Mississippi State out to prove staying power in SEC West
FILE - From left to right, in April 16, 2015, file photos, Mississippi State quarterbacks Nick Fitzgerald (7), Elijah Staley (5) Nick Tiano (14) and Damian Williams (11) throw passes during the teams Maroon against White spring NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss. Preseason camp started with four quarterbacks _ Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano _ fighting for the job. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Mississippi State is out to prove its recent jump in Southeastern Conference status is no fluke.
The Bulldogs' program has enjoyed nearly unprecedented success over the past two years, largely thanks to star quarterback Dak Prescott. But Prescott is now in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, leaving Mississippi State to fend for itself in the difficult Western Division.
Safety Brandon Bryant is among the young players who said Mississippi State will miss Prescott, but can be successful without him.
Article continues below ...
''There are new faces and new names on every team in the SEC,'' Bryant said. ''Everyone in the SEC has the talent, we're just ready to go out there for everyone to display it and start playing.''
Preseason camp started with four quarterbacks – Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano – fighting for the job. That list dropped to three when Staley was granted his release and will transfer.
Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen is confident all of them can run the team's offense, which has often been dependent on the quarterback's ability to be a dual threat.
''There isn't a guy that isn't a good runner so we're not limiting you,'' Mullen said before Staley's departure. ''None of the skill sets of any of the four quarterbacks is going to limit what we do.''
The Bulldogs do have some experience returning on defense. Linebacker Richie Brown should anchor the middle of the field after leading the team with 109 tackles last season, including 13 for a loss. Defensive end A.J. Jefferson had 13 1/2 tackles for a loss last season and veterans like Bryant and Kivon Coman will lead the secondary.
Here are a few other things to know about Mississippi State:
LISTEN TO THE SIRMON: Mississippi State's defense will be led by new coordinator Peter Sirmon. The 39-year-old, who played seven seasons in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans from 2000-06, comes to the Bulldogs after two seasons at Southern California. Sirmon says he's pleased that his players have adapted to his coaching so quickly. Said Bryant: ''It's been demanding, but it's been great. With all new coaches it is different, but they came in with the attitude of making us all better. We fixed what we needed to do in the spring, now we're just ready to roll.''
ROSS, HOLLOWAY KEYS TO OFFENSE: Mississippi State might still be looking for a quarterback, but it already has some experienced playmakers. Senior receiver Fred Ross returns after catching 88 passes for 1,007 yards and five touchdowns last season. Brandon Holloway is probably the team's most versatile player – he gained 413 yards rushing, 396 yards receiving and 567 yards on kick returns last season.
KEY GAMES: The Bulldogs have four winnable SEC home games against Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M and South Carolina. If Mississippi State can take care of business at Davis Wade Stadium, any success on the road will be a bonus. There's also an interesting non-conference game on the road against BYU on Oct. 14.
PREDICTION: Mississippi State will miss Prescott, but should have enough talent to advance to a bowl game for a seventh straight season. The Bulldogs will be competitive in the West, though a lack of elite playmakers makes it difficult to see them near the top with programs like Alabama and LSU.
SEASON OPENER: Mississippi State hosts South Alabama on Sept. 3.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org