USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Now we'll see if the Egg Bowl really means something.
It always means something, of course, particularly to those Rebels and Bulldogs with deep, unshakeable and unbreakable ties to one of the South's most – ahem – rancorous rivalries. Yet the Egg Bowl has always lacked a certain national scope; that makes the rivalry even better, one might say, but it doesn't transcend the Southeastern Conference in the same way as, say, the Iron Bowl.
The last two entries have been interesting. In 2012, Hugh Freeze's first season in Oxford, the Rebels rode a victory against the Bulldogs into a postseason appearance, rode a postseason appearance into a victory against Pittsburgh, rode a victory against Pittsburgh into a winning season and rode a winning season into one of the most impressive recruiting classes in school history.
Last fall, Dan Mullen and Mississippi State went into the finale a game away from postseason eligibility, secured a win to reach the postseason, trounced Rice in the Liberty Bowl and went into the offseason with as high a degree of confidence as any team during Mullen's tenure.
Let's see if the Egg Bowl will mean more. To outsiders, last year's rivalry loss might be viewed as the lone blemish on Freeze's otherwise successful second season – those familiar with the series know better, of course. Forget about tackling Alabama and LSU: Mississippi isn't moving anywhere until it takes care of the Bulldogs.
But that cuts both ways. Mississippi State's trending now, in some part as a result of a solid returning core but with significant assistance from last season's close – the immediate positive from the Egg Bowl, as the Rebels saw a year before. Yet it's one thing to boast and brag, strutting with your Egg Bowl trophy, and quite another to parlay one meaningful win into a special season. We've been before – let's see if the Egg Bowl can really mean something.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
I still see enough to project MSU into another bowl game, the program's fourth in a row, and I see reason to believe the Bulldogs will be a better team between the white lines than it is on paper. It won't be easy, but I think six wins is very attainable should MSU take advantage of an easier first-half schedule.
In a nutshell: Mississippi State reached six wins by the skin of its teeth, notching bowl eligibility with a feel-great rivalry win against the Rebels to close, but the record itself might not be indicative of the Bulldogs' competitiveness. Auburn won by less than a touchdown, even if we must admit the Auburn team MSU took on September was not quite the same Auburn team that took the SEC by storm in November. The Bulldogs gave Texas A&M a bit of a scare, though that 10-point margin of defeat is slightly misleading. No team outside of Oklahoma made Alabama look so sluggish, lethargic and listless; let's question Alabama's mental readiness in November while giving a good amount of credit to MSU and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins – a star on the rise, by the way. Speaking of mental readiness: Mullen deserves some respect for getting MSU ready for back-to-back overtime wins against Arkansas and the Rebels to close the regular season.
High point: The Egg Bowl.
Low point: Either the close losses – Auburn, most notably – or those that got away, such as a 59-26 defeat at the hands of LSU.
Tidbit: This is an issue when you play in the SEC: Mississippi State has dropped 25 games in a row against teams ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll and 15 in a row against teams ranked in the poll's top 25. Last year's team went 0-5 against ranked competition; the Bulldogs will meet five teams ranked in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
Tidbit (experience edition): Last year's team had just 13 seniors on the roster, tied with Clemson for eighth-fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision and trailing just South Carolina in the SEC. In comparison, this year's tentative two-deep has 12 seniors set for starting roles.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Bulldogs I have known
3. Pork Chop
4. That one with brown spots
5. That one in the park
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Let's back off the Heisman talk around junior Dak Prescott, that sublimely athletic full-time starter with the gifts to stand as the finest quarterback prospect of Mullen's tenure. All-conference, on the other hand – we can talk about that, and talk very deeply and sincerely, because there may not be another returning starter in this conference with Prescott's ability to impact his team's bottom line. He's got the legs, of course, as evidenced by his rushing totals as last year's late-season starter, and he has the increasing familiarity with the Bulldogs' offense to expect an uptick in production through the air. But he's not quite there – not yet: Prescott needs to develop a more well-rounded game to join his running ability and leadership qualities, giving MSU more action through the air, and when it all comes together there's no reason to think he won't match, fulfill or even exceed those lofty expectations accompanying his arrival on the national scene. He's a player, pure and simple, and the key to MSU's hopes of eight-plus wins during the regular season; he still needs a little more time to grow into his ability.
