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Monday Morning Coffee Break

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FOOTBALL

Year 2003; another season like years 2001-2002 or the start of another series of years like 1997-2000?

I started out thinking this MMCB was going to be about what the pre-season football publications were writing about our Bulldogs. I even went out and bought all of the pre-season magazines that I could get my hands on.

Like almost every year, just about every one of them has MSU projected as the sixth place team in the Western Division of the SEC. Actually, every one of the magazines that I purchased (Phil Steele, Phipps, Lindy's, Athlon's, Street and Smith, Inside Players', The Sporting News) has MSU picked sixth. Plus, none of them have MSU projected among their top 40 national teams. Their projected national rankings of MSU were as follows:

  • Lindy's - 68th
  • The Sporting News - 69th
  • Athlon's - 73rd
  • Inside Players' - 74th
  • Of course, after two straight seasons of 3 wins each, what would you expect from these type publications? They don't have direct access to what is really going on at each school and have to project based on what the team did last season, how many players are coming back and the schedules of each school. None see first-hand what went on during the spring practices, how the new coaches meshed with the players (if a team has new assistant coaches) or what is happening during the summer, all of which will have a major impact on what happens this coming season.

    Well, unlike the folks who pick for the magazines, I have first-hand knowledge of all of these things, so here's what I think about our team.

    Will this team compare favorable to the 1997-2000 era when MSU was the winningest team in the SEC West or will it be more like the last two teams when MSU won exactly 2 SEC games and just 6 of 23 games?

    There are several things that decide the fate of a team. I ranked them in order of most important to least important.

  • 1) Talent level of the players.
  • 2) Talent level of the coaches.
  • 3) Injuries.
  • 4) Turnover ratio.
  • 5) Discipline.
  • 6) Schedule.
  • Talent level of the player

    During years 1997 to 2000, MSU had 15 players drafted by the NFL or about 4 per year. During years 2001 and 2002, the NFL drafted 4 players total, an average of 2 per season.

    Let's go a notch below that and compare All-SEC performers during those years. During 1997-2000, MSU had 31 selections, a 7.5 per year average. During 2001-2002, MSU had 6 selected which is a 3 per year average.

    Which category will this year's team fit, 1997-2000 or 2001-2002?

    Two of the All-SEC performers from last season are back, kicker Brent Smith and linebacker Jason Clark. So far, so good. Now, are there enough other players to move up to a three or a seven and a half player average?

    First, you have The Sporting News Freshman All-SEC player Darren Williams coming back at free safety. Add him in and you've got three potential All-SEC players.

    Any other possibilities?

    I see some potential in players like senior LB T.J. Mawhinney, senior DE Tommy Kelly, junior DT Ronald Fields, sophomore LB Marvin Byrdsong and sophomore RBs Nick Turner and Jerious Norwood. You also have sophomores OT Richard Burch, OG/C Chris McNeil and DE Willie Evans. Freshman DB Quinton Culberson could also figure in the picture because of how talented he is, although he is probably an extreme longshot because he is a freshman. While it is probably a longshot up to three or four of these players will wind up as All-SEC players this coming season, it still bodes well for the future that most of the all-star candidates are sophomores.

    Then, like all good teams, you have several quality players who may never be All-SEC but are solid players, players such as senior C Blake Jones, junior OG Brad Weathers, junior OG David Stewart, junior FB Darnell Jones, junior WR Ray Ray Bivines, senior DE Kamau Jackson and senior QB Kevin Fant.

    It will also help out immensely if there is quality depth behind the starters. Will this team have that kind of depth?

    Offense:

