Mississippi State relieved head football coach Zach Arnett of his duties Monday morning. Arnett compiled a 4-6 record (1-6 SEC) in the 2023 season through 10 games in his first year as full-time coach. Senior offensive analyst Greg Knox will serve as Mississippi State interim coach through the final two games of the season, according to ESPN.
Arnett was elevated from defensive coordinator to interim coach in 2022 following the untimely death of the legendary Mike Leach. After leading the team to an emotional victory in the ReliaQuest Bowl, the administration decided to promote Arnett to full-time coach during the offseason in lieu of conducting a national search for Leach’s replacement.
“I have the utmost respect for Zach Arnett and am incredibly appreciative of the effort he put forth in leading our football program.” athletic director Zac Selmon said. However, the progress and on-field results have not been of the standard required for Mississippi State to achieve the level of success we need and expect.
“Zach took on an unprecedented and challenging situation last December. He provided the football program much needed leadership and stability during a tragic time. There is no question that he has made a positive impact on the lives of our student-athletes during his time here. We are grateful for his contributions to Mississippi State and wish him the very best both personally and professionally.”
The move to fire Arnett comes on the heels of a 51-10 loss for Mississippi State to Texas A&M in Week 11. Ironically, Arnett is not the first coach to be fired amid the fallout from that game. On Sunday, Texas A&M made the move to fire Jimbo Fisher despite the convincing win for the Aggies.
Exploring the quick move
Firing a coach before his first full year has even concluded seems like a drastic and almost unprecedented measure, especially when Mississippi State is still in contention for a bowl game. But it is clear that a lot of what Arnett tried to implement wasn’t working.
Of Mississippi State’s six conference losses, only one came by at least one possession. The Bulldogs’ lone conference win came against an Arkansas team that hadn’t won an SEC game to that point, and MSU only managed to score seven points while holding the Razorbacks to a field goal. Mississippi State’s average scoring margin in SEC play is minus 21 points.
Arnett tried to implement a new pro-style scheme after three years of the Air Raid under Leach. State ranks 12th in the SEC in total offense (325.8 yards per game) and last in scoring offense (21.4 points per game). Starting quarterback Will Rogers has dealt with an injury for the past several games, but even before that he was on pace for his worst year since the COVID-shortened 2020 season with a projected 2,550 yards passing and 20 touchdowns for a full season.
Even Mississippi State’s defense struggled under the transition, despite Arnett’s familiarity with the group. His units finished top-five in total defense in each of his three years as defensive coordinator, yet the Bulldogs currently rank ninth in the same category while surrendering 365.4 yards per game. Their 28.2 points allowed per game is fourth-worst among conference programs.
Struggling on the recruiting trail
Arnett and his staff weren’t recruiting at the level expected of an SEC program. Mississippi State’s 2024 class ranked 46th nationally, and last in the SEC, in the 247Sports Team Composite recruiting rankings prior to his firing.
The Bulldogs currently have two four-star prospects — neither of which are ranked inside the Top247 — in the fold. Mississippi State also holds just one commitment from a top-10 in-state prospect in wide receiver JJ Harrell. This after it signed four of Mississippi’s 10 best players during the 2023 cycle — two more than Ole Miss managed.
It isn’t like Mississippi State’s class is falling behind early in the process. The first high school signing period opens Dec. 20, giving whoever State hires as Arnett’s replacement a very small window to get things back on track.
Another catalyst for Mississippi State’s decision could be the fact that Arnett boasts a fairly school-friendly contract. He was set to make $3 million annually over the next three years, but according to 247Sports the university will only owe him 50% of that. That means MSU will only have to pay $4.5 million over a 3-year period, plus whatever it might owe any assistants that aren’t retained.
Compared to the staggering over, Arnett’s buyout seems like pennies on the dollar. And if Arnett gets another coaching job — which isn’t unrealistic given his proven track record as an assistant — his new salary would subtract from the buyout Mississippi State owes him. This all allows the university to be quite flexible in its pursuit of another candidate.