversaw as the offensive coordinator at Penn State in the previous two seasons.

Still, despite the inconsistencies, the Bulldogs were able to post eight wins, which included some impressive victories over Texas A&M and Auburn.

The 2019 version of Mississippi State still returns talent and experience, despite losing key players such as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and some important pieces on defense, and will be challenge for Tennessee.

Offense: Fitzgerald was supposed to be in for a big year his senior season after a strong two previous seasons under Mullen. However, the signal caller struggled with inconsistency in Moorhead’s system.

Replacing him will be either Keytaon Thompson, who saw action as Fitzgerald’s backup in 2018 and even started in the Outback Bowl vs Iowa, or Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens.

Maryland v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Stevens is familiar with what Moorhead wants, having played under him while he was at Penn State. But Stevens has also been limited in a back up role the past couple of seasons as well, so it’s hard to tell at this point who will be starting under center for the Bulldogs when they come to Neyland Stadium on Oct. 12.

At wide receiver, the unit is coming off of an under-performing 2018 season, despite returning three starters from the 2017 team.

Only one receiver, Stephen Guidry eclipsed 100 yards in a game versus an FBS team (130 yards versus Texas A&M), and lead with a total of 440 yards on the season. Osirus Mitchell lead the team in receptions with 26 while Deddrick Thomas tallied 19 for under 300 yards, good for third place.

Those three return at the position, but they will be looking to make a vast improvement in 2019. A lot will depend on who they have throwing them the ball, as well.

In the back field, the Bulldogs are set to return their second leading rusher from last season in running back Kylin Hill. In 2018, Hill rushed for 749 yards and four touchdowns, averaging more than 6 yards per carry.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 20 Mississippi State at LSU

Along the offensive line, Mississippi State lost two starters from last season, but will also return three starting lineman, including four others who saw a lot of time in the rotation.

Defense: Mississippi State’s defense is headed up by a face Tennessee fans will be familiar with.

When the Bulldogs come to to Knoxville, it will be former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s first trip back since Butch Jones’ firing late in the 2017 season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Arkansas at Mississippi State Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Shoop is actually the fifth defensive coordinator that Mississippi State has had in five seasons, but the unit had remained strong, despite losing some talent.

Last season, the Bulldogs had all four starters along their defensive front back. They also added two transfers in Chauncey Rivers (for the Last Chance U fans) and Lee Autry. With all of that experience up front, Mississippi State produced one of the most dominant defensive lines in the SEC, holding opponents to just 95 yards per game on the ground and tallying 39 sacks on the season.

Now, four of those starters are gone, including Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. They will have less experience up front in 2019, which is something an improved Tennessee rushing attack hopes to exploit.

Linebacker is where Mississippi State could be the most dangerous on defense. The Bulldogs return their leading tackler in Eroll Thompson and JUCO-by-way-of-Michigan transfer Brian Cole. Three of the four returning linebackers were top 10 tacklers in 2018.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Like the defensive line, Mississippi State’s secondary will also have a lot of youth and inexperience. They will return Cam Dantzler, who lead the group with 43 tackles, one sack and two interceptions, but the rest were either injured or saw limited action as back ups last season.

Outlook: While young in some areas and not as talented as the 2018 team, Mississippi State will be a tough match up for a Tennessee team that also has questions marks in areas. Will the Vols young offensive line be able to take advantage of Mississippi State’s equally young defensive front, or will it be the other way around?

The Bulldogs also get a bye week before coming to Neyland, while Tennessee has to play Georgia that week.