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You can read the entire Mississippi State preview in Athlon Sports' 2013 SEC magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
#41 Mississippi State
SEC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen, 29-22 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Les Koenning | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins
In 2012, Tyler Russell brought Mississippi State’s passing game to a level it’s rarely seen. And while he loses some key targets, the expectation is that the fifth-year senior quarterback has all the refinement and tools he needs to make the Bulldogs an even more productive offense this fall.
The top four pass-catchers from last season are gone, but the return of Russell and a deep backfield might be enough to compensate for the losses. Russell passed for 2,897 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season, his first as a full-time starter, and put his name in the school record book in the process. His season, however, ended poorly; he threw a combined eight interceptions in losses to Ole Miss and Northwestern (Gator Bowl). Coaches don’t seem too concerned about that finish, and in fact they’re entrusting him with more of a say in the offense.
Much of the Bulldogs’ offensive success will depend on the development of receivers who have had to wait their turn, like juniors Robert Johnson and Jameon Lewis. A player who can’t be overlooked is tight end Malcolm Johnson, a junior who has averaged 18.0 yards per catch in his career.
LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards, eight TDs) returns at tailback, and the senior will get plenty of help from sophomores Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton, who last season combined for 500 yards rushing.
What could make the ultimate difference for State is the offensive line, which was leaky last season and let Russell take too many hits. Four starters return, led by first-team All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson.
After two years as co-defensive coordinator, Geoff Collins earned a promotion to full-time coordinator this offseason, and he’s been busy making changes to reflect his aggressive nature. It starts up front, where MSU is seeking a better pass rush, and the hope is that senior end Denico Autry will build off his strong finish to 2012. MSU has better depth across the front line, and Collins will mix in some 3-4 looks and lean heavily on linebackers to apply pressure.
He’s letting everyone get in on the blitzing fun, including safeties. Free safety Jay Hughes noted that his group was working on blitzing in the spring much more than it had in the past. Hughes will be a key cog in a defensive backfield that lost three starters, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks.
Tackling was a big issue last season for MSU, and that’s been an offseason focus as well.
Kicker Devon Bell and consistent punter Baker Swedenburg both return. MSU has several candidates in the return game, including the speedy Perkins. Lewis is the leading candidate to take over punt return duties, which was not a strong area for State last year (last in the league with a 7.4-yard average).
MSU has won 29 games in four years under coach Dan Mullen, earning bowl berths each of the last three seasons. That’s a big step forward for this program, but there is a hunger for much more. The Bulldogs just moved into a $25 million football-only facility, which could be viewed as symbolic of their effort to join the SEC’s elite.
To do that, both lines must play at a much higher level, because the SEC will always expose weaknesses in the trenches. As it was last year, the back end of MSU’s schedule is loaded, with games against South Carolina, Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. That closing stretch will define the Bulldogs’ season and show just how far the program has come under Mullen.
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