SEC Countdown: No. 8 Mississippi State

If quarterback Dak Prescott can emerge as the passing threat he's been working to become, Mississippi State could make a run at an SEC West title.

Spruce Derden

When Dan Mullen arrived as head coach in 2009, he brought an era of prosperity with him to Mississippi State football.

A 5-7 opening salvo was followed by four straight winning seasons. In that same time span came four consecutive bowl appearances, the first time that’s happened in Bulldogs history. Mississippi State is 3-1 in those four bowl games, and has a combined 31-21 record since 2010.

It’s time to raise the bar higher when measuring success.

Bowl wins and recent success aside, Mississippi State hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC West during Mullen’s tenure.

With a quarterback in Dak Prescott that can dominate a game with his legs and arm, and with a defensive front that strikes fear in opposing offensive coordinators, 2014 is the year Mississippi State could make the first huge leap in the SEC standings under Mullen.

Dak Prescott finished 11th in the SEC in rushing last year with 829 yards. Before you yawn, remember he is a quarterback, and he only started seven games in 2013. He also finished 10th in passing yards, and only two passers returning to the SEC–Bo Wallace and Nick Marshall–threw for more yards.

As targets for Prescott, Mississippi State returns two playmaking receivers in Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson. It’s been some time since there have been two receiving threats on the Bulldogs roster with the same trouble-making prowess as this duo.

On the defensive side of the football; that’s where Mississippi State brings back some serious talent, especially in the front seven. The Bulldogs finished fourth in the SEC last season, allowing offenses a paltry 144.15 yards on the ground per game. There are three returning defensive linemen that started at least 11 games last year, and two starting linebackers are coming back, including top tackler Benardrick McKinney.

The Bulldogs weren’t terribly hurt with players leaving from the 2013 roster. But finding a way to replace running back LaDarius Perkins will be important.

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Perkins led Mississippi State with 137 rushing attempts, but finished second on the team in yards to Prescott. The Bulldogs must find a rusher to take those touches the team won’t get any longer from Perkins–who also caught 27 passes too–and escape to the outside to break free on big runs.

Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 78 carries. He’ll step in to be the new bell cow in Starkville. Robinson averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season, and capped the season off with 184 yards on the ground over his last three games, and a 6.8 yards per carry average.

While getting the ball to him more frequently, and in better situations to make big plays (more on this below) will be important, no one argue with the fact that Lewis has the potential to emerge as a star wide receiver in the SEC in 2014. Lewis caught 64 passes in 2013 for 923 yards, and enters this season as the top yardage gainer returning to the conference from a season ago.

Lewis showed flashes of absolute brilliance in 2013, and finished the season strong with nine catches and 220 yards receiving against Rice in the Autozone Liberty Bowl. But there were some consistency issues; like a two-catches-for-14-yards performance against Texas A&M, and a three-game stretch where Lewis only pulled down seven passes.

Lewis is the kind of receiver that can pull down seven catches a game, not over a span of three games. Watch for him to explode like that in 2014.

Prescott can turn into the next-level passer he’s been working all offseason long to become. In 11 games last season–seven as a starter–Prescott amassed 1,940 passing yards and 829 yards rushing the football. While the dual-threat aspect of his game keeps defenses on their toes, Prescott wants to be able to really hurt teams with his throwing arm.

During the 2014 SEC Media Days circus, Prescott told reporters he’d spent a lot of time during the offseason working on his deep passing. If he can get in tune with his receiving corps, and turn some of those designed runs and short passing-plays into long strikes down the field, Mississippi State’s offense will become a juggernaut.

Sept. 20 vs. LSU: The Bulldogs open the season with three winnable, non-conference games. Their first taste of a top-notch opponent, will also be Mississippi State’s first SEC game.

Mississippi State should hit its Week 4 game against LSU with a perfect 3-0 record, and hopefully some momentum. The Bulldogs will need that momentum to upend an LSU team that’s young on offense, and might not be completely settled into the season yet.

By beating LSU here, the Bulldogs could go into their meeting with Auburn with a 5-0 record, and would likely be ranked at the time. By then, this veteran team should know if it has enough to make a run for the SEC title game in Atlanta. Beating LSU isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s likely the only way Mississippi State gains enough momentum, and hype, to be relevant on a national scale.

Mississippi State has four built-in wins on the schedule. Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT Martin provide everything a non-conference schedule should for the Bulldogs, a 4-0 result. After that, conference wins over Kentucky, Arkansas and Vanderbilt should get this team to bowl eligibility.

But bowl eligibility is far too diminutive as a goal.

After the seven wins mentioned already, Mississippi State must find a way to win three of the following five games to give Mullen his first double-digit win season: LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss.

A 10-win season is in the sight. A truly magical season that culminates in a trip to Atlanta, followed by a four-team playoff scenario, shouldn’t be discounted, not yet. But a lot has to go right for that to happen.