  • Quarterback - Kyle York and Kevin Fant gives MSU two experienced players at QB. If either one of these two falters in the backup role, then look for the very talented redshirt freshman Aries Nelson to move up to number 2 on the depth chart. He's not ready to start but he could come in and play a few downs each game. Probably no All-SEC candidates this year, but solid players with solid depth. EVEN 1997-2000 : EVEN 2001-2002
  • Running Back - If Turner and Norwood live up to expectations and don't suffer serious injuries, this position will be about as good as MSU can get. The always reliable Fred Reid will also fit in the picture. Plus all three have great hands. If the wide receivers don't improve their catching skills, new OC Morris Watts offense is such that more passes could be thrown to the running backs coming out of the backfield. Turner and Norwood have the kind of talent that will allow them to be All-SEC candidates. Depth is strong here as long as no one gets injured. As good as 1997-2000 due to depth and better than 2001-2002 due to talent level and experience. EVEN 1997-2002 : PLUS 2001-2002
  • Fullback - Sometimes starter Darnell Jones is back but has no experience player behind him. He has Alabama transfer Nick Signaigo and redshirt freshman Bryson Davis behind him. Neither have played a down for MSU. Jones has had injury problems in the past and Signaigo and Davis, although talented, are unknown factors at this time. If Jones can stay healthy and one of the two backups prove to be solid, then this position will be solid. If these guys can't do it, then this position will be a problem because there is nobody else available. Not as good as either 1997-2000 (McKinley, Greer, Williamson, Griffith) or 2001-2002 (Justin Griffith). MINUS 1997-2002
  • Wide Receiver - Wide receiver is solid with starters Jenkins and Bivines returning. If Antonio Hargro finally lives up to his immense potential and Tee Milons continues to improve, this position will have some depth. Redshirt freshman Will Prosser could also factor in due to a very good spring. Milas Randle had a good spring after moving over from the defensive side of the ball. Add those two in and there are enough bodies to go around. However, the bottom line is if the receivers don't catch any better than they did last season, depth won't help and this position could be the biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball. More talented than the 1997-2000 groups but there are strong question marks about catching the ball. Better than the 2001-2002 group due to experience. MINUS 1997-2000 : PLUS 2001-2002
  • Offensive Line - The OL has veteran starters Weathers, Stewart and Jones back. Sophomores Burch and McNeil, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries last season mid-way through the year, will man down the other two spots. Junior utility offensive lineman Will Rogers and talented sophomore Johnny Wadley will add depth, with Wadley, if he loses the necessary weight, possibility beating someone out of a job if they falter. Redshirt freshmen James Redmond and Otis Riddley could also shore up the depth at the OT and OG position. Riddley really impressed the coaches last spring with how well he played after moving over from the DL. MSU will probably have to count on incoming freshman Donovan Davis to provide some depth at OG and OT. If the starters stay healthy, this unit could be solid this year and very, very good in the future. Inexperience (Redmond, Riddley, Davis) at several backup positions leaves depth a big question mark. Knowing how talented this group is, I can't wait to see how good they will be in 2004 and 2005. The 1997-2000 group was more talented (Hicks, Thomas, Allen, Moore, Kapp, Womack, Fair, Shivers, Watson, Thompson) but this group is more talented and experienced than the 2001-2002 lines. MINUS 1997-2000 : PLUS 2001-2002
  • Tight End - There are a lot of bodies at this position but Coach Sherrill wasn't happy with what he saw in the spring. Senior Aaron Lumpkin, in my opinion, will wind up winning the starting role and will be a solid player. He showed good hands at time and is a very intelligent and hard-working player. Backups Tommy Ferrill and Kyle Wiley give some depth but both must prove themselves during two-a-days for this to become a solid position with solid depth. As of now, this position is a big question mark due to the lack of a proven starter and proven depth. Not as talented as the 1997-2000 group (Kelly, Lee) or the 2001-2002 tight end (Lee). MINUS 1997-2000 and 2001-2002
  • Kicker - Brent Smith, an All-SEC performer last season, is back and should be better than ever despite missing almost all of spring practice. His backups will be senior John Michael Marlin and redshirt freshman Keith Andrews. While the starter is outstanding, the depth would have to be rated inconsistent to unknown. Brent is as good as any kicker MSU had from 1997 to 2002. EVEN 1997-2000 : PLUS 2001-2002
  • Defense

