ATHENS — Hugh Kellenberger has covered the ACC, the Big Ten and the SEC in his dozen or so years in the business. So he’s been around, in a sports journalist sense.
Kellenberger has also covered the Ole Miss Rebels as as a beat writer before becoming the sports editor and a columnist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In that capacity, Kellenberger has become quite familiar with Mississippi State. Kellenberger saw up close and personal the Bulldogs’ 37-7 win over then No. 12-LSU last Saturday. And he’ll be in Athens this Saturday for the SEC showdown between No. 17 Mississippi State (3-0) and No. 11 Georgia (3-0).
First of all, you should know that Kellenberger is a husband and a father to three sons and has a pet dog he has offered up to anyone willing to take him. So be nice to him. He’s a great follow on Twitter — @HKellenbergerCL — and you can read him and all his colleagues on the Clarion-Ledger’s online sports page.
As we do every week, we sent some questions Kellenberger’s way to provide some insight from an opposing view perspective on Saturday’s game.
Georgia opened as a touchdown favorite for Saturday’s contest, but a lot of the money has been going down on State and the line was around 4.5 points at last check. Let’s get to Kellenberger’s viewpoint on the contest.
1. At SEC Media Days in Birmingham everybody picked Mississippi State sixth or worse in the West. Did you see this coming? Are your Bulldogs as good as they appear or was maybe LSU way overrated and/or poorly coached?
Kellenberger: The only surprise about the SEC predicted order of finish was that Mississippi State wasn’t picked to finish last in the West. It’s just become a thing that happens every year, despite the fact MSU has never finished at the bottom of the SEC West under Dan Mullen. You’d have to ask those who do it why, but it is what it is.
Did I see Mississippi State beating LSU? Absolutely. Did I see it being a 37-7 game? No. LSU played as poor a game as it possibly could, and Mississippi State played one of its best. That’s how the outcome became what it was.
The thing that was impossible to identify and determine in July that has become the biggest part of Mississippi State’s early success is the defense. I’m guessing we’ll talk more about Todd Grantham later, but it’s been a 180 degree turn from 2016 on that side of the ball and it’s made all the difference.
2. Obviously everybody back this way is very interested in Nick Fitzgerald. He’s yet another dual-threat quarterback from Georgia that UGA either didn’t recruit or didn’t land. What has been your impressions of Fitzgerald as a quarterback and, again, did Mullen and company know what they had in this kid or has he simply overachieved and overcome?
Kellenberger: Hindsight is 20/20. Nick Fitzgerald didn’t play quarterback at his own high school until his senior year, and threw it all of 76 times that season. We talked to the high school coaches who faced him, and they all said they knew he was an incredible athlete. He could run, and he’s a big guy. But they also hinted they suspected he’d end up at tight end. He was far from a sure thing, and it took a leap to recruit him.
“But he came to a Mississippi State camp, and Dan Mullen saw something in him. That’s what Mullen does, going back to Bowling Green and continuing through Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and now Fitzgerald. So could Fitzgerald have gone somewhere else and been just as successful? Maybe. But Mullen is one of, if not the, best in the country at identifying talent, nurturing it and playing to the strengths of that guy (no two of his quarterbacks have played the same way).
3. Clearly, Jeffery Simmons has lived up to his lofty billing. Fill us in on his tumultuous beginnings at State and tell us how he now fits into what State is doing on defense.
Kellenberger: There was a period of time where it was very much in question whether or not Jeffery Simmons would ever enroll at Mississippi State, much less play any kind of role on the football team. In March 2016 he was arrested and charged with simple assault and disturbing the peace after a video emerged of him hitting a woman. It was jarring, not only because it happened but because there was a video of it. Mississippi State ultimately made a decision to suspend Simmons for only one game, and he played all of last season. I think it was the wrong call, but MSU supporters would point out Simmons has not had any issues since.
“As far as his actual on-field product, he’s the kind of hybrid defensive lineman that Grantham (hey, there’s a mention of that guy again) seems to really covet. When they line up in a 3-4 front Simmons is large enough to play nose guard. When they’re going with unbalanced fronts Simmons lines up as a tackle or even an end. Wherever he is he creates havoc, not just plugging. He blocked a punt against Louisiana Tech by running up the middle of the punt team — how often have you seen that?
4. Speaking of defense, Todd Grantham is a name many Georgia folks are very familiar with. They weren’t real happy with the way he blew town for more money at Louisville and kind of left them in a lurch. What’s the real circumstances in which he left Bobby Petrino’s staff and what would you say has been his impact on and reception from Missy State?
Kellenberger: “Why Mississippi State” has been a question asked a lot, and there’s so many answers given that you wonder if any of them are actually the case. But if you look at Grantham’s job history, he seems to crave situations where he has complete control of the defense and is also capable of fixing something that is wrong. Some guys like to build rather than maintain; maybe Grantham is the former?
Mississippi State has had four defensive coordinators in as many seasons. Geoff Collins went to Florida, and is now the head coach at Temple. Manny Diaz said this was his last job, and he left after a year for Miami. And Peter Sirmon was a first-time coordinator in 2016, and weirdly enough ended up replacing Grantham at Louisville. So MSU is very happy to have someone of Grantham’s talent, and he seems more willing to dig in and not be somewhere else in 2018. Plus that defense is very good, and enough guys are having bounce-back seasons that it suggests Grantham is having a big impact.
5. Is Dan Mullen safely there in Starkville for as long as he likes? It seems his name has come up a couple times for being on the hot seat but just as often it’s been about leaving for another job at another place. What do you think?
Kellenberger: If Dan Mullen wants he can coach here another 10-15 years and they’ll build a statue of him and Dak together outside of Davis Wade Stadium. Honestly, they may do that anyways. He’s the most successful coach in program history, and Dak is their best player. Fans got worked up last year when the team started slow, but the administration never wavered a bit. They know what they have, and a former peer (former baseball coach John Cohen) is now the school’s AD.
All of that said, could Mullen leave for another school? Sure. His name has been bandied about plenty over the years, and if you believe that the days of a Joe Paterno or Bill Snyder staying at one school forever are over then Mullen will eventually leave. But it’d be on his terms.
Mississippi State beat up LSU because it controlled the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. That’s the sort of thing that travels well, so I don’t think going to Athens will be much of a factor. Georgia is certainly talented, and this is probably a 50-50 game in my eyes. But, yeah, I think Mississippi State wins.