That's not me underselling Prescott – I hope not, at least – but rather tempering some of the expectations. When it comes to his work as a thrower, here are two enormous positives to consider: one, he's developed experience and confidence, and two, he'll again have use of his favorite target. That'd be senior Jameon Lewis (64 receptions for 923 yards), likely the finest receiver of Mullen's turn in Starkville, and clearly a target who has developed a significant rapport with his quarterback. Consider, for example, that 21 of Lewis' 64 grabs came in the final three games of the season; his production grew as Prescott grew more comfortable, which bodes well for 2014. And he's not alone: MSU also returns senior Robert Johnson (34 for 389), sophomore De'Runnya Wilson (26 for 351), junior Joe Morrow and sophomores Fred Brown and Fred Ross, let alone potential all-conference tight end Malcolm Johnson (30 for 391) – not to mention JUCO tight end Darrion Hutcherson – so Prescott will have a number of tools at his disposal. While only Lewis seems to draw multiple-coverage attention, I view this receiver corps as worth far more than the sum of its parts.
The line loses a star in guard Gabe Jackson, the most underrated interior lineman in college football, but steady improvement from three senior starters will help keep this group afloat. One's a nice story: Blaine Clausell has gone from a wince-inducing starter on the outside to a very, very serviceable option at left tackle, perhaps putting him in a position to leave his mark as a senior. Elsewhere, the Bulldogs bring back center Dillon Day and right guard Ben Beckwith. This experience in the middle will help sophomore Jamaal Clayborn ease into Jackson's shoes at left guard; if he does struggle, MSU could always promote redshirt freshman Kent Flowers or move senior Archie Muniz away from backup center and into the starting lineup. There's still a competition to settle at right tackle, where the Bulldogs need to replace Charles Siddoway: Justin Malone might be the current leader, but if he's not fully recovered from last year's foot injury, look for Damien Robinson – last year's backup – to make a strong case for the starting job during fall camp.
Defense: The Bulldogs' greatest asset defensively is their depth and athleticism along the line, qualities that create heightened expectations – this group should be pretty good – while giving Collins and the defensive staff options in front-seven alignments. More often than not, MSU will be traditional; at times, however, thanks to some very solid options inside, the Bulldogs will be able to shift into a 3-4 look. One player might hold the key: Chris Jones (32 tackles) is essentially an end in a tackle's body, meaning the sophomore could disrupt plays inside, as a run-stuffing menace, and float outside to create a different edge look. Like Prescott, Jones is getting a heavy amount of preseason buzz – rightfully so, as in Prescott's case, but let's be patient while he develops.
But the promise is there. Jones will be one of five relatively interchangeable interior options at Collins' fingertips, joining seniors P.J. Jones (25 tackles), Kaleb Eulls (26 tackles) and Curtis Virges – P.J. Jones and Eulls the de facto starters, though all will play – and fellow sophomore Nelson Adams. The silver lining to stem from P.J. Jones and Eulls missing time this spring due to injury is that it gave Chris Jones time with the first-team defense; it might have cemented his place inside, to Jones' dismay, but MSU grows more and more infatuated with his All-American potential with each passing practice. There is a hole at end without Denico Autry, but sophomore A.J. Jefferson's projected growth gives MSU three reliable contributors – Jefferson, junior Ryan Brown and senior Preston Smith. As a whole, I'd place this front among the top half of the SEC.
The second level likewise features one of the league's best in junior Benardrick McKinney (71 tackles), the linchpin of the entire front seven from his spot in the middle. His numbers don't tell the whole story: McKinney is a tone-setting leader, for one, and a ferocious, ball-chasing tackler. He'll be flanked by senior Matt Wells (50 tackles, 6.0 for loss) and sophomore Beniquez Brown (39 tackles), technically, but the staff must do what it takes to get sophomore Richie Brown (38 tackles) involved – he's an around-the-ball defender, someone who always seems to be in a position to make plays, and he could really be an asset either as the Bulldogs' much-used fourth linebacker or Beniquez Brown's replacement on the outside.