  • Defensive Line - With Tommy Kelly, Ronald Fields and Willie Evans returning, MSU has three starting defensive line starters returning. All three have a great deal of talent but Kelly and Fields must show they are willing to play up to that level on the field. If Kamau Jackson is cleared for a 5th year by the NCAA, he will be the fourth starter. Kamau was very impressive during the spring and will be needed. Lennie Day adds solid depth, as does Robert Spivey. After those two, all the depth will be either redshirt freshmen (Roosevelt Tate, Markell McKinley) or true freshmen (Corey Clark, Deljuan Robinson, Devrick Hampton). Due to the depth being inexperience and unknown, this is a position that remains a big question mark. Probably more talent than all but two of the years in the 1997-2000 years, but just not as experienced. More talent and more depth than 2001-2002, just not as experienced. MINUS 1997-2000 : PLUS 2001-2002.
  • Linebackers - With All-SEC performer Jason Clark and 12-game starter T.J. Mawhinney back, this is a solid unit. With a new defensive coordinator onboard, there is now a third linebacker. High School Parade All-American Marvin Byrdsong earned that spot. He has as much talent as any linebacker to play for State since Johnie Cooks, but lacks game experience. Rico Bennett, Kenny Kern, Brandon Downing, Tarus Morgan and Clarence McDougal give solid depth at this position. Bennett, Morgan and Downing have significant game experience. Kern and McDougal had and outstanding spring and could turn out to be great players before they leave MSU. This group probably has as much talent as any group during the past 6 years but the most talented player of the group (Byrdsong) has little game experience. EVEN 1997-2000 : PLUS 2001-2002
  • Defensive Backfield - Sophomore Darren Williams has a chance to be the best free safety to play for MSU in a long, long time. Sophomore Kevin Dockery is small but a great athlete. He will be a solid strong safety if the coaches leave him there. Watch out for juco signee Chris Swain at strong safety. The guy had a very good spring and has to play somewhere. Senior CB Odell Bradley won one cornerback position with a very good spring. He showed that he is a very hard hitter. The only question marks are can he cover and can he remain healthy? No one stood out at the other cornerback position, although redshirt senior Demetric Wright has started several games as has junior Slovakia Griffith. Freshman David Heard could fit in the picture at CB as could incoming true freshmen Quinton Culberson (Parade All-American), Jeramie Johnson and Adrian Griffin. Juco All-American DB Eric Fuller was signed to play this year and will fit in the picture at one of the safety positions. The talent level at DB excites me, but there are a lot of question marks due to inexperience. The future of this defensive backfield probably includes two or three potential All-SEC players and maybe an All-American or two, but probably not this year. MINUS 1997-2000 (tremendous group that included Bean, Smoot, Cooper, Prather, Brown, Nelson, Daniel, Morgan) : PLUS 2001-2002
  • Punter - Jared Cook and Robert Wallis shared the punting duties last season. Neither one stood out but they should be better due to experience. However, they've got to do better than allowing 15.7 yards per punt return. During years 1997-2002, MSU allowed between 5.1 to 6.9 yards per punt return. Another minus is during 2002, Cook and Wallis gave up almost as many punt returns as any two years combined during the years 1997-2000. This is not always the punter's fault but more hang time would help tremendously. MINUS 1997-2000 : EVEN 2001-2002
  • OK, what are the results based on talent? Does this team's talent level have the potential to be in the 1997-2000 group or the 2001-2002 group? Let's look at the results.

  • 1997-2000 - PLUS 0, MINUS 7, EVEN 4
  • 2001-2002 - PLUS 7, MINUS 2, EVEN 2
  • Based on talent and experience, this group will be better than the past two years but not as good as the years 1997-2000. If that translated into wins due to talent and experience alone, then MSU should win more than 3 games but less than 8. But, as we know, games aren't won on talent alone.

    Talent level of the coaches

    Did you know the last time MSU replaced 4 or more assistant coaches was at the end of 1996. After MSU went 3-8 in 1995 and 5-6 in 1996, MSU replaced 4 assistant coaches and won 7, 8, 10 and 8 games the next four seasons. Will the addition of 5 new assistant coaches produce the same kind of results? There's really no way of knowing for sure. With that said, here's a brief description of the new assistants and the holdover coaches.

    Head coach Jackie Sherrill is the winningest coach in MSU history. He has guided his teams (Pitt, Texas A&M and MSU) to 14 bowl games during his 25-year career. Six of those bowl games have come during his 12-year MSU career. He has won 178 games, an average of 7 per season. He has never had more than two losing seasons in a row during his career.

    After last season, Coach Sherrill replaced offensive coordinator Sparky Woods with highly respected offensive coordinator Morris Watts. During this past football season, Morris' Michigan State team averaged over 28 points per game and was a balanced offensive unit (384 rushes, 345 passes). In 2001, Watts was nominated for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. Michigan State led the Big Ten in passing offense (a school-record 292.5 yards per game) and total offense (447 yards per game), and was third in scoring offense (31.2 points per game) that year. That total offense mark was the second-best average in school history. In 1999, Watts' first year of his third stint in East Lansing, Michigan State gained an average of 368.2 yards per game in total offense and tallied 31.5 points per game. Before his most recent stint at Michigan State, Watts spent four years at LSU. Under his direction, the Tigers won back-to-back Southeastern Conference rushing titles (1996-97) and produced three of the highest-scoring teams in school history.

