THREE THINGS WE KNOW
Another 7-0 start is unlikely. Mississippi State ran out to an undefeated record after its first seven games in 2012 before crashing back to earth, losing five of its last six when the bowl game is included -- none of those defeats coming by less than 14 points. That probably won't happen this year, when there are two imminently losable games among the first seven -- the neutral-site match-up with Oklahoma State to kick things off, and then the home game against LSU to kick off October. A 5-2 mark for the team as it heads to South Carolina is likely, and anything better than 6-1 would represent a breakout success for the Bulldogs.
They need to get more pressure on the quarterback. Among SEC teams, only Tennessee had fewer sacks than Mississippi State in 2012 -- and Tennessee played in one fewer game and actually had a marginally higher average than the Bulldogs. That not as much of a problem when you have Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks patrolling the secondary as it is when you don't have them. Most of the experience for the MSU defense is housed in the front seven; if they don't get some pressure, then the secondary could get torched for the better part of the season.
The offensive line could be pretty good. If there are some truly hopeful signs on the Mississippi State offense, the offensive line would have to be one of them. The Bulldogs allowed fewer sacks per game than any team in the conference except Tennessee, and their sack rate was about 4.5 percent. Four of the starters from that unit return this year, meaning that the offensive backfield will likely get a little time to make things happen if everyone stays healthy.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
Who will take over at wide receiver. As we pointed out yesterday, Mississippi State is long its most prolific wide receivers this year. Someone will need to emerge as a reliable target if Tyler Russell is going to end up as a less-heralded Tyler Wilson, who saw his efficiency basically plateau after his biggest threats left Arkansas. (In fairness, Wilson also contended with injuries last year.) The Bulldogs were better at the pass last year than the run, at least compared to the rest of the SEC, and losing too much of their air attack could cause some serious problems for State.
Whether their luck will run out on turnovers. This is a two-pronged problem for Mississippi State, but we'll start with fumbles. Forcing fumbles is not really a function of luck; it can be a skill. But recovering fumbles is different -- an oblong ball takes odd bounces, and being in a position to fall on it is as much a matter of fortune as anything else. However, that didn't cancel out for the Bulldogs last year. State recovered 73.7 percent of its opponents fumbles, while the opposition scooped up 41.2 percent of the balls dropped by MSU players. That's probably not sustainable over long periods of time. And while there's as much skill as anything else involved in the 19 interceptions that Mississippi State had last year -- compared to just 10 for their opponents -- we mentioned before that some of the key players in that total are moving on. It would be astonishing if this team could put together another plus-16 turnover margin in 2013.
Is Dan Mullen's Egg Bowl run over? One of the things that quickly endeared Mullen to the Bulldogs' fan base was that he consistently won the most important game on the schedule: the season-ending tilt with Ole Miss. In fact, Mullen won his first three games against the Rebels, marking State's longest win streak in the rivalry since 1942. That came crashing to an end in Ole Miss' 24-point second half last year, the bitter icing on the Bulldogs' year-end thud. MSU can only boast that "this is our state" for so long if it doesn't keep compiling the wins to back it up.