It can be easy, in the SEC West's clutter of five-star players and top-ranked draft picks, to forget that some pretty good athletes play football in Starkville. Three of Dan Mullen's five recruiting classes have landed in the top 25 with Scout, and the top 30 in the Rivals rankings. That would turn a team into at the least a solid contender in most divisions in the country -- but in the SEC West, it's at best third fiddle, and maybe lower now that Texas A&M is in the fold.
But there are some quality players in Starkville, and the hopes of this year's team will likely hinge on them. There are some good building blocks here, including four returning starters along the offensive line and a couple of returning linebackers, as well. The skill positions on offense and the secondary on defense, though, are areas that likely concern the coaches in Starkville, and sometimes a subtle reminder of exactly how the higher-ranked recruiting classes at Alabama and LSU make a difference.
BIGGEST RETURN | RB LaDarius Perkins
Don't just ask us -- EA Sports has pegged Perkins as the best player on Mississippi State period. It's not hard to see why. Perkins rushed for 1,024 yards on 205 carries last year, with eight touchdowns along the way. He also had 325 yards worth of kick returns and 160 receiving yards, bringing his all-purpose average to 125.8 yards per game, tops among the Bulldogs in 2012. Perkins is also the only skill position player outside of QB Tyler Russell returning to the offense this season -- meaning his importance is Russell and his receivers don't gel quickly.
BIGGEST LOSS | WR Chad Bumphis
Bumphis was the second highest-ranking Mississippi State player in all-purpose yardage behind Perkins and the most prolific receiver on the depth chart, catching 58 passes for 922 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns. Bumphis leads a list of outbound starting receivers, with no returning player on the squad having caught more than 19 balls in 2012. That doesn't mean the passing attack in Starkville is necessarily doomed this year -- but fans would almost certainly feel a lot more comfortable if Bumphis or anyone with a bit more experience were along for the ride this season.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | DE Preston Smith
Mississippi State's coaches are already talking up Smith this year, and for good reason, if his numbers increase in direct proportion to his playing time. Smith had 35 tackles, 5.5 for loss and 4.5 for sacks in 2012 -- despite having not started a single game. (He did play in all 13 for Mississippi State.) Smith also hurried the quarterback two more times and forced a fumble. The Bulldogs could also use as good a pass rush as they can get this year; with just one returning starter in the secondary, the defense could live and die based on how quickly Smith and the rest of the front seven can get to the quarterback.