2014 CFN Preview - Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney
Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney
Posted Jul 16, 2014

Preview 2014 - This is the year Miss State has been waiting for. There's one problem. (Getty Images)

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Dan Mullen
6th year overall: 36-28
Lettermen Returning:
Off. 27, Def. 27, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 12
Ten Best MSU Players
1. LB Bednardrick McKinney, Jr.
2. QB Dak Prescott, Jr.
3. DT Chris Jones, Soph.
4. WR Jameon Lewis, Sr.
5. TE Malcolm Johnson, Sr.
6. DE Preston Smith, Sr.
7. OT Blaine Clausell, Sr.
8. RB Josh Robinson, Jr.
9. CB Jamerson Love, Sr.
10. S Kendrick Market, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Southern Miss
Sep. 6 UAB
Sep. 13 at South Alabama
Sep. 20 at LSU
Oct. 4 Texas A&M
Oct. 11 Auburn
Oct. 25 at Kentucky
Nov. 1 Arkansas
Nov. 8 UT-Martin
Nov. 15 at Alabama
Nov. 22 Vanderbilt
Nov. 29 at Ole Miss

It stinks that Mississippi State plays in the SEC West, the toughest division in college football, but if it was ever going to happen, if the program was ever going to turn in a huge year, this has to be it.

It’s not like the division is going to be weaker, but with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all going through a wee bit of a reloading phase – especially at quarterback – and with Ole Miss, possibly, not quite there just yet with all of its talent, and with Arkansas still rising up and Auburn’s defense still a question mark, there are signs that maybe, just maybe, the window might be open just a crack.

With 57 returning lettermen returning and 16 starters back – and more, depending on the alignment – this is the team and the season that head coach Dan Mullen has been building towards. There’s talent, depth, signature stars to work around, and a little bit of momentum built after closing out last year on a three game winning streak including a victory over Ole Miss.

And there’s the schedule – Merry Christmas. The memo about SEC teams needing to play a non-conference team with a pulse just got to Starkville, facing Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin. Vanderbilt and Kentucky from the East, and no South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia or Florida? Yup, and Auburn and Texas A&M are home games. In other words, considering the talent in the division, even with Alabama and LSU to deal with on the road, it’s as easy as could reasonably be asked for.

However, the Bulldogs have to deal with the nagging question of that schedule – are they really good, or are they the SEC’s ultimate bum slayer?

The win over Ole Miss last season was huge, mainly because No. 2 on the list of top victories was a close call against eventual MAC champion, Bowling Green. How many wins over Alabama, Auburn and LSU have there been in the Mullen era? One, beating the woebegone 2012 Auburn team early on, but going 1-16 against the division’s big three & Texas A&M.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been a few good wins here and there – the 2010 team tagged Georgia, Florida and Michigan, although those three weren’t exactly juggernauts – and beating Ole Miss four times in five tries makes all the cowbells happy, but this is it. This is the year Mississippi State football has to rock, because things change in a massive way from year to year in the SEC – ask Auburn – and when it’s your turn to be good, you can’t miss it.

While it might have been nice to have a blocker back like all-star guard Gabe Jackson, four starters return up front. There’s enough promise in the backfield to make up for the loss of top running back LaDarius Perkins, and if burgeoning superstar quarterback Dak Prescott takes his game up another few levels, the receiving corps will be there to explode.

The defense that finished 18th in the nation – but struggled against the big boys – loses star defensive back Nickoe Whitley, but the Benardrick McKinney and the linebacking corps should be excellent, the line is stacked, and the pass rushing production should come in waves.

Outside of the kicking game, it’s all there for Mullen and his program. There might not ever be a better chance to do big things.

What to watch for on offense: Welcome to the Dak Prescott show. Damian Williams did a decent job when thrown into the fire completing 49% of his passes, but if he’s playing, Mississippi State’s big season is in trouble. While every team has a player they can’t afford to lose, Mississippi State really, really can’t lose Prescott. The team can win several games on the easy schedule without him, but there’s no way it can compete with and beat the big boys without Prescott, who emerged as a star last year and turned out to become one of the SEC’s most dangerous playmakers. The team’s leading rusher and a decent passer, now the pressure is on to carry the offense and do even more. Everything else is in place to succeed, and Prescott has to be every bit as good as hoped for. There’s no reason to throw around the word Heisman when it comes to his game, but he has to be MVP worthy – at least in the SEC.

