If you were looking for a true "on the one hand, on the other hand" team in the SEC this year, you could come up with worse candidates than Mississippi State. Judging by the preseason consensus, though, most of the analysts are leaning pretty strongly in one direction.
On the one hand -- the hand that most people are looking at right now -- the Bulldogs have just four returning starters from last year's offense and three returning starters from the defense. I don't think I'm breaking any new ground by telling you that losing 15 starters is usually indicative of a team that's about to take a step (or two or three) in the wrong direction.
On the other hand, there is a way to look at this season as more than an inevitable and violent regression to the mean. The most important player on last year's team, Dak Prescott, is back for his senior season. Prescott has gone from a quarterback who thrived on pulverizing bad teams and then had less-than-stellar games against good teams (even adjusting for the opposition) grew remarkably consistent in 2014. (We'll have more on that in a bit.)
And Prescott is not going to be devoid of weapons. De'Runnya Wilson is back, and while his goal of 20 touchdowns might be a touch ambitious this year, he leads a receiving and tight end corps that gets back five of its eight most prolific players last year. The losses of Jameon Lewis and Malcolm Johnson will hurt the passing game, but Fred Ross averaged 16.3 yards a catch and actually had more receiving yards (489) than Lewis (380). And while Josh Robinson is a major loss at running back, Ashton Shumpert (5.8 ypc), who's listed at starter, and Brandon Holloway (6.5 ypc) both had solid averages last season.
On defense, five of the seven top tacklers return in 2015. That's not the only way to look at defenders -- you probably want at least as much coverage as tackles out of your corners, if not more; Mississippi State loses four of the six players with three or more sacks in 2014 -- but it speaks to a group of players that have game experience. Also back are players who accounted for 11 of the Bulldogs' 16 interceptions last season.
None of this is to argue that the losses that Mississippi State suffers are not important. Bernardrick McKinney and Preston Smith are among the defensive players that will be badly missed by this team. Robinson dodged, weaved and smashed his way to 1,203 yards rushing last year on a 6.3 yards per carry average. And anyone who has followed this site knows that returning starters along both lines are something I watch closely. Mississippi State has two returning starters along the offensive line, and one other player with two starts. Ryan Brown is the only returning starter on the defensive line. If Mississippi State is going to have success in the trenches in 2015, a lot of inexperienced players are going to have to grow into their roles rather quickly.
The schedule also toughens up a little bit, in a couple of ways. First, a home game against Vanderbilt that turned into a 51-point laugher is replaced by a trip to Missouri. The games against Auburn and Texas A&M -- both of them victories by more than two touchdowns in 2014 -- are now on the road. The game against a rapidly improving Arkansas that lost to the Bulldogs by a single score in 2014 will be in Fayetteville this year. In exchange, the Bulldogs get to stay home for their games against LSU and Alabama. Those factors alone could be good for another loss or two.
But the flip side of the SEC West being so topsy-turvy this year is that flipping one or two games, pulling just one or two upsets along the way, can lead to a healthy boost in the standings. Here's how thin the margin is: Mississippi State's win against LSU in our projections accounts for the Bulldogs being in fourth place in the division, rather than last. That shows both the promise and peril for Mississippi State in 2015. On the one hand, but on the other.
The perfect season: Dak Prescott puts together an even more impressive Heisman campaign than last year's, rushing for 1,000 yards and throwing for 3,500 or more -- both marks he barely missed in 2014. De'Runnya Wilson gets close to his goals for the season catching some of Prescott's passes. Shumpert turns out to be just as effective as Robinson, or at least reasonably close, and the defense gels. After knocking off LSU in Starkville, the only loss before November comes at Auburn. Winning three out of four games in November gives Mississippi State a 10-2 season and an outside shot at going to Atlanta.
The nightmare: The new offensive line struggles, giving Prescott little time to throw and the backs little room to run. LSU gets a victory in Starkville, and the two road games against Auburn and Texas A&M leaves the defense particularly exposed. Mississippi State recovers well enough to reel off a three-game winning streak against the middle of the schedule, but the Kentucky game is closer than it should be. Four straight losses in November leaves them at home with a 5-7 record, or an upset in the last month preserves the possibility of a trip to the Birmingham Bowl.
What actually happens: Anyone who's followed the site for any period of time knows that I have an enormous amount of respect for Dak Prescott and his abilities. And he is probably the key to how far this Mississippi State team can go. But it's hard to lose as much as the Bulldogs have lost and run in place, much less take a step forward. It could wind up that Dan Mullen has really set up something special in Starkville, having worked for several years before a Steve Spurrier-like renaissance that will quiet all the doubters. Of course, South Carolina's last season also showed just how fleeting success like that can be. Mississippi State might not scrape the bottom of the SEC West this year, but expecting them to once again land at No. 1 or be in contention for the division late into the season is probably expecting too much.