Raymond James Stadium - Tampa, Florida. By @HailStateFB
MSU kicks off the Zach Arnett era looking for their first 9-win season since 2017.
The No. 22 Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4, 4-4) will take the field for the first with their new Head Coach in place following the sudden death of former Head Coach Mike Leach who had been at the helm of the program for the past three seasons.
Leach, who died December 12, went 19-17 overall and 11-15 in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) during his tenure. He was the mastermind behind the air raid offense which Mississippi State employed since his arrival, racking up just under 4,000 passing yards this season with Quarterback Will Rogers behind center. Rogers is now the all-time leader in completions in SEC history.
The Bulldogs pulled off a 24-22 win against their in-state rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving evening, knocking the Rebels out of the Top 25 and catapulting themselves into the national rankings to end the regular season, finishing third in the western division of the SEC. Mississippi State was awarded with an invitation to play January 2nd in Tampa, Florida, representing the SEC in the ReliaQuest Bowl against Big Ten opponent Illinois.
Following Leach’s death and amidst a hectic early signing period, Defensive Coordinator Zach Arnett was named the 35th Head Coach of the Bulldogs tasked with securing recruits and preparing the team for their bowl game while navigating the grief and heightened emotions permeating through the locker room.
“Since taking over and becoming head coach, we’ve had three priorities,” Arnett explained recently to MSU senior writer Joel Coleman. “Number one has been to take care of our current players and make sure they’re OK. Number two has been to retain the commitments in the signing class and try to pick up any key late additions to finish the class off right. Then, number three has been to prepare for this bowl game and get the team ready to go out there and finish the season off the right way, honor Coach Leach and play well. Really that’s the only three things we’ve been focused on right now. Anything beyond that is really to be determined at a later date.”
Today, Mississippi State kicks off the Zach Arnett era looking for their first 9-win season since 2017. The Bulldogs are narrowly favored going into the game. The key questions in today’s matchup are how the Mississippi State offense will respond to a new play caller with Leach absent from the sideline and how the team can channel their emotions to come out with a win at Raymond James Stadium.
“It has been expressed and [the players] understand we are doing exactly what Coach Leach would want of us,” Arnett was quoted by Coleman as saying. “That’s to finish this season off, to stay focused on the game, to put in the work and prepare. There’s no better way for us to honor him and show our respect for him and his family than to go out there and play a complete game and compete like he would expect us to.”
How to Watch or Listen:
Mississippi State (8-4) vs. Illinois (8-4)
TV: ESPN 2
Radio: Mississippi State Radio Network Click here to find a local radio station.