With the 2018 college football season less than a month away, today marks the beginning of fall camp for Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
One day after receiving their #18 ranking in the preseason coaches poll, the Bulldogs begin camp with high expectations for Joe Moorhead’s first season in Starkville. With a healthy Nick Fitzgerald leading the way, MSU has become a trendy pick to make noise in the SEC, and at SEC Media Days, Moorhead didn’t shy away from that.
“We’re embracing the expectation level,” he said. “We feel no one rises to low expectations. So we talk about championship standard. I feel I was brought here to take a program that’s really had one winning season in the SEC play in the last 15 years and make sure that we’re competing in the conference play on a weekly basis and give ourselves a chance to win a conference championship.”
With 29 days until kickoff, Moorhead will now be faced with installing the final touches of his system that he used to transform Penn State’s offense before moving to Starkville. The pads don’t go on until next Wednesday, so the team does have time to get their mental reps in and learn the X’s and O’s before they go full speed ahead.
While the primary focus has been on the offense, the MSU defense returns eight starters from last year’s squad, and could prove to be one the tougher units in the conference. Anchored by Jeffrey Simmons and Montez Sweat on the D-Line and Mark McLaurin in the defensive backfield, MSU can get to the quarterback and make plays when the ball is in the air.
“Everyone sees that we have a lot great returning starters and a lot of great talent on this team. This year, they see a lot more than they have been seeing,” McLaurin said at SEC Media Days.
The Bulldogs open their season at home against Stephen F. Austin on September 1st.
For Ole Miss, Matt Luke enters his second season as the man in Oxford, but this will be his first year with the interim tag removed. The Rebels finished an up and down 2017 season with a 6-6 record, but did end the season with some momentum as they claimed the Egg Bowl trophy on the road.
The Rebels suffered a tumultuous offseason ahead of the 2017 season resulting in the resignation of head coach Hugh Freeze just days before camp which ultimately led to Luke taking over. The coaching change became a new twist to the ongoing NCAA saga, but Luke saw his team continue to battle as the season went on, and he believes that was instrumental in creating a new culture in the program.
“Everybody said, `Okay, this team is going to quit.’ And they didn’t. They kept showing up and battling and they kept competing,” Luke said. “That’s when you started to see the culture change. To go from an unselfish blue-collar, tough football team at the end of the season and you just want to take that and you want to build on it and you see guys pushing each other. You get the feel of guys working extra and doing all the little things that it takes to be a special football team.”
While the Rebels lost several players to transfer this offseason, no name was bigger than QB Shea Patterson. The loss of the former 5-star QB wasn’t ideal for Ole Miss, but Luke has exuded confidence in senior QB Jordan Ta’amu who has stepped into the starter role. Ta’amu finished the season after Patterson’s injury in the LSU game, and an entire offseason to develop chemistry with the Rebels’ talented group of receivers could bode well for Ole Miss’ aerial attack in 2018.
On the ground, the Rebels must replace Jordan Wilkins, and camp will be a time for a leader in the RB room to emerge. At his introductory press conference, Luke mentioned that D’Vaughn Pennamon is out as he continues to rehab a knee injury from last season. In his absence, Luke said that Eric Sweeny, Scottie Phillips, Armani Linton and Isiah Woullard will split reps.
Where the Rebels have struggled the most in the past two seasons is on the defensive side of the ball as they ranked 115th in total defense last season. The question mark for the Rebels remains, who will step up at the linebacker spot? This is a question that Luke hopes to have figured out fairly soon.
“I think the biggest question is linebackers, which guy is going to step up, which one of the young freshmen is going to step up, how are Mohamed Sanogo and Josh Clarke are going to be in fall camp, because I think all those guys are talented but they have to show that they can do it,” he said.
While the appeal process hasn’t come to an end just yet, the Rebels are preparing to play this season under another bowl ban, but Luke has continued to say that it won’t affect their preparation. Luke also praised his players’ ability to stick together during this tough stretch for the program.
Ole Miss will open their season against Texas Tech in Houston on September 1st.