What to watch for on defense: The secondary has to do its part and can’t allow scoring passes. The pass rush was okay, and the defensive backs did a decent job with 14 picks and plenty of big, key plays, but the defense managed to shine when the touchdown passes weren’t coming. After holding down Oklahoma State in the loss to start the season, not allowing a scoring throw, the Bulldogs allowed 18 touchdown passes on the year. In the other five losses after the opener, MSU allowed 15 touchdowns, and gave up just three in the seven wins including none in the final three games. It wasn’t just that the secondary didn’t give up big scoring plays; it was about the deep ball and the home runs. Johnny Manziel was almost flawless, Nick Marshall made Auburn a passing team, and Zach Mettenberger connected on 25-of-29 passes for 340 yards and two scores in LSU’s blowout win. Those three blew up the MSU secondary, all losses.

The team will be far better if … the special teams aren’t awful. Mississippi State will be good, but it can’t be great unless the special teams are stronger. The punting game wasn’t miserable, but it wasn’t a major plus with the MSU punters combining to average over 40 yards per kick with 20 put inside the 20 – Devon Bell will be fine. However, the placekicking was an issue with three options combining to hit 10-of-21 field goals. Evan Sobiesk will get the first shot after hitting 3-of-6 field goals, but the team needs a steady option. Jameon Lewis was terrific on kickoff returns, averaging 23.5 yards per kick, but he struggled with the abysmal punt return game averaging just 2.3 yards per pop.

The schedule: It's Mississippi State, so it's going to ease into the schedule with three non-conference scrimmages starting out with Southern Miss and following it up with UAB and a strange road game against South Alabama. The Bulldogs are going to need to be ready with the SEC slate opening up against LSU, and with a week off to prepare for showdowns with Texas A&M and Auburn - fortunately, those two games are at home.

And then things get a wee bit easier times with a week off to get ready for a six-week run facing Kentucky first before facing Arkansas and UT Martin. But the key to the season could be splitting two of the final road games at Alabama and Ole Miss. There aren't two road games in a row after mid-September, and there's just enough spacing in the second half of the year to get by.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Dak Prescott. Tyler Russell was supposed to be the star of the offense and the pure passing prospect the program had been looking for. Injuries were a problem, and the emergence of Prescott in the rotation changed the game even more. More and more, Prescott turned into a playmaker who needed to be stopped, and time and again he came through as both a dangerous runner and an emerging passer. This is his offense and his team now, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that the entire season rests on his shoulders – and his legs.

Best defensive player: Junior RB Benardrick McKinney. Built like a defensive end, he’s a dangerous pass rusher and terrific producer in the middle of the linebacking corps, leading the league in tackles and sacks. The Bulldogs are loaded with experience on defense, and they have the talent to potentially come up with one of the top 15 defenses in America, and it’s all going to work around McKinney. A sure-thing tackler, he’s a steady tone-setter for the front seven, and he should in the mix for all-star honors even in another loaded year for SEC defenders.

Key player to a successful season: Junior RB Josh Robinson. Prescott is the one true key to a successful year, and a good placekicker is a must, but to keep the starting quarterback alive and upright, the more the running backs can do, the better. LaDarius Perkins led the team in carries last season with 137 carries, but that was just three fewer than Prescott. This year, the 5-9, 215-pound Robinson – who finished third on the team with 459 yards on 78 carries, will be the one who needs to help carry the load. There will be a rotation of backs, but if Robinson can establish himself early, Prescott will get a bit of a break from time to time.

The season will be a success if … the Bulldogs come up with their first ten-win season since 1999. Even if that means winning nine in the regular season and coming up with a bowl victory. They got to 9-4 in 2010, and this team is better. The schedule has four gift-wrapped non-conference wins, must-wins against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and Arkansas coming to Starkville. Can they get two wins against LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss? If not now, when?

Key game: Sept. 20 at LSU. Can the Bulldogs makes a massive statement to kickoff their SEC slate? After getting three warm-ups against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama, it would be huge – program-changing huge – to not only beat LSU for the first time since 1999, but for the first time in Baton Rouge since 1991. Mississippi State would become a national big thing with a win, a 4-0 start, and two weeks off to prepare for home dates against Texas A&M and then Auburn.

2013 Fun Stats:
- MSU 2nd Quarter Scoring: 140 – MSU 3rd Quarter Scoring 58
- Time of Possession: Mississippi State 33:16 – Opponents 26:44
- Fumbles: Opponents 17 (lost 11) – Mississippi State 15 (lost 6)

- 2014 Mississippi State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players