    On the defensive side of the ball, Coach Sherrill replaced MSU defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn with 41-year old Ron Cooper. Cooper has served as a head coach at Alabama A&M, Louisville and Eastern Michigan. Cooper comes to State following one season as the defensive backfield coach at Wisconsin of the Big 10 Conference. During that brief period, under his direction, Wisconsin had the Big 10's two individual leaders in pass interceptions. One of those, walk-on strong safety Jim Leonhard, led the nation with 10 pass thefts. While at A&M, he had his Bulldog team in the Southwestern Athletic Conference title game as champions of the Eastern Division. That team led the nation in rushing defense and finished eighth in total defense. During his stint at Louisville, he directed the Cardinals to a 7-4 mark in his first season at the Conference USA school. That team led the nation in turnovers forced, and finished ninth nationally in scoring defense, 18th in total defense and 20th in rushing defense. His '96 UL squad ranked fourth nationally in both total and rushing defense. Before becoming a collegiate head coach, Cooper served as a defensive coordinator at Murray State (1987-88) and UNLV (1990), and worked two seasons (1991-92) as assistant head coach at Notre Dame. While on the staff of Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, Cooper helped the Fighting Irish to the 1992 Sugar Bowl and 1993 Cotton Bowl championships. During that time span, Cooper tutored defensive backs Tom Carter, Jeff Burris, Bobby Taylor, Rod Smith and Willie Clark, all of whom played in the National Football League.

    Coach Sherrill also added new assistant coaches John Blake, Steve Campbell and Guy Holliday.

    The 42-year old Blake was the head coach at the University of Oklahoma from 1995-98. He posted a three-year, 12-22 mark as the Sooner head coach, but recruited to Norman 18 of the 22 starters that won the national championship in 2000. Prior to the Oklahoma head coaching stint, Blake was the defensive line coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 1993-95. During those three seasons, the Cowboys were Super Bowl Champions (1995) and NFC Champions (1993, '94 and '95). His '94 defensive front led the league in rush defense and the entire unit was the NFL's top-ranked defense. That group led the NFC and was second in the NFL in sacks. His '93 group was second in the league in scoring defense. Blake had five players make the Pro Bowl during his three seasons.

    Campbell, 37 years old, was the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Middle Tennessee State prior to coming to MSU. Under his guidance, Middle Tennessee scored three or more touchdowns eight times during the '02 season, defeated Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., and dropped a narrow season-opening 39-34 game at Alabama. The Blue Raiders averaged 25 points, more than 200 yards rushing, and 154 yards passing per game. Prior to going to Middle Tennessee, Campbell was the 2000 Division II National Coach of the Year after leading Delta (Miss.) State to the D-II national title. He directed the Statesmen to a 14-1 overall mark and to the Gulf South Conference championship. That title-winning campaign was the culmination of an outstanding three-year stint as the head coach at the Cleveland, Miss., based institution. He compiled a 27-8 overall record during his tenure.

    The 40-year old Holliday comes to MSU from Western Michigan University where he has served the past three seasons as tight ends and then receivers coach. Under his guidance, the WMU receiving corps boasted four players with 37 or more catches. Tight end Mo Afariogun had 39 catches for five touchdowns and was named all-Mid-American Conference for a third-straight year by the league's coaches.

    Holdover assistant coaches include Glenn Davis, Jim Tompkins, Terry Lewis and Curley Hallman.

    Tompkins, the linebacker coach, has produced at least one All-SEC performer in 13 of his 14 years while at MSU.

    Running back coach Glenn Davis has had 2 All-SEC performers during his 6-year MSU career. One of his pupils, James Johnson, was selected in the 2nd round of the NFL draft.

    Tight ends coach Terry Lewis, who has coached mostly offensive linemen during his career, has seen numerous of his players earn all-conference honors and many have gone on to play pro ball.

    Defensive back coach Curley Hallman, in his second year at MSU, has participated in 12 post-season bowl games as a coach.

    Based on reading this information, there is no doubt the coaching talent is on staff.

    PLUS 1997-2000 : PLUS 2001-2002.

    Injuries

    During the years 1997-2000, MSU had very few serious injuries. In fact, during the 1999 campaign when MSU went 10-2, there were no serious injuries on either side of the ball. On the offensive side of the ball, MSU had 6 players who started every game that season. Two others, Fairchild and Madkin, started all but 1 while Rainey started all but 2. The other two positions had a couple of players alternating. On the defensive side, like on the offensive side, 6 players started all of the games. Four other players started all but 1 game. One player, Bobby Pressley, had an illness that caused him to quit playing football midway through the season. He was replaced by Conner Stephens.

    The other years during that period had similar stats.

    The same can't be said for years 2001 and 2002.

    Year 2002 was the worst of the two. Two promising offensive linemen, Burch and McNeil, suffered season-ending injuries about halfway through the season. Starting quarterback Fant suffered through an injury-plagued year and missed one game due to a self-reported NCAA violation. Starting cornerback Demetric Wright was awarded a medical redshirt after playing one game, the opener against Oregon. Current starting cornerback Odell Bradley suffered an injury that kept him from playing full speed most of the year.

