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SEC 2015: Mississippi State and Rejecting Labels

What does a number by a team name mean anyway?

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

You're Mississippi State. You're coming off of your first 10-win season since 1999, and you spent a month at No. 1 in the polls. You became the answer to the trivia question of who was the first ever No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff standings, and you went to one of that system's bowls. The overall health of the program has seldom been better, and you've got the preseason first team All-SEC quarterback returning.

What's your reward? Being picked as the consensus seventh-place team in the SEC West.

Picking MSU to take a step or two back isn't unreasonable. A 10-3 record is one of the best in program history, and the Bulldogs popped up to that after going 7-6 the previous season. Picking them not to hit 10 wins again makes sense on that idea alone. Plus, MSU easily has the fewest returning starters and returning starts in the conference. If the West is as tough as expected, having a bunch of new guys everywhere will tend to suppress expectations. Toss in the fact that the program has never been near the top of the division in recruiting stars, and talking yourself into putting State at the bottom of the division seems easy. Last year's result was just a product of veteran team, and this year's squad will go back down, etc.

There is a difference between picking the team not to win ten games and having it win only six or seven, as the last place team in the division is likely to do. There may be a lot of new faces around, but there are a lot of SEC teams that would love to have Dak Prescott throwing to De'Runnya Wilson. And if you're going to pick a couple of spots to have stars on defense, wouldn't you want a great lineman like Chris Jones and a shutdown corner like Will Redmond? And maybe this year's team isn't built on top ten recruiting classes, but last year's wasn't either.

If anyone in the conference is playing with house money, it's these Mississippi State Bulldogs. They've got the rare combination of coming off of a great season, having a few really good players coming back, and also having low expectations. If they go 2-6 in conference and finish last in the division, well, that's where everyone picked them to be. If they hang in there, the best players play like stars, and they only fall back to eight wins, then they finish in the middle of the West pack and are hailed for beating what they were "supposed to do".

Getting halfway to eight appears to be a solid bet with no Power 5 teams in the non-conference. Louisiana Tech might be feisty, but MSU still should win that one. The annual game against Kentucky should be a W as well, especially with it coming in Starkville. Getting LSU and Ole Miss at home is a boost in a couple of swing games, and Missouri isn't the worst rotational draw from the East. Going 4-1 in those games alone gets the team to eight wins, and I didn't even mention a winnable road game at Texas A&M.

With Jeremy Johnson being more of a passer than past Gus Malzahn quarterbacks, Dan Mullen might have the only SEC team running a heavily run-based spread option this season. To pull that off, he'll need to find a replacement for last year's 1,200-yard rusher Josh Robinson. He probably has it in Ashton Shumpert, who won the job after a great spring and going for over six yards per carry in 10 rushes against Ole Miss. There are a number of talented alternates behind him, so as long as the revamped offensive line gels, the running game will be in great shape again with Prescott of course making a lot of reads.

Manny Diaz returns to run the defense in Starkville after Geoff Collins's somewhat surprising bolt to Florida. Diaz did an excellent job in his previous stint there, but he basically only has one proven commodity at each level of his unit. I mentioned Jones and Redmond above, and Beniquez Brown will be a leader from the linebacker spot. With a new coordinator and so many starting spots turning over, some amount of regression in the defense wouldn't be a surprise at all.

Overall, this is probably still going to be one of the best Mississippi State teams of the past few years. Past few decades, really. Mullen has a Heisman vote getter running an offense that's been in place for a while, and he already knows how to work with Diaz running the defense. This year's Bulldog team will probably not match up to last year's in absolute quality, but it shouldn't be too terribly far off.

Unfortunately, division standings are relative and use discrete units. Preseason S&P+ has State at No. 21 overall in the country, but that puts it in a dead heat with No. 22 Texas A&M for sixth place in the West. It very well could end up that there is no significant distinction between the third or fourth and seventh place teams in the division. The West could end up brutal for more reasons than just one.