How much is returning talent really worth?
We’ve covered this topic already, in the context of making us feel better about the utter lack of production LSU returns, demonstrating it wasn’t that far off from the rest of the SEC. However, one of the outliers was Mississippi St.
State returns a whopping 78% of its production, but it gets even more impressive when you look at some individual stats.
State returns its top two passers, its top five rushers, and four of its top five receivers, missing only receiving leader Makai Polk. They return four starting offensive linemen, three starters in the secondary, and the entire defensive line two-deep. All in all, the Bulldogs return eight starters on each side of the ball.
Which begs the question: who is this team?
Are they the team which notched an upset over A&M, beat Auburn and Kentucky, and hung within a field goal of Arkansas or LSU? Or are they the team which needed a raft of good fortune to survive La Tech, lost to Memphis, and got creamed in its bowl game by Leach’s former employer, Texas Tech?
Will Rogers is the symbol of this team. A three-star recruit, he was thrown to the wolves as a freshman and while he didn’t thrive, he didn’t get killed either. His 5.7 yards/attempt and was horrific and the 11/7 TD/INT ratio not much better, but he showed promise with a 69.1% completion rate.
Then it came together in his sophomore year. The rate jumped to 6.9 which is still not great, but definitely within the bounds of acceptable. But he increased that percentage to 73.1% and suddenly went 36/9 on the TD/INT ratio. He has blossomed, if not into an elite quarterback, at least a pretty darn good one playing in a system which emphasizes what he can do rather than what he can’t.
For such an experienced team, they were maddeningly inconsistent. It’s the hope of Bulldog fans that another year suddenly makes his a smarter team that cleans up the silly mistakes. And maybe that’s true. Veteran teams do tend to make less mistakes, and the improvement curve is real.
But it’s not like all of the talent was all that productive in the first place. Mississippi St. ranked 9th in offensive yards/play and 11th on defense. That’s… not good. They have a lot of guys who have bought into the system and know what they are doing, which should make them a tough out at least ach week, but what is the real top end here?
This is where we get into the age old argument on whether stars matter. I think the argument is more subtle than either side would like. Can teams outperform their on-paper talent levels? Absolutely. Some coaches are better at getting the most out of players or finding perfect fits for their Island of Misfit Toys. You can’t just say, this team has more talent, therefore it will win…
All that said, of course talent matters. Especially at the top end. Heart, grit, or a good plan can only get you so far when you run into the Alabama buzzsaw. Their backups are better than your starters, and almost nothing is going to overcome that save a heck of a lot of good luck. And luck is not a plan.
Leach goes into the season knowing he won’t beat Bama. So he lowers his sights to picking up wins where he can, and maybe ruining your season. And let’s not pretend LSU is so gob-smackingly talented that it can’t drop a game to State’s plucky upstarts.
State can realistically beat anyone in the conference save Alabama, but could also lose to anyone. That makes them dangerous and one of the more interesting teams in the conference.
The problem for State is, this is the peak of the development curve. This is a fully loaded state team loaded with experience. Is interesting upstart really the best they can ever hope to be? Is that success?