Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen's team opened the season 7-0 last year against the lighter part of the schedule, then tumbled to an 8-4 regular-season finish when the SEC elite came knocking. A bowl loss to Northwestern represented MSU's fifth loss in its final six games. In Tyler Russell, the Bulldogs have their most talented quarterback in years, but the help around him -- particularly from the line and the receivers -- isn't always there.
Fan patience with Mullen was in high supply when rival Ole Miss was mired at the bottom of the division in 2011. But the Rebels were far better than expected last year and beat MSU in the annual Egg Bowl, and the Bulldogs are expected to answer the (cow) bell. Offensive guard Gabe Jackson is the top NFL prospect on the roster. Several others are younger pro prospects that aren't yet on the draft-service radar. Count sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney among those. The MSU defensive line should be a team strength, with three potential NFL players in the starting lineup.
Three starters off last year's MSU defense -- Johnthan Banks (second-rounder to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Darius Slay (second-rounder to the Detroit Lions) and Josh Boyd (fifth-rounder to the Green Bay Packers), were selected in the 2013 NFL Draft. MSU has averaged three draftees per year for the last four years, in fact, and nine of those 12 have come from the defense.
Top senior prospects
DE Denico Autry: A two-year standout at East Mississippi Community College, Autry made his SEC season debut last year and was a 10-game starter for the Bulldogs, notching a team-best 9.5 tackles for losses with four sacks. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, he has the frame to play end in the NFL, but would likely need to add some weight to hold his own against the run.
OG Gabe Jackson: A dominant run blocker who will help key the MSU rushing attack this fall, Jackson is garnering preseason All-SEC honors at just about every turn. He did not allow a sack last season, and was credited with eight knockdown blocks against the vaunted Alabama defense. At 6-foot-4 and 335 pounds, he is more than big enough to handle NFL line play. He's played his entire career at left guard.
RB LaDarius Perkins: Smallish to be a regular starter in the NFL (5-10, 195), Perkins could be an effective third-down back on the next level. If he makes it, mark him down as the fourth consecutive MSU starter at running back to play in the NFL, joining Jerious Norwood, Anthony Dixon and Vic Ballard. Perkins rushed for 1,024 yards last season with eight touchdowns, and caught 19 passes.
QB Tyler Russell: Although Russell has struggled in some of the bigger games in his career, he managed 2,897 yards last season with 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on a 58.6 percent completion rate. It was his first season as a full-time starter. He shredded lesser conference foes Arkansas and Auburn with seven touchdowns and no interceptions over those two games. The strong-armed, 6-4, 220-pounder from Meridian, Miss., will be a fifth-year senior this fall and has improved in every season.
LB Deontae Skinner: At 6-2, 250 pounds, Skinner brings plenty of size to the inside of the Bulldogs' linebacking corps. Skinner started every game last season and made 62 stops for MSU, showing good instincts for finding the ball between the tackles. With a healthy senior season, he could easily finish his MSU career with 200-plus tackles.
DB Nickoe Whitley: The safety is MSU's only returning starter in the secondary. He recorded 88 tackles in 13 starts last year with three interceptions. He ruptured his Achilles tendon as a junior, ending that season after nine games. Whitley has 10 career interceptions.
CB Justin Cox: After he posted a dazzling effort in spring practice, talk in Starkville is that Cox will be a lockdown corner for the Bulldogs this fall and is an excellent pro prospect. But he's yet to prove himself in the SEC as a transfer from East Mississippi Community College. He intercepted 11 passes over two years at the JUCO level, with 19 pass breakups. At 6-3, 195 pounds, he'll get quick attention from NFL scouts if he has a strong junior campaign.
C Dillon Day: The junior started every game for MSU at center last season. Day's best games included a 92 percent grade against Arkansas (eight pancake blocks), and Auburn (97 percent grade, six pancake blocks). Day already has the experience of 22 career starts with two years of eligibility still remaining.
DT Kaleb Eulls: The junior added some weight to make a move from defensive end to defensive tackle, and will bring a 6-4, 290-pound frame to the SEC this fall. He's started all 26 games of his career thus far, earning Freshman All-SEC honors in 2011. Though Eulls has always been a consistent performer, he wasn't much of a playmaker at defensive end, making only four tackles for loss in two full seasons as a starter. If he can hold his own at the point of attack this fall at the tackle position, he might be more disruptive. If Eulls' name rings a bell off the field, this could be why.
LB Benardrick McKinney: As a redshirt freshman last year, McKinney finished second on the team -- and best among SEC freshmen -- with 102 tackles. He made 14 stops each against Tennessee and Texas A&M. At 6-5, 235, he has the frame to be an effective pass rusher as well, but he posted only one sack last year.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 5 vs. LSU:Mullen's tenure at MSU is overdue for a signature upset, and a home game against LSU might be the ideal opportunity. With home-field advantage, Russell is fully capable of outplaying Zach Mettenberger at quarterback.
Nov. 28 vs. Ole Miss: The annual Egg Bowl is a Thanksgiving week tradition that is always short on championship implications, but never fails to entertain.