One of the problems with assessing the changes in Mississippi State's roster this year is that last season's team was so thoroughly mediocre. That's not necessarily an insult -- a 7-6 record with a bowl game win is a pretty good season for a team of the Western Division Bulldogs' recent stature. But the average of Mississippi State's ranking on the 17 measures tracked by the NCAA was 7.1 out of the 12 SEC teams. You don't get a heck of a lot more middle-of-the-road than that.
So which of the players that contributed to those average numbers will make the contributions Mississippi State needs to move up in the world a little bit? And will they?
BIGGEST RETURN | DB Johnthan Banks
Despite having one of the oddest spellings of his first name in recorded history, Banks was one of the better defenders for Mississippi State in 2011. His 71 tackles was fourth-most on the team, his eight tackles for loss put him in a tie for third and his three sacks were also tied for third. Oh, and his team-leading five interceptions were among 14 passes defensed. Banks also forced three fumbles. If Mississippi State is still the kind of team that needs a solid defense to stay in games, Banks is the kind of player that can help provide it.
BIGGEST LOSS | RB Vick Ballard
With one graduation, Mississippi State has lost a quarter of its total offense from 2011. Ballard rushed for 1,189 yards and ten touchdowns last year, averaging 6.2 yards a pop and almost 91.5 yards a game. He had a half-dozen 100-yard games, including the opener at Memphis, the SEC starter at Auburn, the too-close-for-comfort win at UAB (no, I don't know how an SEC team ended up with two Conference USA road games), the win at FCS Tennessee-Martin and not-much-better Ole Miss; and the bowl victory against Wake Forest. How important was Ballard? He didn't score in seven games -- State lost five of them, which accounted for all but one of the Western Division Bulldogs' losses during the season.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | WR Arceto Clark
The biggest problem for Clark is that wideouts can't do anything on their own, so he needs Tyler Russell to step up at quarterback. But Dan Mullen's plans for a more robust passing game this fall promise to lead to more opportunities for the entire receiving corps. Enter Clark, whose 14.7 yard-per-catch average was the highest for any State player with at least 15 catches. Other receivers, including Chad Bumphis, will get their chances -- but Clark has a chance to shine if the Western Division Bulldogs fling it around some more.