This secondary must continue to force turnovers to be effective, and must do so without Nickoe Whitley, one of the nation's most ball-hawking of back-end defenders. As such, the safety position is a bit of a concern: MSU does bring back Kendrick Market (62 tackles), Justin Cox and Jay Hughes, but the latter continues to be slowed by last year's Achilles injury. Market's steady, if not the most reliable option in coverage, but Cox seems rejuvenated by the transition back to safety from cornerback. He should be viewed as the most important defender in the secondary. Cox's move was made possible by an increase in depth on the outside: MSU returns starters Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun, along with reserves Will Redmond and Cedric Jiles, and this sort of continuity can only be viewed as a significant positive. My only concern is also a positive, in a sense: Love's reputation – underrated still, but folks are paying attention – could put Calhoun under the microscope on the opposite side.
Special teams: The Bulldogs' kicking game is a disaster. Let's be positive: Devon Bell will benefit from focusing solely on punting, I'd say, and perhaps kicker Evan Sobiesk will benefit from being pushed by Westin Graves and incoming freshman Logan Cooke. That's me being positive. The Lewis-led return game is a little better, but it'd be great if one or two fellow skill players could step forward and take a bit of this workload off the senior's plate.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Running back: The traditional running game – the attack that doesn't roll through Prescott – can't be much worse, with all due respect to LaDarius Perkins – a great performer as a junior who scuffled through a frustrating final season. Yet Prescott clearly can't do it alone, if only because MSU can't afford to allow its do-everything starter to take a heavy pounding, so it's on a number of holdover to help pick up the slack. If MSU does have a starter – and not a share-the-wealth approach – it'll be junior Josh Robinson (459 yards), the most effective cog in last year's scheme. While his per-carry numbers will dip with added touches, Robinson gives this offense a sense of explosiveness. Look for three backs to battle for secondary carries. One, sophomore Ashton Shumpert (190 yards), spent last fall as the Bulldogs' third option. A second, senior Nick Griffin, was an asset in 2012 but tumbled out of the rotation a season ago. The Bulldogs also have sophomore Brandon Holloway, a diminutive wildcard who could also slide into the slot, and could squeeze out a slight degree of production from true freshman Aeris Williams, a local product.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Mississippi: The Egg Bowl, obviously, for the reasons listed above. It's very easy to envision a scenario where each team enters the finale looking for at least a top-four finish in the SEC West Division. The most noticeable aspect of this year's schedule comes from which teams the Bulldogs miss: MSU draws Vanderbilt and Kentucky from the East Division and not, say, South Carolina and Georgia.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Buy in but don't bet the farm. Make sense? This is clearly a far improved team from last year's version, which limped through much of SEC play before a torrid close, and clearly a more confident and cohesive bunch as a result of defeating Arkansas, Mississippi and Rice. There's a certain something to be said for confidence: Mississippi State isn't the most talented team in the SEC, though there's talent across the board, but adding self-assurance to the incumbent personnel, gifted skill players and overall coaching does paint MSU as a team set to make a multiple-game improvement in the win column. Now, what the Bulldogs do well, in no particular order:
Prescott's a keeper at quarterback, one of the top three at his position in the SEC, and in terms of a run-pass balance perhaps the most impressive in the conference. The offensive line is slightly less imposing along the interior – Jackson's departure stings – but stronger on the edges, not to mention deeper overall, in my estimation. The receiver corps is headlined by the best target of Mullen's run in Starkville. The defensive line is an unquestioned strength: MSU has some all-conference contenders, notably Chris Jones, but its greatest asset is the depth at each position. The second level has a clear All-SEC pick in the middle; the Bulldogs' cornerback depth is solid, and Love a potential stopper on the outside. That leaves the issues: running back, pass rush, safety play, turnover creation and the kicking game.
Part of me embraces the idea that the Bulldogs, not the Rebels, are the sleeper team in the West Division. Another part of me can't get past those issues, though one – the running game – is less concerning than the rest. In general, the Bulldogs' flaws paint this team as one not ready to finish among the top three in the West, and likely not ready to finish as the undisputed fourth-best team in the division. The schedule will help get this team in the eight-win range, no worse than seven and perhaps as high as nine, but I've got MSU essentially tied with the Rebels and Aggies, if just a hair behind, but trailing the West's top three.
Dream season: Mississippi State goes 9-3 to finish tied for third in the West Division. In the finale: MSU 48, Rebels 17.
Nightmare season: The Bulldogs go 6-6, losing the Egg Bowl by four touchdowns.
Who's No. 40? The acronym for this university could also stand for a defunct professional wrestling organization located outside the Western Hemisphere.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014