Where once an 8-5 season and bowl trip would have thrilled, Mississippi State ended 2012 less than satisfied. "That to me is the progress that we've built in this program, the expectations that I have of our program," says Dan Mullen. "And those expectations have really spread."
So, can these Bulldogs satisfy upgraded expectations of Mullen's fifth State squad? Most pieces seem to be in places for a competitive club, which in the brutal Western Division is saying something.
Quarterback Tyler Russell is the centerpiece. He already owns all season passing standards—touchdowns, yardage, completions—worth having after one-and-a-half years starting. So a similar or presumably better senior means Russell owns the record book.
"Tyler knows our offense inside-and-out, his input on gameplanning is huge," Mullen said. "So we expect him to have a huge year this year." Yet sophomore Dak Prescott, who suits Mullen's own run-option tendencies, figures to take even more than just the short-yard/goal-line snaps given last year.
Either has a tested, talented group of backs to give the ball. Senior LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards and 8 touchdowns) is the old Dog but Nick Griffin, coming off another knee injury, adds more big-play threat while Derrick Milton is the balanced package. By the stat sheet it's a rebuilding year at wide receiver and tight end with 79% of the catches and 21 touchdowns graduated. Yet this group appears more overall talented and certainly more varied, led by Johnson & Johnson. That would be tight end Malcolm and split end Robert, juniors now reaching their prime. Jameon Lewis and Brandon Holloway are the slot-threats in a four-receiver set used exclusively in spring.
None of which matters without time for Russell to throw. He took a lot more hits, if not official sacks, than necessary last year. The interior trio is solid with All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson and center Dillon Day. It's up to senior Charles Siddoway and juniors Damien Robinson or Blaine Clausell to get the job done at tackles.
The defensive staff got a major make-over with linebackers coach Geoff Collins now coordinating. "He did a good job," Mullen said. "He had the guys playing hard and doing the things we want to see." The front can be excellent when quick tackles Kaleb Eulls (photo at right) and P.J. Jones alternate with big-push guys Quay Evans and Nick James. This should present end Denico Autry much more pass-rush opportunity.
There's a wealth of linebackers to work with too, whether veterans Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner or rising redshirts Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown. Overall this group is faster without losing muscle. The challenge is replacing two second-round drafted cornerbacks. Jamerson Love, Cedric Jiles, and Taveze Calhoun get first shots, but juco Justin Cox was signed to play and redshirt Will Redmond is ready. Loss of individual stars should be offset by better backfield cohesion, with big-hitter Nickoe Whitley at free safety and heady Jay Hughes organizing everyone. "They showed they have potential to do a lot of good things for us," Mullen said.
Baker Swedenburg (41.1 yards) returns as the reliable field-position punter, and Devon Bell (14-of-21 field goals) at placekicker.
Having raised new expectations, Mullen does want to bring back one old attitude from his first year. "Our guys understand the expectations. We just have to do a great job making sure everybody plays with that desperate mindset. That this is the most important year, this is the year that matters."
Quarterback Tyler Russell.