STARKVILLE, Mississippi — Mississippi State was a football program in a tailspin heading down the stretch last season.
Then came mid-November, and the Bulldogs went on a three-game winning streak to end the 2013 season, which has led to skyrocketing expectations heading into this fall.
Mississippi State finished with a 7-6 record and returns nearly its entire team, including dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott and nine defensive starters.
Prescott earned his way into Bulldog lore during last year's Egg Bowl, when he overcame an injury to his non-throwing arm to lead Mississippi State past rival Mississippi 17-10 in overtime.
Now the junior will try to provide some of those same heroics over an entire season. Mississippi State opens its season on Aug. 30 against Southern Mississippi at newly renovated Davis Wade Stadium.
"Everyone is going to have expectations, good or bad," Prescott said. "In this facility that we're in, we have our own expectations. That's all we're worried about reaching and making sure everybody is reaching their individual expectations."
Mullen is quick to praise the charismatic 6-foot-2, 230-pound Prescott, who played very well last season while splitting time with senior Tyler Russell.
Prescott has some of the same dual-threat capabilities — and also a similar magnetic personality. He rushed for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns last season while passing for 1,940 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"He's constantly working on being a student of the game, being really football sharp and trying to take that to the next level," Mullen said. "He wants to understand why we do things, why we're attacking a defense a certain way and all of those types of things are huge."
Mississippi State also returns talented players around Prescott.
Senior receiver Jameon Lewis is back after catching 64 passes for 923 yards and five touchdowns. Josh Robinson will likely be the feature running back after rushing for 459 and nearly six yards per carry last season as the backup.
On defense, the Bulldogs have veterans at nearly every position. Junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney will anchor the middle of the field while sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones has emerged as one of the league's best young talents.
Mississippi State has qualified for four straight bowl games — a first in program history. Now the Bulldogs are ready for more.
5 things to watch for Mississippi State this season:
DAK ATTACK: There's no doubt that this offense will revolve around 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback Dak Prescott. The junior had a breakout season in 2013, throwing for 1,940 yards while also leading the team in rushing. He needs to improve his passing accuracy — he completed just 58.4 percent of his throws last season — but if he does, he could be a superstar.
GETTING DAK SOME HELP: Prescott can sometimes turn into a one-man offense, but he could certainly use some help. Senior receiver Jameon Lewis is an experienced playmaker on the edge, catching 64 passes for 923 yards and five touchdowns last season. He's part of an experienced group of receivers that includes Robert Johnson, Malcolm Johnson and De'Runnya Wilson.
A FRIENDLY SCHEDULE: There is no such thing as an easy road in the Southeastern Conference, but Mississippi State might have an easier path than most teams. The Bulldogs' first three games are against Southern Mississippi, UAB and South Alabama, which should allow some time to build momentum before a tough road game against LSU.
DEFENSIVE ANCHORS: Mississippi State returns nine defensive starters, including linebacker Benardrick McKinney. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound junior is an example of Mullen's recruiting philosophy, evolving from an unheralded recruit from Tunica, Mississippi, into one of the best linebackers in the SEC. Sophomore Chris Jones didn't start last season, but the freshman quickly turned into a playmaker and is expected to be one of the SEC's elite defensive linemen this season.
FIGHTING TO BREAK THROUGH: Mullen has built a consistent winner at Mississippi State, leading the program to four straight bowl games for the first time in school history. But it's tough to make it to the top of the SEC Western Division that includes powerhouse programs like Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. Mullen hasn't beaten Alabama or LSU during his tenure and a win against at least one of them will likely be needed to seriously contend for the division.
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