Confident Mississippi State ready to contend in SEC West

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State isn’t shying away from its status as a contender to win the Southeastern Conference.

Instead, first-year coach Joe Moorhead is embracing the sky-high expectations and is pleased that his players feel the same way.

“Hype and confidence are two things that I don’t worry about with the team,” Moorhead said. “We are a very confident group, and I think we have a good reason. We have earned a right to be confident.”

Mississippi State returns most of a team that finished with a 9-4 record last season, including a 4-4 mark in the SEC. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returns for his third season as the starter after throwing for more than 4,000 yards and running for more than 2,000 over the past two seasons.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior says he’s fully recovered after suffering a gruesome dislocated right ankle in last year’s Egg Bowl. He’ll be surrounded by Aeris Williams, who ran for 1,107 yards last season and an experienced offensive line.

“I think we have all the tools and all the weapons we need to effectively run this offense,” Fitzgerald said.

Mississippi State’s defense returns eight starters and is particularly deep along the defensive line and in the secondary. Senior Montez Sweat led the team with 15½ tackles for a loss last year and figures to get more opportunities to make big plays under new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who plans to use Sweat as an edge rusher on his four-man defensive line.

Senior safeties Mark McLaurin and Johnathan Abram return after ranking first and second on the team in tackles last season. McLaurin also had six interceptions in 2017.

The only major changes are on the sideline, where Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen , who left after nine seasons to coach at Florida. Moorhead comes to Mississippi State after two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Penn State.

“The kids are doing a great job, the coaching staff is aligned, everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction and it’s a good reason for optimism,” Moorhead said.

The Bulldogs open the season on Sept. 1 at home against Stephen F. Austin.

Some more things to know about the Bulldogs in 2018:

LOOKING FOR RECEIVERS: Fitzgerald says Mississippi State might open up the passing game this season, but that’s contingent on several factors. One issue is that Fitzgerald needs to improve on his 55 percent completion rate. The other is that the Bulldogs need to find some consistent receivers. Last year, no one had more than 27 catches. Candidates for a breakout year at receiver include Austin Williams, Keith Mixon and Jesse Jackson.

FITZGERALD’S GOT BACKUP: Fitzgerald’s health will be a big cause for concern, especially early in the season. The Bulldogs can take comfort in knowing that backup Keytaon Thompson looks like he’ll be a solid option if needed. The sophomore helped lead Mississippi State to a 31-27 win in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl, running for 147 yards and three touchdowns while also throwing for 127 yards.

MOORHEAD’S RISING STAR: The 44-year-old Moorhead has had a quick rise to becoming a head coach in the Southeastern Conference. He had four good seasons as the head coach at FCS-level Fordham before joining the Penn State staff as offensive coordinator under James Franklin. He had two excellent seasons with the Nittany Lions, building an offense around running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, before coming to Starkville.

CAN’T WAIT FOR SEPT. 29: It’s going to be hard to find a seat at Davis-Wade Stadium on Sept. 29 when Florida comes to town. The Gators are led by former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who left Starkville after nine seasons during the offseason. Mullen is widely respected in Starkville after his successful run with the Bulldogs, but many fans were upset that he left for another program in the SEC.

A LOOK AT THE SCHEDULE: Mississippi State opens the season with Stephen F. Austin on Sept. 1 before playing Kansas State, Louisiana and Kentucky over the next three weeks. That gives the Bulldogs a decent shot at being 4-0 going into their showdown with Florida. If this veteran Mississippi State roster can mesh quickly with its new coach, it’s certainly possible that the Bulldogs could finish with a 10-win season.

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