After an embarrassing 23-9 loss in Starkville this past season, Auburn will get its chance for revenge when the Tigers square off at home against Mississippi State in late September.
Despite being anchored by the nation’s top-scoring defense and a strong rushing game, then first-year head coach Joe Moorhead and the Bulldogs finished 2018 with an 8-5 record while suffering an Outback Bowl loss against Iowa to end the season. Going into 2019, the Bulldogs will have to replace a lot of star power. Longtime starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is gone and Mississippi State will also have to replace three players on defense who went in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Besides Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs will have to replace two starters on the offensive line (including All-SEC guard Deion Calhoun). Other than that, the Bulldogs are in decent shape as they return main options at running back and wide receiver.
Assuming he wins the starting job over Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens, junior Keyataon Thompson has shown enough in previous seasons for fans to believe he can be successful.
At 6-foot-4 and 225-pounds, Thompson is a big-bodied dual-threat quarterback who, in nine games last year, had 10 total touchdowns (six passing and four rushing) and only one interception.
The one thing holding Thompson back is his accuracy. Completing only 46 percent of his passes, like he did last year, won’t cut it in a starting role. If he improves in that aspect, the Bulldogs could move on from Fitzgerald with minimal damage.
Fitzgerald acted as the Bulldogs' top rushing option in 2018. His 221 carries were almost twice as many as top running back Kylin Hill. With Fitzgerald gone, expect Hill to take on a larger role in the offense.
Hill rushed for 734 yards and four touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 176 yards and another four TDs.
Expectations for the 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior are high, leading to Hill being named to the All-SEC preseason third team by Athlon Sports.
On the outside, the Bulldogs return their top three receiving options from last year. With no WRs amassing over 450 yards last year, the receiving corps is a bit unproven.
Regardless, senior Stephen Guidry and junior Osirus Mitchell are two lengthy, big-play receivers (6’4” and 6’5” respectively) who should build off a solid 2018 campaign that saw the duo combine for 867 yards and seven touchdowns.
247Sports preseason second team All-American Darryl Williams should step in and anchor an offensive line that lost two key pieces. The redshirt senior has 22 starts at left guard in the past few seasons but may move to center to replace star center Elgton Jenkins.
The Bulldogs ranked third best in the SEC in terms of tackles for loss allowed in 2018 and with three returning starters, should continue to be an above average group.
Montez Sweat, Jeffery Simmons and Jonathan Abram: three verifiable stars, three first-round draft picks and just three of eight players the Bulldogs have to replace on the defense this year.
That trio alone combined for an impressive 41.5 TFLs last year and were the main reason Bob Shoop’s defense allowed six fewer touchdowns than any other team in the country.
Redshirt senior Chauncey Rivers is likely the top option to replace Sweat’s pass-rush impact. The veteran defensive end has good size at 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds and has been named to the preseason second team All-SEC after recording 24 tackles and seven TFLs in 2018.
For all the question marks on the defensive line, the same cannot be said about the Bulldogs group of linebackers.
The Mississippi State linebacker trio of Erroll Thompson, Willie Gay Jr. and Leo Lewis are all big, talented defenders who should combine to be one of the best linebacker trios in the NCAA.
Thompson is probably the best of the bunch and could very well be the Bulldogs' best overall player. The massive 250-pound redshirt junior linebacker received second team All-SEC honors in 2018 with 87 tackles, 10 TFLs, four sacks and two interceptions. Thompson was also named to Athlon Sports’ preseason All-SEC first team and should continue to dominate.
At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Gay Jr. has great size and after recording 48 tackles, five sacks and two INTs last year, should be one of the SEC’s most underrated defenders.
The last of the trio, senior Leo Lewis, is entering his fourth year as a starter for the Bulldogs. He made 170 combined tackles the last three years, and is one of the team’s most consistent and reliable defenders.
The Bulldogs lost a considerable amount of talent in the defensive backfield from last year’s squad. Other than star cornerback Jonathan Abram, Mississippi State will also have to figure out how to replace star safety Mark McLaurin, CB Jamal Peters and DB Chris Rayford.
Junior Cameron Dantzler is a tall, athletic corner who is expected to excel after Abram’s departure. Dantzler recorded 43 tackles, two INTs and a team-leading nine pass deflections last year and has been named to the All-SEC preseason second team.
One of the Bulldog’s biggest standouts from spring practice is safety Brian Cole. The redshirt senior missed the majority of 2018 with a lingering shoulder injury but, with Mclaurin gone, Cole seems prepared to take advantage of the opportunity for a bigger role.
Redshirt junior kicker Jace Christmann is the team’s biggest impact player on special teams. After an excellent 2017 that saw the Houston native receive Freshman All-American honors, Christmann took a slight step back this past year.
Christmann went 12 of 16 on his field goal attempts in 2018 and was accurate and reliable within 40 yards. However, the junior has yet to attempt a 50-plus yarder in his Mississippi State career, so his impact from long distance remains to be seen.
A February DUI arrest could put Christmann’s career in Maroon and white in jeopardy, though.
In 2018, like many other opponents, Auburn fell victim to Mississippi State’s stifling defense and power running game. Sweat feasted on the Tiger offensive line with three sacks and Fitzgerald ripped through the Auburn defense with 195 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
To the relief of Auburn fans everywhere, both of those players are gone.
Despite the big turnover on the defense, the Bulldogs have enough talent to retool rather than rebuild and Shoop should be able to mold this group into one of the SEC’s best.
Erroll Thompson is an elite talent who should take pleasure in giving nightmares to offensive coordinators all season long.
Keyataon Thompson has the physical tools to be an elite quarterback in the SEC. It may not happen right away but if he can improve his passing mechanics, fans could be looking at Fitzgerald 2.0.
Similar to last year, expect the Bulldogs to struggle in the passing game but excel rushing the ball behind a dual-threat QB and one of the SEC’s most underrated running backs.
The 2019 Bulldogs should mirror last year’s team pretty well — expect an elite defense and strong running game. However, due to the sheer amount of key losses the team has suffered, don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs take a slight step backwards.