SEC football 2015 preview: Mississippi State

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Mississippi State is the next installment in our SEC football 2015 previews:

Record last season: In early November last year, Mississippi State was the talk of college football, with a 9-0 record and a Heisman Trophy favorite in quarterback Dak Prescott. Alas, Alabama popped the Bulldogs’ bubble the next week, beating MSU 25-20 in Tuscaloosa. After a 51-0 drubbing of Vanderbilt, Mississippi State lost the Egg Bowl at Ole Miss 31-17, then lost 49-34 to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Head coach: Dan Mullen had been Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator, helping Tim Tebow win the Heisman Trophy in 2007, when he became Mississippi State’s coach in 2009. After a 5-7 debut season, the Bulldogs went 9-4, 7-6, 8-5 and 7-6 before last year’s 10-3 mark. Mullen, 43, is 46-31 overall and 22-26 in the SEC.

Trend: Last year was Mississippi State’s first 10-win season since 1999, when Jackie Sherrill’s team went 10-2 and beat Clemson 17-7 in the Peach Bowl. That also was the last time MSU won six conference games. Before 2014, Mullen’s team had slipped to 3-5 in the league in 2013 after a 4-4 record in 2012.

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Last year’s high point: On Oct. 11, Mississippi State knocked off Auburn 38-23 to go 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. The following day, the Bulldogs rose to the top of the Associated Press poll, becoming the first team in the 78-year history of the AP poll to go from unranked No. 1 in just five weeks.

Last year’s low point: Starting the season 9-0 and reaching No. 1 in the nation is one thing; losing to your arch-rival is another. Mississippi State led Ole Miss 10-7 early in the third quarter in the annual Egg Bowl in Oxford. After that, however, the Rebels went on a rampage, outscoring the team from Starkville 24-7 to claim a 31-17 win. Ole Miss ran up 532 yards of total offense.

The 2014 stats: Mississippi State ranked eighth nationally in total offense, averaging 513.8 yards per game. That was an improvement of 80 yards per game over MSU’s 2013 average. The Bulldogs averaged 36.9 points per game. State’s problems were on defense, where it ranked 84th nationally, giving up 424.4 yards per game, 75 more yards per game than 2013.

Drafted by NFL: Mississippi State had five players taken in the 2015 draft. Defensive end Preston Smith went to Washington in the second round (No. 38 overall). Houston took linebacker Benardrick McKinney in the second round (No. 43). Three Bulldogs went in the sixth round — linebacker Matthew Wells (178) to New England; tight end Malcolm Johnson (195) to Cleveland and running back Josh Robinson (205) to Indianapolis. State has had two first-round picks in the last decade. Philadelphia took defensive tackle Fletcher Cox with the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft. Green Bay took offensive tackle Derek Sherrod with the No. 32 pick in the 2011 draft. State had three players drafted in 2013 — Cornerback Darius Slay went in the second round (No. 36 overall) to Detroit; cornerback Jonathan Banks went to Tampa Bay seven picks later; defensive end Josh Boyd was picked by Green Bay in the fifth round (No. 167).

Rivals class of 2015 ranking: State was ranked No. 16, up from No. 37 in 2014 and No. 26 in 2013. The Bulldogs signed six four-star prospects — defensive end Fletcher Adams, running back Nick Gibson, athlete Donald Gray, linebacker Leo Lewis, linebacker Jamal Peters and offensive lineman Martinas Rankin. Lewis was highest-ranked signee at No. 43 in the Rivals rankings. Jamal Peters was ranked 86th by Rivals, though ESPN ranked Peters as the nation’s No. 2 safety prospect.

Coordinators: Manny Diaz is back. Diaz, 41,¬†was Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator in 2010, leading a unit that gave up just 19.8 points and 357 yards per game. Texas swept in and hired Diaz away from Starkville, but the move was not a good one. Diaz was fired in 2013 and spent 2014 as Louisiana Tech’s defensive boss. When Geoff Collins left to become new coach Jim McElwain’s co-defensive coordinator at Florida, Mullen brought Diaz back to the Bulldogs. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy are offensive co-coordinators. Gonzales was promoted from wide receivers coach to co-coordinator in 2014. The Bulldogs broke 15 single-season offensive team records last season. Hevesy is in charge of the running game, which ranked 21st in the nation in rushing offense last season.

Offense outlook: A first-team pre-season All-SEC selection, Prescott returns at quarterback, but replacing running back Josh Robinson won’t be easy. Small but mighty, Robinson rushed for 1,203 yards last season. Hldover Ashton Shumpert is likely to get first crack. Prescott does have top target De’Runnya Wilson back. He caught 47 passes last season as a sophomore.

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Defense outlook: It’s time for highly-touted defensive end Chris Jones to come through after playing a reserve role his first two seasons. Jones has enough talent that the media placed him second-team all-conference in pre-season. Will Redmond leads the secondary. Linebacker Gerri Green could be an up-and-coming star for Diaz’s defense, which will try and reverse a trend that saw last season end with Ole Miss gaining 531 yards and Georgia Tech 577 in the Orange Bowl on the Bulldogs. Georgia Tech rushed for 452 yards, averaging 7.41 yards per carry, in that game.

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Player to watch: Star quarterback Dak Prescott returns for his senior season after throwing for 3,449 yards and rushing for 986 more last season. Prescott threw for 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He ran for 14 more touchdowns. He also raised his completion percentage from 58.4 in 2013 to 61.6 in 2014. Having turned down a shot at the NFL for another year in Starkville, it will be interesting to see what Prescott can do for an encore.

Kentucky series: Dan Mullen has never lost to Kentucky, compiling a 6-0 record over the Cats. And four of those wins have come in Lexington. Nearly all have been close. State’s 45-31 win last year at Commonwealth Stadium behind 198 rushing yards by Josh Robinson was Mullen’s biggest in terms of margin. The other five victories were by seven, seven, 12, 13 and six points. State was the No. 1 team in the nation when the two teams met last year. A four-yard Patrick Towles touchdown run with 2:31 left cut the MSU lead to 38-31. But Kentucky tried an on-side kick that State returned 61 yards for a touchdown to put the game away. Kentucky’s last win over MSU was 14-13 in 2008, Sylvester Croom’s final season as the Mississippi State coach.

This year’s schedule

  • S5 @Southern Miss
  • S12 LSU
  • S19 Northwestern State
  • S26 @Auburn
  • O3 @Texas A&M
  • O10 Troy
  • O17 Louisiana Tech
  • O24 Kentucky
  • N5 @Missouri
  • N14 Alabama
  • N21 @Arkansas
  • N28 Ole Miss

Crystal ball: We’ll find out a lot about these Bulldogs early as LSU comes to Starkville in Week 2. After that, State has back-to-back road games at Auburn (Sept. 26) and Texas A&M (Oct. 3). There may be too many losses on both sides of the ball to see a second consecutive 10-win season, but the return of Prescott gives State a chance in the loaded SEC West. An 8-4 finish appears doable.

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