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SEC Football Preview 2014: Mississippi State Is Back for Another Season

The Bulldogs have one of the most experienced rosters in the conference this year. Can that help them give Dan Mullen his most successful season yet?

Scott Halleran

By at least one of Phil Steele's many measurements of such things, Mississippi State is the most experienced team in the SEC. The number of returning starters is a little bit elastic, but somewhere around 16 seems a safe, conservative place. (That is also Steele's number.) That would be the highest number of returning starters in the SEC after Jalen Whitlow's departure from Kentucky is taken into account.

But experience doesn't guarantee success. Despite the relatively high number of returning starters, no one is expecting the Wildcats to see a vast improvement in their records this year. The job for Mississippi State will not be to prove that their players are used to playing the game, but that they have learned to play it well.

Despite the fact that Mississippi State's passing offense finished in the bottom half of the SEC in the overwhelming majority of passing statistics last season, Lewis put up great numbers in 2013. Lewis caught 64 passes, fifth-most in the SEC, for 923 yards, which ranked sixth overall in the conference. Nine of those catches and 220 of those yards came against Rice in the bowl game, but Lewis also had seven catches for 111 yards and a touchdown against LSU. He also grabbed at least two passes every game. If Dak Prescott has a breakout season in 2014, Lewis will have to be a big part of it.

BIGGEST LOSS | FS Nickoe Whitley
As you might expect for a team returning all but six of its starters, the pickings were pretty slim when it came to selecting the departing player whom Mississippi State will miss the most. But even if there were more choices, Whitley would make a pretty strong candidate. He had five interceptions last year, pushing his career record to a total of 15, which is third most in Bulldogs history. Whitley was an undrafted free agent after the NFL Draft, but however things go in his professional career, he leaves as one of the more prolific defensive backs to play at Mississippi State.

There's been so much discussion about Prescott as, for example, a Heisman candidate dark horse (which is a bit much), that it's difficult to remember that he has not really broken through yet. There's no denying Prescott's running ability -- he had the second-highest rushing total among all SEC quarterbacks, with his 829 yards lagging behind Nick Marshall but beating out Johnny Manziel. In fact, Prescott had the eleventh highest rushing total in the SEC at any position. But the passing game isn't quite there. Prescott ranked 13th in passing efficiency, behind even passers like Maxwell Smith of Kentucky. Prescott doesn't necessarily have to get to the same level as Manziel, who had a passer rating that was more than 46 points higher than Prescott in 2013, but the Bulldogs quarterback has to do much better this season to justify the hype.