Mississippi State wrapped up the Dak Prescott era with a runaway win over N.C. State in the Belk Bowl.
Following one of the best two-year stretches in school history -- the Bulldogs were a combined 19-7 in 2014 and 2015 -- this offseason will feature plenty of uncertainty.
Let’s examine five of the big questions facing the Bulldogs this offseason:
Who replaces Manny Diaz? Dan Mullen is preparing to hire his sixth DC in eight years after Manny Diaz's second departure from the Bulldogs staff. Over the last two seasons, the Bulldogs were solid under Geoff Collins (who left after a landmark 2014 season to become DC at Florida) and about average under Diaz, whose 2015 defense ranked 36th in scoring defense (23.2 ppg) and 56th in total defense (391.2 ypg). The good news is that the new coordinator will have an experienced defense with which to work. The Bulldogs lose seniors Ryan Brown, Will Redmond, Taveze Calhoun and Kendrick Market and junior Chris Jones, but the two-deep defense is stocked with returning players. The linebackers, led by juniors Richie Brown (team-high 109 tackles, 13 TFLs, 6.5 sacks) and Beniquez Brown (99 tackles, 11 TFLs, four sacks), should be outstanding and junior defensive end A.J. Jefferson (13.5 TFLs, five sacks) could be a legitimate SEC star next season.
What should we expect at QB in the post-Dak era? Whoever claims the starting quarterback job -- and most seem to believe it will be Nick Fitzgerald -- he will have enormous shoes to fill. Dak Prescott was not just one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC over the last two seasons, he was one of the best players in Mississippi State history. Maybe THE best. An option quarterback in high school, the 6-foot-5 Fitzgerald (11-for-14, 235 yards, 3 TDs) performed well in limited work behind Prescott this season, with the highlight coming against Troy (6-for-7, 141 yards, 2 TDs). He’ll have to hold off Elijah Staley, Damien Williams (a junior who redshirted in 2015) and Nick Tiano if he is to start in 2016, but Fitzgerald looks to be the early favorite.
How will things shake out on the left side of the offensive line? With a new starting quarterback, this could wind up being an important question. Left tackle Rufus Warren and left guard Justin Malone (he of 28 career starts) were both seniors, so spring will be a big time for the guys entrusted with protecting the new quarterback’s blind side. Redshirt freshman Elgton Jenkins could be in line to replace Warren after filling in for him when Warren was injured this season. Redshirt freshman Deion Calhoun appeared in all 13 games and started once this season as Malone’s backup. Overall, the Bulldogs need to develop better depth along the offensive line. Injuries created major problems for the group late in the season.
Who replaces NFL early entrants? Mississippi State has already lost two draft-eligible juniors -- defensive tackle Jones and wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson -- to the NFL. Neither player is on Prescott’s level as a difficult player to replace, but both will leave a noticeable void.
Jones came to Starkville as a coveted prospect and performed well, even if he might not have played up to the massive hype that accompanied his signing with the Bulldogs. Mississippi State returns two other players -- Nelson Adams and Nick James -- who started games along the interior line, and 6-foot-6 reserve Torrey Dale will also be in the mix after backing up Jones this season. Jones was one of the top performers on a solid defensive line, so it will not be easy to replace his presence even if his production is not as evident on a stat sheet.
As for Wilson, he was part of the most prolific quarterback-receiver combination in history with Prescott, and his 1-2 punch alongside Fred Ross (88-1,007, 5 TDs) gave State one of the best receiving duos in the country. His 918 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns will be easier to replace than his size and athleticism, but it looks like Donald Gray (21-386, 2 TDs) will be one candidate to take over some of that production.
What’s a reasonable expectation for 2016? Going 9-4 (4-4 SEC) and finishing toward the bottom of the SEC West standings with Prescott on the roster indicates that Bulldogs fans should probably carry modest expectations into 2016. A new quarterback, new defensive coordinator and several new faces in starting positions are not the recipe for division-favorite status. However, State played more freshmen (23) this season than all but one SEC team and the Bulldogs will return most of what should be a strong defense. The schedule isn’t great -- it features road SEC games at LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss -- but Mullen has brought some stability to the program. With a productive offseason by the new quarterback, who knows? We might be underestimating the Bulldogs again.