Marcus Spears is looking beyond the Plains when picking a top SEC West challenger for Alabama. To him, Mississippi State is capable of making a strong impression in its first season under coach Joe Moorhead.
Speaking to SEC Country on Thursday, the SEC Network analyst selected the Bulldogs as the Crimson Tide’s top challenger heading into the 2018 season. Mississippi State, which finished 9-4 last year, is moving into a new era under Moorhead after former coach Dan Mullen left to become Florida’s coach in November. Still, many key faces — including quarterback Nick Fitzgerald — return from a group that beat LSU and pushed Alabama to the edge in Starkville in 2017.
“Believe it or not, in the West, I think it’s Mississippi State,” Spears told SEC Country of the top threat for Alabama.
“With them, it’s experience, No. 1. A lot of stuff, obviously, I’m taking off of last year, and they pushed Alabama to the brink last year with Fitzgerald. And I think you’ve got to have that type of guy in order to challenge Alabama, as we’ve seen so many times before. I think a lot of the hype around Mississippi State is warranted.
“Between [defensive tackle] Jeffery Simmons and [defensive end] Montez Sweat, they have two of the best defensive linemen in the conference. They’re big and physical on the offensive line. They just play their style of football. With Moorhead, obviously what he did at Penn State with those guys, you would think he would be ready for the challenge when it comes to the standpoint of play calling.”’
Mississippi State is a thought-provoking selection for many reasons. Above all, the first year of a new regime presents special challenges. It usually takes time for a new coach to feel comfortable that his influence is reflected in his program’s performance.
But Moorhead enters this season with a strong situation. Fitzgerald, who’s working back from a serious ankle injury, will be one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks if he has a full recovery.
It’s worth watching Mississippi State this year, even if the Bulldogs face a tall task in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 10.