SEC West: Mississippi State

Sleepy little Starkville was a one-horse town last year, and now that horse is gone. The departure of star running back Jerious Norwood (1,136 yards, 5.9 per carry) leaves the Mississippi State Bulldogs with little bark and virtually no bite.

The big question at MSU this season concerns Omarr Conner: Will he be throwing passes or catching them? He did both in 2005. After starting the first nine games at quarterback and completing just 51.5 percent of his passes, he started the final two games at wide receiver, catching nine balls for 116 yards. If head coach Sylvester Croom can figure out a way for Conner to throw AND catch the ball in 2006, he'll be on to something.

Whoever plays quarterback for the 2006 Bulldogs, he'll have at least two solid targets. Will Prosser caught 28 passes for 286 yards last fall and 6-3, 254-pound tight end Eric Butler caught 14 for 188, parlaying three of his grabs into touchdowns.

All told, Mississippi State returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense. The key hands on the stop unit are linebacker Quinton Culberson and safety Jeramie Johnson. They ranked 1-2 on the tackle chart last fall with 78 and 64 stops, respectively. Johnson also notched four interceptions. The loss of end Willie Evans, who led the SEC in sacks (15) and tackles for loss (21) last season, will be felt, however.

Blake McAdams returns after averaging 41.9 yards per punt last fall, and kicker Keith Andrews is back, as well. Return specialist Derek Pegues (20.0 yards per kickoff runback in 2005) is still around, also.

Mississippi State's schedule doesn't provide a whole lot of help. The Bulldogs open with SEC foes South Carolina (Aug. 31) and Auburn (Sept. 9). Both games are in Starkville but MSU is unlikely to win either of them. Three of the four non-conference foes appear beatable – UAB, Tulane and Jacksonville State – but West Virginia (Oct. 7 in Starkville) is being touted as a top-10 team.

With 17 starters back, Mississippi State could be better in 2006. But the Bulldogs would be a whole lot better if one of those 17 was named Jerious Norwood.

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