NCAA Football Preview - Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Updated: 8/18 9:54 am

The Bulldogs opened the year with a tough road test at Oklahoma State, losing 21-3, and two weeks later they fought hard against eventual-SEC champion Auburn before falling, 24-20. The squad managed to pick things up on its ensuing four-game homestand with three victories, but then it slipped into a tailspin with three straight losses to South Carolina (34-16), Texas A&M (51-41) and Alabama (20-7) to slide to 4-6.

The team managed to pull out of its funk late in the campaign, capturing two straight overtime wins against Arkansas (24-17) and rival Ole Miss (17-10) to secure bowl eligibility for the fourth straight year. MSU had no problem dominating Rice in the Liberty Bowl, coming away with an emphatic 44-7 win.

The bowl win gave head coach Dan Mullen his third postseason victory in four years. After a 7-6 season (3-5 in the SEC), Mullen is now 36-28 heading into his sixth year at the helm in Starkville.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Bulldogs were solid on offense a year ago but not overly impressive by SEC standards, as they ranked in the lower half of the league in scoring (27.7 ppg) and yardage (434.4 ypg). However, things are expected to change for the better in 2014 now that their Heisman-hopeful quarterback has the full-time gig under center.

Dak Prescott began the 2013 campaign as part of a two-quarterback system with Tyler Russell, but the latter's injury-plagued season led to more playing time for Prescott, and he did not disappoint. Despite missing two games himself with an elbow injury, Prescott had a breakout campaign with 1,940 passing yards, 829 rushing yards and 23 total touchdowns, paired with just seven interceptions. He saved his best performance for last, completing 17-of-28 passes in the Liberty Bowl win for 283 yards and three touchdowns, while adding another 78 yards and two scores on the ground.

Mullen is optimistic for even more improvement out of Prescott in his junior season.

"He's a tremendous worker, shows up every day and wants to outwork everybody," Mullen said of his signal caller. "He's constantly working to improve his skill set. I think he's a much better passer this year than he was last year."

In addition to Prescott, the Bulldogs return eight other starters to an experienced offense.

Wide receiver Jameon Lewis was one of the most versatile players in the country in 2013, catching 64 passes for 923 yards and five touchdowns, rushing for 117 yards and three scores and adding 497 return yards. He was even 3-of-3 on pass attempts for 84 yards, with each completion resulting in a touchdown.

Fellow receiver Robert Johnson (34 receptions, 389 yards), tight end Malcolm Johnson (30 receptions, 391 yards, two TDs) and running back Josh Robinson (459 yards, three TDs, 5.9 ypc) round out an offense which also returns four starters on the offensive line.

DEFENSE: The Bulldogs were rock solid on the defensive side of the ball in 2013 in allowing just 23.0 ppg and 349.3 ypg, and the unit will also enjoy a high continuity rate with the return of nine starters.

Benardrick McKinney is the heart of the defense at middle linebacker. In just his sophomore season, McKinney led the team in tackles (71), tackles for loss (7.0), sacks (3.5) and fumble recoveries (two).

Defensive tackle Chris Jones is also destined for stardom after he racked up 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks and 10 QB hurries as a freshman rotational player. The defensive line as a whole will need to step up its play however, as the team totaled just 20 sacks in 13 games last season.

Other experienced defensive playmakers include safety Kendrick Market (62 tackles), linebacker Matthew Wells (50 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two FR) and cornerbacks Taveze Calhoun (45 tackles, three INTs, FF) and Jamerson Love (three INTs).

SPECIAL TEAMS: Devon Bell played part-time as both a kicker and punter in 2013, but while his punting average was solid (42.5), he struggled mightily with his field-goal attempts (6-of-14). Evan Sobiesk will get his chance at field goal tries as well, although he wasn't any better than Bell a year ago (3-of-6).

Lewis' superb offensive production didn't limit his special teams chances last season, so not much is expected to change in that regard. He finished the 2013 campaign with the third most single-season all-purpose yards in program history (1,537) and he is out to break Nick Turner's 2003 record of 1,664 this time around.

OUTLOOK: While most teams have to deal with a large roster turnover, Mississippi State has the luxury of welcoming back more than 80 percent of its starters from last season's bowl team, and because of that, the Bulldogs have become a trendy sleeper pick in the SEC to make the leap into title contention, much like Auburn did in 2013. Mullen is not shying away from that kind of praise.

"Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta," Mullen said "We can control (our expectations) and compete for that SEC championship this year. That's what (the players) are working for from day one. I don't think they shy away from it. I think they embrace everything that's going on."

Standing in the way of MSU's dark horse championship run is its difficult SEC schedule, which includes two brutally-tough road tests against LSU (Sept. 20) and Alabama (Nov. 15). It will also host reigning league champ Auburn (Oct. 11) and will have tough tasks against Texas A&M (Oct. 4), Vanderbilt (Nov. 22) and Ole Miss (Nov. 29) as well.

If Prescott does take that next step into the nation's elite, Mississippi State could be poised to shock the college football landscape, but more realistically an eight- or nine-win campaign is on the docket as Mullen leads his team to another quality bowl game.

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