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5 Things that Mississippi State Bulldogs Need to Work on This Spring

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What Mississippi State Needs to Work On This Spring

Mississippi State Head Coach Dan Mullen
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Mississippi State Bulldogs kicked off spring practice Wednesday, eager to lay the groundwork for the school's first ten-win season since 1999. The success or failure of the 2013-14 campaign will depend on what happens during the next few weeks. If MSU can find an answer to five critical questions, there's no reason why they can't finish in the upper half of the SEC West this season.

After posting a better-than-expected 8-5 record last year, what will Dan Mullen and his staff emphasize during the spring?

It's tough to say. After all, the Bulldogs were one of the biggest surprises in college football over the first half of the 2012 season. Thanks to an opportunistic defense that continually forced turnovers, State raced out to a 7-0 record. Since MSU defeated its first three SEC opponents by double digits, some experts thought that the 'Dawgs would upset the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 27.

Unfortunately for those who bleed Maroon and White, that program-defining win never happened. Nick Saban's squad demolished Mississippi State 38-7, in a contest that was more lopsided than the final score would indicate. This heartbreaking loss not only ended any hopes of the Bulldogs' first division title since 1998, it also crushed their confidence. MSU would go on to drop four of its last five contests, losing by an average of 19 points per game.

Despite State's disappointing collapse, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season. The Bulldogs return 13 starters from last year's roster, including QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins and LB Benardrick McKinney.

Without further ado, here are the five most important things for Mississippi State to work on this spring.

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No. 5 - Avoid Turnovers

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This probably seems too obvious, but it’s extremely important for State took take better care of the football this season. Yes, the Bulldogs actually led the nation in turnover margin heading into Week 9, averaging 2.43 net takeaways per game. Unfortunately, the second half of the season was a different story, as MSU finished with a -4 turnover margin in its five losses last year.

How well the ‘Dawgs improve in this area will determine where they finish in the SEC West this season. After all, State went 7-1 in games when it won the turnover battle and 1-4 when it didn’t.

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No. 4 - Replenish the Secondary

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The Mississippi State secondary excelled against the pass last season. Thanks to the efforts of NFL-bound cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, the Bulldogs finished second in the SEC in interceptions last year.

Unfortunately, these standout performers depart this fall, leaving a huge void in the secondary. While several players could earn playing time during the season, expect to see Jamerson Love and JC transfer Justin Cox step forward and win starting roles this spring.

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No. 3 - Find Some New Receivers

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulldogs will need some players to step forward at both tight end and receiver this spring. After all, MSU loses Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and Marcus Green to graduation. This underrated quartet accounted for 64 percent of the team’s receptions and approximately 70 percent of its receiving yards.

Fortunately, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in Starkville.Robert Johnson, Jameon Lewis and Malcolm Johnson, who led the team in yards per catch last season, all played well in limited action a year ago.

However, the question remains: can these three players—plus a few others—match the production of last year's unit, which turned in four 300-yard efforts in SEC play?

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No. 2 - Develop a Smothering Pass Rush

Preston Smith
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no other way to say it: Mississippi State’s pass rush must improve this season. As well as the Bulldogs played on defense a year ago, they simply couldn’t get pressure on the quarterback, finishing 100th nationally in QB sacks, and 90th in tackles for a loss.

The good news is that defensive ends Preston Smith and Denico Autry, who accounted almost half of the team’s sacks, will return this fall. However, for the 'Dawgs to make some noise in the West, they must get more pressure from the front seven—especially with two new starters at cornerback.

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No. 1 - Improve the Running Game

Ladarius Perkins
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing 10th in the SEC in rushing a year ago, the Bulldogs must develop a more consistent running game. Sure, MSU had no trouble running the ball during the first half of the season, but it struggled tremendously at the end of the year, averaging a paltry 2.2 yards per carry in losses to the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies and Ole Miss Rebels .

Fortunately, Mississippi State has a wealth of talent returning this fall. Assuming that guard Tobias Smith returns—which is a big if—the Bulldog offensive line will remain completely intact this season. If they can give Perkins just a little more room to run, it’ll be tough to slow down the MSU offense.