Three things we learned in the spring about the Mississippi State Bulldogs:
1. Expectations are fine: Mississippi State has long relished the underdog role behind Alabama, LSU and Auburn. But no longer. Armed with a dark horse Heisman contender at quarterback and a defense high on depth and talent, Dan Mullen and his staff are embracing sky-high expectations this spring as a legitimate contender to win the West and reach the SEC championship game.
2. Leadership on both sides: Mullen is in a position most coaches only dream about. Not only does he have a strong leader on offense and defense, but both players happen to be among the most talented athletes on the team. Dak Prescott, who dealt with injury and personal loss last season, is the heartbeat of the offense at quarterback, while veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney guides the defense after posting 173 tackles the last two seasons.
3. 1A and 1B: Chris Jones, who emerged as one of the most talented freshmen in the SEC last season, isn’t technically a starter. Instead, he’s a defensive lineman with the 1Bs. That’s how deep Mississippi State’s defense will be. Instead of ones and twos, coordinator Geoff Collins has a 1A and 1B unit. Both are littered with returning starters at all levels. Of the 25 or so players who saw action in 2013, 22 were back on campus this spring.
Three questions for the fall:
1. Prescott’s evolution: He has the intangibles. He has the talent. But what do we really know about Prescott? He has shown flashes of promise and finished last season with a bang, but we’ve yet to see consistency from the unseasoned starter. For him to become a legitimate Heisman contender, he’ll have to put the offense on his shoulders and take his team to another level.
2. Help on offense: Prescott won’t be able to do it on his own, though. Playmakers must emerge on offense. Mullen likes the tandem of Jameon Lewis and De’Runnya Wilson at wide receiver, and the running back situation is bright with Josh Robinson leading the charge. But like Prescott, they’re all largely unproven in their careers.
3. Kicking game: During the final practice before the spring game, Mississippi State’s kickers missed everything from extra points to chip shots. Groans could be heard from the sidelines every time the ball sailed shy of the goalpost. While Mullen has a lot to like about his offense and defense, without a strong kicking game it could all be for naught.
One way-too-early prediction:
Mississippi State’s schedule could be its savior as much as its doom. A nonconference slate of Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and UT-Martin should be a cakewalk. Crossover games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky is as undaunting as it gets in the SEC. So where are the tests? Playing down to the level of competition could ultimately backfire against Alabama, LSU and Auburn.