The Mississippi State Bulldogs accomplished great things in 2014. After a 6-0 start, which included three straight wins over top-10 teams, the Bulldogs catapulted from unranked to No. 1 in the country. It actually only took five weeks for them to go from unranked to the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25, which was the fastest rise in the history of the poll (and they unseated undefeated, defending national champion Florida State to do it).
Overall, Mississippi State capped the best season in the history of the program with 10 wins and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game. But last year has come and gone. Now, head coach Dan Mullen faces the task of living up to the expectations that come with past results, as well as his new $4 million salary.
Here are five things to keep an eye on Mississippi State prepares for the upcoming season:
1. New Faces on the Offensive Line
Mississippi State returns just four starters on offense and three on defense from last season’s squad. The seven total returning starters is the lowest number in the SEC. One of the hardest hit positions is the offensive line, which lost three starters to graduation, including four-year starting center Dillon Day. No player on the roster has appeared at center in a collegiate game and projected starter Jamaal Clayborn hasn’t played center since he was 12 years old.
The players that return on the O-line have made just 32 career starts combined, which is the second fewest of any unit in the SEC and ranks 118th out of 128 FBS programs. Those that graduated started a combined 108 games for the Bulldogs.
Senior guard Justin Malone is the most experienced member of the unit, with 16 starts over the last three seasons, while tackle Justin Senior has made 14 total starts, all but one of those coming in 2014. Devon Desper and Rufus Warren, expected to take over at left guard and right tackle, respectively, have two combined starts to date – both by Desper.
2. Replacing Josh Robinson
The Bulldogs have a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the football, but arguably the most important is the one left by Robinson, who rushed for 1,203 yards and scored 11 touchdowns last season before opting for the NFL Draft. A talented receiver out of the backfield, Robinson also caught 28 passes for 370 yards and one TD. His 1,573 total yards accounted for 23.5 percent of the Bulldogs’ offense last season.
The top choice to replace Robinson is junior Ashton Shumpert, who has run for 464 yards and five touchdowns across 24 games the past two seasons. At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Shumpert is taller and thinner than Robinson, who was nicknamed “bowling ball” for his 5-foot-9, 225-pound frame.
He’s the only running back on the roster to appear in a college game to date, which gives Shumpert the edge in the competition early in fall camp. However, redshirt freshmen Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee will compete for carries this fall. The biggest question is whether or not one of the three will be able to replace Robinson’s durability and production.
3. Dak Prescott is More Important Than Ever Before
Despite a lack of experience on the offensive line and at running back, the offense should be in good hands at quarterback with Dak Prescott, who orchestrated the Bulldogs’ offense to a school-record 513.8 yards per game in 2014.
Prescott himself set 12 school records, and he smashed several of them. For instance, no Mississippi State player had ever accounted for more than 3,000 yards of offense in a single season prior to last year when Prescott threw for 3,449 yards and ran for 986 more. He piled on 27 touchdowns through the air and another 14 on the ground in what was easily the greatest offensive season in program history. But he’ll be more important in 2015 than ever before.
A dual-threat signal-caller, Prescott will likely be asked to run even more this season to help replace the production of Josh Robinson, at least until the running back situation shakes out. That would put the 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior in line to take more hits in 2015, which is a concern.
Prescott has the benefit of playmaking wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson, who led the Bulldogs with 47 receptions, 680 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches last season. One of the SEC’s biggest targets, the 6-foot-5 Wilson will team once again with Fred Ross, Joe Morrow and Fred Brown to give Prescott plenty of receiving options to work with. In fact, it would be reasonable to expect Prescott to break his own passing record this season. However, with a newly configured offensive line, Prescott may also be more exposed to oncoming pass rushers.
Keeping Prescott healthy is paramount. If Prescott is injured — and remember that he missed two games and didn’t start against Ole Miss in 2013 because of a shoulder injury — Mississippi State will be in big trouble.
4. New Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz
Like the offense, the Mississippi State defense lost a lot of talented players from the 2014 squad. The Bulldogs must find a replacement for middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney, fellow linebacker Matthew Wells, and defensive lineman Preston Smith, all of whom are now in the NFL. Also, this defense must replace three starters from a secondary that struggled often and finished last in the SEC against the pass (272.8 ypg) in 2014.
Just as important, the Bulldogs lost defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left to take the same position at Florida. Diaz, a familiar face that led the Mississippi State defense in 2011 before leaving for Texas, returns after one season at Louisiana Tech.
Last season, Diaz’s unit led Conference USA in rushing defense (118.2 yards per game) and ranked second in scoring (24.7 ppg) and total defense (362.5 ypg). An opportunistic Bulldogs squad also led C-USA in turnover margin (plus-16) because the Tech defense tied for the nation’s lead in interceptions with 26 and paced the country with 42 total turnovers.
Diaz’s attacking style should help Mississippi State overcome its lack of experience. Plus, Mullen and his coaching staff made a point to play two full defensive units early during the 2014 season, so last year’s backups are more experienced than the average replacements at most schools across the SEC.
5. Newcomers to Watch
Mississippi State fans are sick and tired of hearing how inexperienced the Bulldogs are heading into the 2015 season, but it’s a fact that’s hard to ignore. It also means several first-year players will be counted on to play big roles this fall.
At least two freshmen could start for the Bulldogs on defense, though four or more are likely to be key contributors. Redshirt freshman linebacker Gerri Green is expected to replace McKinney at middle linebacker and four-star true freshman Leo Lewis also could be in the linebacker rotation.
In the secondary, true freshman Jamal Peters was the most highly coveted member of the Bulldogs’ 2015 recruiting class, and he and redshirt freshman
Brandon Bryant are both likely to play early and often as safeties this year.
A few junior college transfers are also expected to compete for playing time for the Bulldogs this season, including defensive lineman Johnathan Calvin, linebacker Traver Jung, offensive lineman Martinas Rankin and wide receiver Donald Gray.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.