The Mississippi State Bulldogs haven’t won a Southeastern Conference football title since 1941, and have been champions of the league’s Western Division just once. It’s been 17 years since State represented the SEC West in the Georgia Dome. However, after spending more than a month as the nation’s top ranked team, posting 10 wins and appearing in a New Year’s Six bowl game last season, there’s hope that streak could finally come to an end.
Three Reasons Why Mississippi State Will Win the SEC West
1. Dak Prescott is the Best QB in the SEC
The most important performance in Mississippi State’s historic 2014 season came from its quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound dual threat threw for a school-record 3,449 yards, added another 986 yards on the ground, and took part in part in 42 touchdowns, another of the 12 total school records Prescott set last season.
With the departures of Bo Wallace at Ole Miss and Nick Marshall at Auburn, Prescott’s 20 career starts now rank behind only Arkansas signal-caller Brandon Allen in terms of starting experience among SEC QBs. But more importantly, Prescott ranks first at his position in terms of overall talent. He was a Heisman Trophy contender most of last season, and has the ability to win the award in 2015.
Basically, with Prescott alone, the Bulldogs have a chance to beat any team on their schedule. With a prototype NFL wide receiver like De’Runnya Wilson available to him — especially in the red zone — the chances are even better.
2. The Schedule is Manageable
The SEC West is still the toughest division in college football, and Mississippi State has to play each of the other six members in the division, so it’s important to note that “manageable” and “easy” are two very different things. That said, Mississippi State’s 2015 schedule is manageable.
First, the Bulldogs start SEC play at home against LSU. The Tigers are on the upswing, but they’re still vulnerable because of the questions at the quarterback position and the Bulldogs have the benefit of playing them in early September. The next two SEC games are on the road against Auburn and Texas A&M, both of whom will still be adjusting to new defensive coordinators, which creates an opportunity for the high-octane State offense to outscore the Tigers and Aggies.
In late October, State hosts cross-division rival Kentucky and then travels to Columbia, Missouri, for a tricky Thursday night road game against SEC East champ Mizzou. But, the Tigers are very vulnerable in 2015 due to their roster turnover. The Bulldogs finish the season with a very tough stretch, but it lines up relatively well. They have Alabama at home where 63,000 cowbells will be ringing, then play a talented but beatable Arkansas squad in Fayetteville. Finally, MSU hosts Ole Miss in Starkville, where the Rebels haven’t won since 2003.
Simply put, there is no impossible situation for the Bulldogs in 2015.
3. Dan Mullen Has Elevated the Talent Level in Starkville
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is 46-31 through his first six seasons with the Bulldogs. It’s a modest record by most standards, but Mullen is quickly climbing MSU’s all-time wins list. State has gone to a bowl game in each of the last five seasons, which is a school record.
Mullen and his coaching staff have had that uncharacteristic success in Starkville because they have recruited well, and developed that talent while finding a few diamonds in the rough along the way. Since 2012, Mississippi State has an average recruiting ranking of 10th in the SEC, according to 247Sports. That’s far from elite, but No. 10 in the SEC is usually good for a spot in the top 25 or 30 nationally and the talent gap between a top-five program and a top-25 program isn’t very big. Also, unlike his predecessors, Mullen has been able to land some top-flight talent like defensive tackle Chris Jones, linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Jamal Peters, all of whom ranked among the top 10 nationally at their respective positions coming out of high school.
Plus, Mullen and company have done as well as anyone in the league developing lightly recruited players. For example, Prescott was an overlooked three-star QB prospect from Louisiana that didn’t receive attention from LSU until it was too late and Wilson was primarily a basketball player not ranked among the nation’s top 150 wide receivers as a high school senior. Benardrick McKinney was a two-star quarterback before signing with the Bulldogs, moving to linebacker and becoming a second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Three Reasons Why Mississippi State Won’t Win the SEC West
1. Too Much Turnover
The biggest concern facing Mississippi State this season is the need to replace many important pieces of the 2014 squad. Only seven combined full-time starters are back: three on defense and four on offense. That makes the Bulldogs the most inexperienced team in the league. The offensive line is among the most depleted units, and with only 32 career starts back in 2015, the O-line ranks 118th out of 128 FBS programs in terms of starting experience.
Yes, the talent pool is larger than it was when Mullen took over, and the roster as a whole is deeper. However, it’s tough to expect a team to compete for an SEC West title when two-thirds of last season’s starters are no longer part of the football program – even if that team were Alabama, Auburn or LSU.
Last season’s backups were backups for a reason, and highly recruited freshmen are still 18 and 19 years old. In both instances, it’s hard to imagine that Mississippi State will be better off playing last year’s backups and true freshmen that have zero experience.
2. Poor Pass Defense
Last season, Mississippi State allowed 272.8 passing yards per game, which made the Bulldogs the worst pass defense in the SEC and No. 114 among 128 FBS teams. Referring back to the points above, State lost three starters from last year’s secondary, as well as top pass rusher Preston Smith, who helped the secondary by pressuring quarterbacks into checking down, throwing passes away or taking sacks. Smith led the way in sacks with nine.
Even if Will Redmond — a top-10 cornerback prospect according to NFLDraftScout.com — is an upgrade as a new starter at corner, the odds aren’t very good that the Bulldogs will be better equipped to shut down opponents in the passing game.
Unless new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is able to work the same type of magic that helped his 2014 Louisiana Tech defense lead the nation in turnovers, the Bulldogs could be in big trouble against strong passing teams like Texas A&M and Ole Miss, and will probably struggle to stop mid-level passing attacks like Auburn and Alabama.
3. Depth Deficiency
Even if the replacements in 2015 turn out to be just as good as the starters from '14, the Bulldogs' depth chart is decidedly thinner across the board.
Mullen made a consistent effort to rotate players onto the field early in the season, which has given his backups more live-game experience than the average SEC second-teamer. In theory, that helps build depth in the two-deep and better prepares those backups to become starters in later years. But because of the sheer number of players that must be replaced (14 starters, 32.8 percent of 2014 letter winners, 31.1 percent of offensive yards, and 39.6 percent of tackles from last season according to Phil Steele), including talented players and recent NFL draft picks like McKinney, Smith, linebacker Matthew Wells and running back Josh Robinson, there are major concerns.
But aside from just replacing last year’s production, the thinnest margin of error is at the quarterback position. Junior backup Damian Williams (who is a candidate to redshirt) and redshirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald are both talented, but neither is anywhere close to the level of Prescott.
If something happens to State’s top signal-caller — which is more likely than ever because he’ll have a weaker offensive line and is likely to be leaned on even more heavily in the running game — the Bulldogs will be in big, big trouble.
The Mississippi State football program is in a much better place than it was when Mullen took over. Mullen and his coaching staff have worked extremely hard to make the Bulldogs a better program in 2015 than they were just a couple of years ago.
However, the loss of personnel from last season’s 10-win, SEC West-contending team is just too much to overcome. Even with the momentum of last season, even with talented playmakers on offense, including the league’s top QB, and even with players that gained valuable on-field experience in backup roles last season, there are too many question marks that need answers.
Even if the Bulldogs were somehow able to fill every hole, the brutal SEC schedule makes it nearly impossible. Sure, State will probably score a major upset or two, but to make it to Atlanta for the first time since 1998, the Bulldogs probably need to go 7-1 in conference play. That’s just not a realistic expectation.
Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC West during SEC Media Days, and it was a fair prediction. If they avoid last place and make it to a sixth consecutive bowl game, the Bulldogs should be proud. But seven or eight wins are probably the best this team can do.
— 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.