    Year 2001 wasn't much better with starting fullback Justin Griffith missing all but 1 game of the season, starting running back Dizenco Miller suffering through an injury-plagued year and starting OL Kevin Fairchild playing on a hurt ankle most of the year. Starting QB Wayne Madkin slumped throughout the year and was replaced late in the season with Fant.

    ? 1997-2000 : ? 2001-2002

    Turnover ratio

    I'm listing the turnover ratio a shade behind injuries, but they could be dead even.

    As you will see once you look at the stats below, year 2002, when MSU went 3-9, was a disaster due to the turnovers. MSU had 38 while their opponents had 23, which is a variance of 15. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that MSU had its most lopsided losses during that year. In fact, MSU had 8 double-digit losses that season, which was just 4 less than the previous 5 years combined.

    Even 2001, when MSU went 3-8, was a much better year if you take into consideration the margin of each loss. Only 3 of the losses were by double digits. All the rest were by margins of 2, 2, 7, 3 and 3. The turnovers during that year were 26 for MSU and 22 for its opponents.

    During MSU's winning years of 1997 through 2000, MSU either had less turnovers or, in two of those years, 1 and 2 more.

    Here are the actual stats.

    Turnovers:

  • 2002 (3-9) - MSU 38, OPP 23 - Margin of Losses 23, 28, 18, 24, 21, 14, 18, 7, 12.
  • 2001 (3-8) - MSU 26, OPP 22 - Margin of Losses 2, 52, 2, 12, 42, 7, 3, 3.
  • 2000 (8-4) - MSU 24, OPP 33 - Margin of Losses 4, 7 (OT), 7 (OT), 15.
  • 1999 (10-2) - MSU 28, OPP 27 - Margin of Losses 12, 5.
  • 1998 (8-5) - MSU 23, OPP 28 - Margin of Losses 19, 35, 2, 10, 27.
  • 1997 (7-4) - MSU 25, OPP 23 - Margin of Losses 15, 47, 10, 1.
  • ? 1997-2000 : ? 2001-2002

    Discipline

    How important is discipline when it comes to wins and losses? Discipline in itself is very important to maintain control of the team on and off the field. But most fans associate discipline with the number of penalties a team has. And MSU has had a lot of those the past few years. However, based on stats alone, penalties haven't played a major role in MSU winning or losing games. Of course, we can all think of a game here or there where there was a penalty that cost MSU a touchdown. But, based on the stats shown below, penalties aren't a big factor in wins and losses. In fact, two of MSU's best years (1999,2000) were the most penalized years of the six-year period I am writing about.

    Year-Results-MSU Penalties/Yards-OPP Penalties/Yards:

  • 2002 (3-9) - MSU 85-734 | OPP 98-765.
  • 2001 (3-8) - MSU 104-987 | OPP 90-684.
  • 2000 (8-4) - MSU 113-956 | OPP 77-602.
  • 1999 (10-2) - MSU 112-956 | OPP 97-731.
  • 1998 (8-5) - MSU 97-811 | OPP 68-587.
  • 1997 (7-4) - MSU 83-683 | OPP 67-528.
  • EVEN 1997-2000 : EVEN 2001-2002

    Schedule

    This year's schedule is about the norm for MSU with SEC Western Division schools Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas on it. MSU also has Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky on the schedule. The non-conference schedule includes Oregon, Tulane, Houston and Memphis. Memphis was on the 1997-2002 schedules. The other three replaced the likes of Northeast Louisiana, Central Florida, Middle Tennessee, Oklahoma State, Troy State, Jacksonville State and Brigham Young. While some could argue about the strength of each team during the individual years, the strength of one team would probably offset the weaknesses of another one.

    EVEN 1997-2000 : EVEN 2001-2002

    Now, that you have spent most of your morning reading this and attempting to comprehend everything that I have written, here is the bottom line. MSU has enough player and coaching talent to be a better team than the last two years. There is no doubt in my mind about that. The schedule strength is pretty much the same as always. Discipline, a significant factor but not that major of a factor when it comes to winning and losing, is much better. That could win MSU a game, but probably not more than that. The two factors that will determine how good MSU will be this year are injuries and turnovers. We should know within the first two to three games what kind of turnover team we will have this year. The injury bug is a wildcard that could happen at any point of the season, so there's no way to know how they will affect the season until one or more injuries happen. If they don't happen and MSU maintains a turnover ratio close to 50/50 or better, then MSU will go bowling. I have no doubt about that.

    Have a great Bulldog week!

    Gene Swindoll


    Gene Swindoll is the owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial source for Mississippi State sports on the internet. The URL for Gene's Page is http://mississippistate.theinsiders.com. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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