Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - A year ago, very few expected the Auburn Tigers to even compete in the SEC Western Division, let alone win the league and play in the BCS National Championship Game.
The Tigers worst-to-first run in 2013 has given hope to other teams in the SEC that they could be next in line for a surprise run at the championship, but one program stands out as the most likely to earn that distinction: the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they won't need to climb as far as Auburn did to reach the ranks of the SEC elite. In arguably the nation's most difficult conference, Mississippi State has held its own under sixth-year head coach Dan Mullen. After clocking in below .500 in Mullen's first season in 2009, MSU has made four straight bowl appearances, winning three of them.
The 2013 campaign was certainly a challenge for MSU, as it found itself at 4-6 following a three-game losing streak in November, but managed to rally late with back-to-back overtime victories against Arkansas (24-17) and Ole Miss (17-10) to become bowl eligible. The Bulldogs then put an exclamation point on the season with a convincing 44-7 triumph over Rice in the Liberty Bowl.
After the team got hot and gained momentum at the end of last season, excitement for the 2014 campaign began to swirl, and Mullen did not mince words with reporters at the SEC Media Days with regard to the Bulldogs' goals.
"Our team immediately put a lot of expectations on themselves," Mullen said. "Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship Game)."
A big reason for optimism in Starkville this year is the amount of continuity on the roster. The team returns 18 regular starters, including a trendy early Heisman pick at quarterback, a slew of talented offensive playmakers, and most of its underrated defense. Even deeper down the roster the squad boasts plenty of experience, with 30 players having started at least one game last season. In an era where most teams are forced to replace 30 to 50 percent of its starters from year to year, the Bulldogs' don't have to worry about too many unknowns and will have strong chemistry from the outset.
"I think this is one of these years we've built a foundation for our program," Mullen said. "By going to four straight bowl games, by winning four out of five Egg Bowls (rivalry game with Ole Miss) within the state, we've built a solid foundation for our future. Upon that foundation, we're trying to build a championship program. I don't think you can build that program without that foundation existing. We've been able to do that over the last couple of years."
The key to that foundation sits under center, and with Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray no longer in the league, Dak Prescott is poised to become the next great SEC gunslinger.
Prescott began the 2013 campaign as part of a two-quarterback system along with Tyler Russell, but the latter's injury woes led to more playing time for Prescott, and he did not disappoint. Despite missing two games himself with an elbow injury, Prescott had a breakout campaign with 1,940 passing yards, 829 rushing yards and 23 total touchdowns paired with only seven interceptions. He saved his best performance for last, completing 17-of-28 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns while adding another 78 yards and two scores on the ground in the Liberty Bowl.
Now that the job is all his, Prescott is in line for an even bigger campaign. The dual-threat quarterback, who completed a modest 58.4 percent of his passes last season, has earned praise from his coaches this summer for his work ethic and improved passing skills, and such adjustments could turn him into a household name rather quickly.
"The footwork, keeping my feet underneath me, keeping them in sync with my arm and keeping my balance with each and every throw -- I think that's come a long way," Prescott said. "That's one of the things I wanted to work on this offseason. I believe that was one of my weaknesses last season and now it's turned into a strength."
Prescott has an impressive arsenal of weapons on which to rely. Wide receiver Jameon Lewis was one of the most versatile players in the country in 2013, catching 64 passes for 923 yards and five touchdowns, rushing for 117 yards and three scores, and adding 497 return yards. He was even 3-of-3 on pass attempts for 84 yards, with each completion resulting in a touchdown.
Fellow receiver Robert Johnson (34 receptions, 389 yards), tight end Malcolm Johnson (30 receptions, 391 yards, two TDs) and running back Josh Robinson (459 yards, three TDs, 5.9 ypc) round out an offense, which also returns four starters in the trenches, that should be a lot of fun to watch.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs were rock solid in 2013 in allowing just 23.0 points and 349.3 yards per game, and the return of several key contributors could result in even greater success this fall.
Middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney is the heart of the defense. In just his sophomore season, McKinney led the team in tackles (71), tackles for loss (7.0), sacks (3.5) and fumble recoveries (two). Defensive tackle Chris Jones is also destined for stardom after he racked up 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks and 10 QB hurries as a freshman rotational player. Other experienced defensive playmakers include safety Kendrick Market (62 tackles), linebacker Matthew Wells (50 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two FR), and cornerbacks Taveze Calhoun (45 tackles, three INTs, FF) and Jamerson Love (three INTs).
While Mississippi State has the rare luxury of returning more than 80 percent of its starters, it also has a few things working against it. The SEC cleaned up on the recruiting trail in 2014, securing seven of the top nine freshman classes according to Rivals.com, but the Bulldogs lagged significantly behind at No. 37, failing to land a single five-star prospect.
Of course the team's biggest obstacle on its way to shocking the college football world will be its daunting league schedule. The Bulldogs have two brutal road tests at LSU (Sept. 20) and Alabama (Nov. 15), will host reigning league champ Auburn (Oct. 11), and also have tricky bouts against Texas A&M (Oct. 4), Vanderbilt (Nov. 22) and Ole Miss (Nov. 29).
In a conference with so many top-notch teams, expecting another Cinderella story like Auburn's is probably a bit farfetched, but excitement surrounds the Bulldogs, who believe they can pull off the improbable.
"We can control (our expectations) and compete for that SEC championship this year," Mullen said. "That's what (the players) are working for from day one. I don't think they shy away from it. I think they embrace everything that's going on."