The Bulldog Breakdown: Getting to know No. 24 Mississippi State

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Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Football on Twitter

Mississippi State line back Nathaniel Watson during practice at Tampa. Watson will continue to play for a 5th year with the Bulldogs during the 2023 season.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

The No. 24 Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) have been a member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) since 1933 when the conference was formed. The Bulldogs are regulars regarding bowl appearances, making bowls 12 of the last 13 years. They have had great players and coaches but will be without their head coach from the previous three years after Mike Leach, unfortunately, passed away on Dec. 12 this year.

Zach Arnett will replace Leach, serving as the Bulldog’s defensive coordinator for the last three seasons. This could provide a different look for the Illini in the bowl game, as Leach was an offensive-minded coach, and Arnett has shown more care for the defensive side of the ball. 

The Bulldogs will benefit from this approach, as their defense lagged behind their offense at times this year. A strong start led them to 5-1, and multiple blowout wins, but they finished 3-3 down the stretch against stiff competition. Three of the four losses were to ranked opponents, but taking care of business against the rest of the competition earned the Bulldogs a spot in the final regular season AP poll.

Per the new normal, both teams will be without players who entered the transfer portal or are opting out to prepare for the NFL draft. This results in new faces filling roles during bowl season, and the Bulldogs have their fair share.

Notably, junior running back Dillon Johnson, sophomore wide receiver Rara Thomas, and junior defensive back Emmanuel Forbes have left the program and will not participate in the bowl game. The Bulldogs run a split backfield, with Johnson getting half of the work on the ground and through the air. He has the second most receptions on the team, 773 total yards, and averages 5.6 yards per touch. 

With Johnson entering the transfer portal, freshman backup Simeon Price will likely step up for some work in this game. Although Price is talented and is a former top-600 recruit in the class of 2021, Monday will be the first real chance to prove himself at the collegiate level. 

Thomas is an even more significant loss for the Bulldogs, as the now-Georgia transfer led the team in receiving yards and yards per reception. The receiver was instantly recognized as a top receiver in the portal, and the No. 1 team in the country was able to grab him early, making him a big loss in Tampa. 

While his presence made them better, the Bulldogs thrived off spreading the wealth all year. The top nine receivers were all over 240 yards on the season, and splitting the running back workload proves that the Bulldogs are comfortable with the ball in multiple players’ hands. This makes them hard to defend and prepare for, although two fewer guys in the bowl game will help the Illini out a little. 

On the other hand, Forbes will be a loss for the defense. A ballhawk for his entire career, Forbes could alter the momentum in games with his coverage ability. In three years, the cornerback tallied 21 passes defended, 14 interceptions and six defensive touchdowns. Forbes generated a lot of buzz with performances throughout his career and is projected to be a second-round selection in the upcoming draft. 

Even without these stars, the Bulldogs will put up a fight. Offensively, they are at their best when stretching the field with their receivers in order to feed their running backs, whether through the air or on the ground. Junior quarterback Will Rogers had a fantastic year, throwing for 3,713 yards, 34 touchdowns, and only six interceptions. While he had plenty of weapons, Rogers emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC this season, and the Bulldogs are capable of scoring many points when he is on. 

Junior running back Jo’quavious Marks is also poised for a big day with his counterpart in the backfield in the portal. Marks is the leading rusher on the team, adding a substantial number of yards on the ground, making him the biggest offensive threat in this game. The Illini have a strong defensive front, but Marks is a proven back, with good games against Georgia, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

While the defense wasn’t as strong as the offense in 2022, the Bulldogs boast some playmakers on the other side of the ball. Senior linebacker Nathanial Watson was the team’s leading tackler, leading the team in sacks while also tallying an interception and forced fumble. Watson gives the Bulldogs a little bit of everything and will play in the game after declaring that he would return for his fifth year in 2023. 

The Bulldogs played three top-12 defenses this season and only managed to score an average of 14 points a contest. With the Illini allowing the fewest points per game this season, the Bulldogs may still find it tricky to put points on the board, despite the Illini also missing some key defenders, but we will have to wait until Monday to find out.

@benfader7

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