Up next in our key stretch series are the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Key stretch: at Auburn (Sept. 10), LSU (Sept. 15), Louisiana Tech (Sept. 24), at Georgia (Oct. 1)
Breakdown: The Bulldogs are looking to better their 9-4 record from a season ago, which will mean winning more games against Western Division opponents. Mississippi State was just 1-4 against the West last season, and that one win came in the regular-season finale against arch-rival Ole Miss. The Bulldogs will get a couple of chances the first month of the season to take down some West foes. They travel to Auburn the second week of the season and will have extra time to prepare for that game because they're opening the season this Thursday at Memphis. Then comes the short week, but at least it's at home. LSU visits Scott Field for a Thursday night affair the third week of the season. Louisiana Tech is always dangerous, and the telltale stretch wraps up with a trip to Georgia. The last time Mississippi State won in Athens was 1956.
Prediction: To get to nine regular-season wins this year, Mississippi State probably needs to be no worse than 4-1 five weeks into the season. That trip to defending national champion Auburn in Week 2 looms especially large. The Bulldogs were in position to win that game at home last season, but couldn't get it done in the fourth quarter. It was a similar story the last time LSU came to Starkville. The Bulldogs couldn't punch in a touchdown at the end of the game two years ago. This is a different Mississippi State team, though, a much more confident and much more seasoned team as Dan Mullen enters his third season. I'm going with a 2-2 split, which should put the Bulldogs at 4-2 going into that home game against South Carolina on Oct. 15.