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Mississippi State is the most important game on Georgia’s schedule no one’s thinking about

Cy Brown

Welcome to your one-stop shop for Georgia football news and takes every Monday through Friday. Mississippi State is one of the most overlooked games on Georgia’s 2017 schedule, but it could also be one of the most important.

Track: No Rain | Artist: Blind Melon | Album: Blind Melon

2017 Season Preview: Mississippi State

Let’s just put it bluntly: Georgia got off easy with its home schedule in 2017. Gridiron Now even named it the easiest home schedule in the SEC. Yes, it’s one of the least exciting slate of games to come to the Classic City in quite a while (NOON KICKOFFS HERE WE COME!), but it should provide more victories between the hedges than Georgia produced last season. With only Mississippi State, Missouri, Kentucky and South Carolina coming to Athens from within the SEC, that 3-3 home record of 2016 should jump to 6-0 in 2017.

The operative word there is should, of course. On paper, Georgia is better than every team it will face in Athens this season, but the margins are pretty thin. Just like happens every season, there’s going to come a game that looks like an obvious win in the run up that winds up being much closer than anyone thought it could be (Nicholls), possibly even to the tune of a loss (Vanderbilt). Home-field advantage and an ostensibly better team than all the opponents coming to Athens creates confidence, possibly overconfidence, and I expect many folks to simply overlook a lot of these games as certain wins when thinking about the coming season.

Case in point: Mississippi State. You can admit it. This offseason you’ve barely thought about the game against the other Bulldogs of the SEC. Your mind has been preoccupied with planning a trip to South Bend and concocting revenge fantasies about Tennessee. I’ll admit it. When I was first going over the schedule in preparation for this series on 2017 opponents, I reached Week 4 and thought, “Oh, dang, I forgot Mississippi State comes to Athens this year.”

But after I remembered this game was happening and thought about it for a while, I realized this is actually one of the most important games of Georgia’s season. It’s the first SEC game of a season in which many fans are thinking “Atlanta or Bust” in regards to the SEC East. It’s also the first real test after the all-important trip to Notre Dame (Sorry, Samford). Depending on whether the Dawgs mark the win column or loss column in South Bend, the Mississippi State game will either be the first chance to build upon a momentum-boosting win against the Irish or the first opportunity to rebound from a momentum-halting loss to the Irish.

Whatever Georgia’s reality is after the game Notre Dame, Mississippi State will serve as a reality check.

Their offense

The Bulldogs finished 6-7 in 2016, taking a big step back after the loss of QB Dak Prescott. But Dan Mullen is a fantastic offensive coach, and MSU’s attack won’t stay down for long. In fact, there’s many reasons for optimism around MSU’s offense, specifically QB Nick Fitzgerald. He finished with 2,423 yards passing and 1,375 yards rushing, second in the SEC, to go along with 36 total touchdowns as a sophomore. If Fitzgerald goes on the kind of trajectory Prescott was on at MSU, we’ll see a big jump in Fitzgerald’s production next season. He will have to find a new top target, though, as leading receiver Fred Ross (917 yards, 12 TDs) graduated.

MSU’s biggest problem offensively is its over-reliance on Fitzgerald in the run game. The QB led the team in carries, yards and touchdowns last season — something you never want to see out of your quarterback, even in an offense that likes the QB to run, like Mullen’s. Aeris Williams is the most likely back to receive more touches. He ran for 720 yards last season, 191 coming in the Egg Bowl. If he can eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and take some pressure off Fitzgerald, it will be a boon for the Bulldogs.

Their defense

Mullen shook up his staff in the offseason and brought in a familiar face around Athens to run the defense: Todd Grantham. I’ll save you all the misery of going back through what to expect from a Grantham defense. God knows y’all suffered through that for too long. What I will tell you is that he is charged with turning around a defense that was one of the worst in the nation last season, ranking 110th in yards allowed per game. And he’ll be doing it with a crew of recent JUCO transfers, a few of whom will be names Georgia fans recognize (Chauncey Rivers, Johnathan Abram). He’ll also have to oversee the transition to a 3-4 scheme, so the defense will do a lot of learning on the fly.

In my mind, that’s not the recipe for a successful unit. At least not in Year 1. Grantham may turn this defense into a well-oiled machine one day, but it won’t be in 2017. The Bulldogs shouldn’t be the 110th-worst defense in the country next season, but anticipating a wholesale turnaround in just one season is expecting a minor miracle.

How things could go against Georgia

Mississippi State’s mindset in this game will be determined largely by how it plays the week before against LSU. The Bulldogs get the Tigers at home, surely one of the most important games of the season for them. I tend to think this plays in Georgia’s favor. Should they secure an upset win against LSU, they’ll come into Athens emotionally exhausted from what is likely to be their biggest win all season. Or, the more likely scenario, should they lose to LSU, they’ll have just been beaten down by one of the most physical teams in the nation. There’s a chance either of those outcomes could motivate MSU, but I tend to adhere to the “Body Blow Theory.” Georgia has the home field, the better team and a much easier opponent the week before. They should be solid favorites heading into this one.

FPI projections give Georgia a 78.8 percent chance to beat Mississippi State.

Back of the pack

As Brandon Adams discussed on DawgNation Daily podcast on Wednesday, CBS Sports ranked all 65 coaches of Power 5 teams and Kirby Smart landed near the rear with the gear. He ranked 54th after his inaugural season as head coach, dropping from 46th last year, before he had ever coached a game at Georgia.

Smart was ranked rather highly last year for someone who had never been a head coach before, but he had that [Nick] Saban sheen. Seems some of it wore off over what was generally considered a disappointing 8-5 season in Athens.

Smart did rank above Barry Odom (62) and Mark Stoops (56) among SEC East coaches, so he’s got that going for him, I guess.

Causes for concern and optimism

ESPN recently broke down post-spring causes of concern for each team in its preseason Top 25. Georgia checks in at 13th, and Edward Aschoff hit it on the money in regard to its most worrisome area entering the 2017 campaign: the offensive line.

Smart was pretty pleased with the play of his offensive line for most of the spring, but this group had plenty of hiccups in the spring game. The first-team offensive line gave up 5 “sacks” and looked out of sorts at times in pass protection. Even with three new starters, this line could be more athletic and more cohesive, but that spring game performance left a lot to be desired.

There’s a flip side to every coin, though. Last week, Aschoff and the crew at ESPN also looked at reasons for optimism among Top 25 teams. Georgia’s comes from a group that many had concerns about before the spring: the wide receivers.

Smart wasn’t ready to crown his receiving group anything special, but despite having no go-to or even dominant receiver, this group did a 180 from last year. Terry Godwin is looking more and more like the potential No. 1 receiver. True freshman Jeremiah Holloman showed flashes of being a deep threat and former JUCO transfer Javon Wims seems to have developed some nice chemistry with QB Jacob Eason. Outside of Isaiah McKenzie, no Georgia receiver hit 400 yards last year.

ESPN also took a look at the most improved players on each SEC team. For Georgia, the distinction was given to DE Jonathan Ledbetter.

Dawgs in Costa Rica

ICYMI

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How I feel most Thursdays.