NEW ORLEANS – Things did not quite go as planned during Joe Moorhead's first season as head coach at Mississippi State, but expectations for the program remain on the upswing. Moorhead will try to get his team and his new quarterback off to a fast start when the Bulldogs open the season against Louisiana in New Orleans on Saturday.
TV: Noon, ET, ESPNU. LINE: Mississippi State -21.
Mississippi State started out fast last season with three consecutive non-conference victories, including a 56-10 drubbing of Louisiana at home, before going 4-4 in SEC play and falling to Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is now competing for a spot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, and Moorhead announced last week that graduate transfer Tommy Stevens beat out Keytaon Thompson for the starting job in 2019. "I think Tommy is a kid with a lot of physical tools. Strong arm. He can really run," Moorhead told reporters at SEC media days last month. "He's accustomed to the system so he's going to understand it for the most part coming in. And, you know, I think he brings a lot of talent to the position, and I think the competition is going to be an exciting one." The Ragin' Cajuns are going into their second season under coach Billy Napier, who returns 17 starters from a squad that won the Sun Bowl West Division last season.
ABOUT MISSISSIPPI STATE (2018: 8-5)
Stevens worked under Moorhead when the coach was the offensive coordinator at Penn State and had no trouble adjusting to the offense in camp. "We're going to build it around what the kids do well," Moorhead told reporters of the offense. "I think as we talked about since the end of last season, for us to take the next step offensively, we need to strike the cord of balance in the run and pass game. And I think Tommy's arm strength, his ability to read and his accuracy will allow us to take that positive step forward in the pass game." Thompson will not be around as the backup after entering the NCAA transfer portal one day after learning that the starting job would go to Stevens.
ABOUT LOUISIANA (2018: 7-7)
The Ragin' Cajuns are breaking in a new quarterback as well following the graduation of Andre Nunez, who guided the offense to an average of 31.9 points last season. Junior Levi Lewis is expected to emerge from a crowded quarterback room and will have the support of a rushing attack that averaged 218.7 yards on the ground last season. "I think this team is further along because I think we know each other better, we understand expectations and we've been through some struggles," Napier told reporters. "We went through some battles last year, and the group of players that we have, they've grown. We're better equipped to handle adversity, we've been in some fights, we know what the struggle is going to be like, and we welcome it. I think we're in good shape there."
1. The Mississippi State football and men's basketball programs were placed on three years' probation Friday after it was found that a tutor committed academic misconduct on behalf of members of both teams, but there will not be a postseason ban.
2. Napier made news earlier this month when it broke that he was requiring scholarship athletes to donate a minimum of $50 to the Ragin' Cajun Athletic Foundation.
3. The Bulldogs were second in FBS in scoring defense last season, limiting opponents to an average of 13.2 points.
PREDICTION: Mississippi State 42, Louisiana 24