Year 2 under Joe Moorhead is underway.
Following an 8-5 debut, there was a level of disappointment in the locker room and amongst the MSU fan base. The Bulldogs boasted the nation’s top total defense and the SEC’s all-time leading quarterback rusher in Nick Fitzgerald.
But all too frequently — most notably in games against Kentucky, Florida, Alabama and LSU — a lack of inventiveness and an anemic offense grounded an MSU attack that never quite took full flight.
But those were the issues of last season — criticisms that Moorhead embraced at the podium in his second appearance at SEC Media Days two weeks ago.
At his first stop in Hoover last summer, MSU’s bench boss preached a championship mentality, despite the fact the Bulldogs have won double-digit games just three times since the program’s inception in 1902.
Yet, Moorhead has tempered those expectations entering his second year at the helm in Starkville.
“I think me doing some of those things early on may not have been fair to the guys because anything we did may not have been good enough,” he said. “That’s one thing that I learned, that I probably should have researched a little more into our team who we were and what we’re capable of doing from a historical context before I started talking about ring sizes and other things like that.”
Moorhead furthered this downplaying narrative when speaking on his first full recruiting cycle at MSU.
“I think from a recruiting standpoint, I think we need to be unique in our approach,” he said. “I think Mississippi State lacks a little bit of the immediate and long-term championship tradition that some of the teams in our conference do and some of the bells and whistles from a facility standpoint.”
This isn’t to say Moorhead’s trepidation for setting sky-high goals is because he is low on his team. The Bulldogs return 57 percent of last year’s team — good for 92nd of the 130 teams in the FBS.
Offensively, quarterback remains a question as junior incumbent Keytaon Thompson and Penn State graduate transfer Tommy Stevens enter a camp battle that will earn plenty of attention.
Phil Steele third-team preseason All-SEC running back Kylin Hill is back though and if healthy he could be one of the most dynamic backs in the conference behind a veteran offensive line anchored by Darryl Williams and Tyre Phillips.
The defense must cope with the losses of NFL first round picks Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons and Johnathan Abram, but junior linebackers Willie Gay Jr., a Starkville native, and Erroll Thompson will anchor an experienced group.
under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
“I am very cautiously optimistic because of the holes we have to fill and fired up about the talent we have,” Moorhead said. “We are going to have to take it a one-at-a-time mentality once fall camp starts, one rep, one drill, one period, one day, one practice and keep stacking those on top of each other.”
So while there are plenty of unknowns entering 2019, the curbed expectations are more out of modesty than apprehension. Besides, Moorhead is still plenty confident in his bunch.
“Our football goals, as always, we want to have a winning nonconference record,” he said. “We want to have a winning conference record. You do those things, and that puts you in position to be in the hunt for the SEC Championship. We want to retain the Egg Bowl. Our floor for success is bowl eligibility. Our ceiling for success is winning the SEC and compete for the national championship.”