Mississippi State football prepares for a season unlike any other

STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 25: Mississippi State mascot “Bully” waves a flag before the game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Ole Miss Rebels on November 25, 2021 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Ms. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire)

The Masters is a tradition unlike any other. For Mississippi State football, this 2023 season will be unlike any other in the history of the school.

Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com

This reality transcends wins and losses, bowl games and championship dreams. This season is personal. This season is poignant. This season is played with the knowledge that the leader of the program, a man who left a very large imprint on the sport of college football, is no longer physically present to instruct, cajole, prod, quip, and bring his signature personality to the practice field, to the gameday environment, to everything a football team experiences over the course of a season.

Not having Mike Leach is, in itself, a big change, but not having him because he died – as opposed to being fired or taking another job – is the truly unique aspect of this coming season for Mississippi State.

“Win one for the Pirate!” will certainly be a rallying cry in the locker room in Starkville this year. To be sure, motivation and passion will run high at MSU this fall. New head coach Zach Arnett tapped into the emotion of playing for a beloved coach in the ReliaQuest (the artist formerly known as Outback) Bowl against Illinois, but that was one game against a mid-tier Big Ten team. Arnett now has to get his Bulldogs ready for a full SEC gauntlet.

By all appearances, Arnett seems like the real deal as a defensive coach. Just 36 years old, Arnett was able to bottle up Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense in the Egg Bowl, guiding MSU to a huge road win and the most satisfying moment for the team last season. That side of the ball figures to hold up well. The real questions naturally surround the Mississippi State offense. We can talk about passion and intensity and playing for Mike Leach until the cows come home, but wanting to win for a departed, beloved figure can only take a team so far. At some point, there has to be substance. There has to be real, top-tier playmaking. There has to be some meat on the offensive bone for these Bulldogs.

If you are generally aware of Mike Leach’s style as an offensive coach and a play-caller, you know that Leach did not have a massive playbook. He was not a coach who had a huge laminated play sheet with dozens of different color-coded rows and categories. He had a small piece of paper he would occasionally glance at. For Leach, offense and the passing game were built on repetition, basic plays, and core concepts. He believed in a larger idea: that spacing, timing, and precision could outflank a defense and outpace the ability of corners, safeties and linebackers to cover several wide receivers in time to deny a completion. The better defensive coordinators in the SEC learned to defend Leach with zone looks, but against man-to-man alignments, the Leach passing game has been consistently lethal throughout its history. If the quarterback guiding a Leach offense was patient enough against the zone, being willing to take shorter gains instead of forcing balls down the field, the Leach offense basically became an attack in which the five-yard pass replaced a handoff. The run-pass balance might have been skewed heavily to the pass, but the safety of that five-yard pass essentially made that passing play look and feel more like a running play. The five yards would regularly be gained, the clock would always run. It was basically a running play in every way except on the stat sheet.

Mike Leach taught this way of playing offense to generations of coaches. Players he taught at Texas Tech, including Kliff Kingsbury and Lincoln Riley, have taken their teaching under Leach and created their own innovative variations as head coaches and coordinators in subsequent decades. Leach provided the foundation, but Riley and Kingsbury and other proteges have put their own stamp on offensive football and a specific way of attacking opposing defenses.

Arnett, instead of keeping Leach’s Air Raid – given that Leach’s nuanced knowledge of that system is very hard to replicate if the master isn’t teaching it – has chosen to go with a more pro-style attack under new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay. You’re going to see the tight end in the MSU offense. You’re going to see the quarterback take some snaps under center instead of from the shotgun. Multiple looks, pre-snap shifts, and a larger assortment of formations will all be part of the Mississippi State offense of 2023. Quarterback Will Rogers and the other players who were part of Leach’s Air Raid last year will be asked to make the transition to this different system. It invites the possibility of a sluggish start to the season while players learn the finer points of a new scheme, but Arnett has made the calculation – a reasonable one, to be clear – that his MSU team has to rely on defense and thereby ride with an offense which might score less but can control the ball on the ground. If Mississippi State can control the clock and keep its defense fresh and rested, the Bulldogs could win a bunch of 20-13 or 23-17 games this season.

The risk in all of this is obvious: If MSU makes just a few mistakes in each game, that could prove fatal, because Arnett and Barbay are reshaping the team so that they minimize the opponent’s number of opportunities. If they successfully play keep-away with the football and can leverage field position, this defense should be good enough to hold down opponents’ scoring totals, and it can all work out. However, just one or two turnovers which lead to a short field or a score will more dramatically tilt the playing field against MSU. With a redesigned offense built more for ball control and less for the big play, MSU won’t be as likely to make huge comebacks (such as the game at Auburn earlier in Leach’s tenure). MSU will not be able to afford falling behind by two scores (nine or more points) in any game. The offense will be walking a tightrope.

In a season unlike any other, it will be fascinating to see if this team and Zach Arnett can turn motivation into results.

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