The Mississippi State Bulldogs enter the 2014 season with a bit of momentum on their side. After losing six of their first 10 games last season, MSU rallied to win its last two regular season games, as well as their bowl game, to finish with three straight wins and a 7-6 record.
Head coach Dan Mullen returns for his sixth season in Starkville. Mullen has posted a 36-28 mark in his five season as the MSU head man.
Experience will be a driving factor for the Bulldogs this season. MSU returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense.
Last season, it was obvious that the offense was dependent on quarterback Dak Prescott, who returns to lead the team in 2014. Last year, Prescott proved to be a true dual-threat quarterback, passing for 1,940 yards while rushing for 829 yards. Prescott passed for 10 touchdowns, although he did throw seven interceptions. He also rushed for 13 touchdowns on the season.
Prescott has been mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate for 2014, but he would need to have quite a season, and so would his team, for that dream to become a reality.
MSU must find a replacement for departed running back LaDarius Perkins. There appear to be three candidates to fill that role. Josh Robinson rushed 78 times for 459 yards and three touchdowns last season. Ashton Shumpert had 190 yards on 46 carries and added three scores. And Nick Griffin rushed 24 times for 96 yards and a score.
At wide receiver, MSU has three starters returning. Jameon Lewis was the top target for Prescott last season, and figures to be the same in 2014. Lewis caught 64 passes for 923 yards and a team-high five touchdowns last year. Joining Lewis are Robert Johnson (34 catches, 389 yards) and Joe Morrow (18 receptions, 211 yards, 1 touchdown). Also returning for MSU is tight end Malcolm Johnson, who caught 30 passes for 391 yards and a score.
On the offensive line, Gabe Jackson has moved on to the NFL, but three starters do return. Center Dillon Day is back, along with tackle Blaine Clausell and guard Ben Beckwith.
The Bulldogs return nine starters on a defense that continued to improve as last season went on. MSU gave up just 13.5 points per game over its last four contests last season.
On the defensive line, three of four starters are back this season. Defensive end Preston Smith had 44 tackles, including 2.5 sacks, last year. Defensive tackles Kaleb Eulls (26 tackles) and P.J. Jones (25 tackles, 1 sack) are also returning.
Linebacker Benardrick McKinney returns for his junior season. McKinney led the team in tackles last season with 71. He also added 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries. Senior Matt Wells, who accounted for 50 tackles last year, also returns.
In the secondary, strong safety Kendrick Market should be a playmaker again this season. Market had 62 tackles in 2013, as well as a forced fumble. Free safety Deontay Evans and cornerbacks Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love are also returning starters.
As with any team in the mighty Southeastern Conference, the schedule is tough. However, it’s not impossible.
MSU opens with three straight games it should win. The Bulldogs host Southern Miss and UAB before visiting South Alabama.
On November 15, MSU hits the road to battle the Alabama Crimson Tide. The following week, the Bulldogs welcome the Vanderbilt Commodores. The season finale is the Egg Bowl, against MSU’s Magnolia State rivals, the Ole Miss Rebels.
MSU will benefit from playing the two worst teams in the SEC East (Kentucky and Vanderbilt) and by having four fairly easy non-conference games. The Bulldogs also get Arkansas and Texas A&M at home, games that MSU could win. With this schedule, eight wins is certainly not out of the question. And with the momentum that the Bulldogs carry in from last season, things could get interesting in Starkville in 2014.
Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.