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2016 SEC Football Season Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

For the first time since 2011, the Bulldogs will be without Dak Prescott. How will the offense run without the best quarterback Starkville has ever seen?

Matt Bush/USA Today

Record Last Year

9-4 (4-4 SEC)

Key Returnees

WR Fred Ross, RB Brandon Holloway, LB Richie Brown, DB Brandon Bryant, P Logan Cooke, DB Kivon Coman, LB J.T. Gray, LB Gerri Green, DL A.J. Jefferson, DB Tolando Cleveland, K Westin Graves, WR Malik Dear, RB Ashton Shumpert

Key Departures

QB Dak Prescott, WR De'Runnya Wilson, WR Fred Brown, DB Taveze Calhoun, DB Will Redmond, LB Beniquez Brown, DL Chris Jones, LB Zach Jackson, DL Ryan Brown

Key Arrivals

DE Jeffrey Simmons, OL Stewart Reese, LB Jamal Couch, DE Marquiss Spencer, DE Emmit Gooden, DE Drelan Porter, DB C.J. Morgan-Walker, WR John Michael Hankerson, LB Traver Jung (JUCO), DB Lashard Durr (JUCO), TE Jordan Thomas (JUCO), OL Martinas Rankin (JUCO)

What Happened Last Year

A year removed from being considered one of the best teams in the nation, Mississippi State took a bit of a tumble in the SEC ranks in 2015. 2014 saw the Bulldogs ranked as the #1 team in the nation for four straight weeks until they fell to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. 2015 may have been a product of the rest of the SEC West getting much stronger and Mississippi State reaching a plateau. Dak Prescott still performed at a reasonably-high level, but the loss of Josh Robinson really took a toll on the offense's ability to perform in the run game.

On top of that, the Mississippi State was rather young in 2015. Despite that, the Bulldogs led the SEC in tackles by a large margin, and also ranked in the top five in sacks and interceptions. Mississippi State loses three linebackers, but thanks to a lot of rotations last year from Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz, the Bulldogs return a lot of experience in their front seven.

The schedule speaks for itself in the 2015 season. The offense only put up less than 17 points on one occasion, coming in a blowout loss to the eventual national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. A turning point in the season, perhaps, came in the second week of the season in Starkville, when the Bulldogs took on #14 LSU. At the time, the Tigers were looking to make a push for the SEC West and #25 Mississippi State was trying to play spoiler. LSU jumped out to an early lead behind Leonard Fournette, but the Bulldogs were able to rally in the 4th quarter to make it a two-point game with under a minute remaining. Devon Bell, who ended up turning in a very successful season as the Bulldogs' kicker, had a 52-yard try with three seconds remaining to give MSU the lead. The kick went dead-straight from the right hashmark, and the Bulldogs dropped their first conference game of 2015.

Mississippi State didn't really have a close game after the second week of the season, as all but one game was decided by more than one possession. One good thing that can be taken away from the 2015 season is that the Bulldogs had a winning record at Davis Wade Stadium. Yet, they lost to every ranked team they faced at home. The only way it would've made a difference in the way the conference ended up would be if Mississippi State swept the home slate. In the three games to ranked opponents in Starkville, the Bulldogs were outscored by a combined 36 points, despite only being outed in yards by a combined 22.

If there was to be one glaring weakness in Mississippi State's season, it was the run game. Believe it or not, a win or loss was determined on how well Mississippi State ran the ball and how well they stopped the run. In their four losses, the Bulldogs were outrushed by 462 yards, whereas in their nine wins, they ran for 65 more yards than opponents. The ground game has been a staple of Mississippi State's offense for quite some time now, as Josh Robinson was arguably the biggest x-factor during the Bulldogs' run to the top ranking in the FBS.

3 Key Players

Brandon Holloway is the clear number one back for the Bulldogs in 2016. (Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports)

Brandon Holloway is the clear number one back for the Bulldogs in 2016. (Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports)

Brandon Holloway

As Dak Prescott leaves, so does a majority of the experience on the offensive side of the ball for the Bulldogs. As is true for every program that loses their starting quarterback, Mississippi State needs the running backs to guide the offense this season. It all starts with the senior back Brandon Holloway. Holloway has a stranglehold on the top spot in the Bulldogs backfield, but Mississippi State has a ton of depth behind him. If Holloway can have anywhere close to the season that Josh Robinson had in 2014, MSU will have a lot of success in the SEC.

Fred Ross can help out Nick Fitzgerald a lot in the passing game. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Fred Ross can help out Nick Fitzgerald a lot in the passing game. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Fred Ross

Normally when a new quarterback is thrown into the fold, the tight end can be their best friend on offense. However, Mississippi State returns five total receptions at the tight end position from a season ago in Justin Johnson. Yes, they bring in Jordan Thomas, who was the number one JUCO tight end in his class, but there's a lot of unknown with him and how he can adjust to SEC defenses. Fred Ross has already proven that he can be a very good receiver in the SEC. At 6'2", Ross is capable of just about anything in the Bulldogs' offense, and can tower over opposing secondaries. Don't be surprised if the senior is amongst the leaders in the conference in receiving yards when it's all said and done.

Richie Brown has a chance to shine in his senior season in Starkville. (Shanna Lockwood/USA Today Sports)

Richie Brown has a chance to shine in his senior season in Starkville. (Shanna Lockwood/USA Today Sports)

Richie Brown

As long as Dan Mullen has been at the helm in Starkville, the Bulldogs' defense has never been an issue. In 2016, the defense has a chance to not only be great, but to be the best in the conference. It all starts with linebacker Richie Brown. Brown was fifth in the SEC, and led the Bulldogs in tackles last year, and returns to Mississippi State in hopes of winning an SEC title. The Bulldogs' front seven is loaded with talent this year and is in store for another year amongst the best in the west.

Best Case Scenario

9-3 (6-2 SEC)

As much as many Bulldogs fans would love to think they can run the table in the SEC just based on the defense alone, it's not possible. Alabama and LSU are on another level compared to everyone else in the conference, so those games are simply not possible to overcome for the Bulldogs. Not to mention both of those games are on the road. The game against Ole Miss in Oxford could be winnable because of how strong the Bulldogs defense is, so we'll chalk that up as a win against the Rebels. Every other game on the Bulldogs schedule is winnable, yet I do think they will lose their third non-conference game at BYU. A good bowl game will await Dan Mullen's squad at the end of the season.

Worst Case Scenario

6-6 (2-6 SEC)

If Mississippi State goes any worse than .500 in the SEC, Dan Mullen may be on the hot seat. The Bulldogs have a very favorable schedule in conference, and with the current state of most teams in the conference, the Bulldogs are in a good position. That being said, Texas A&M, Auburn and Arkansas could be playing with house money against Mississippi State, which could prove to be detrimental to the Bulldogs. MSU would limp into the postseason and could even be in a spot where Mullen would decline a bowl invitation.

Prediction

7-5 (4-4 SEC)

Mississippi State will get off to a 2-0 start with wins over South Alabama and South Carolina. LSU will give them their first loss of the season, before the Bulldogs go on a pair of streaks. They'll win four of five from UMass to Samford, with the loss coming in Provo to BYU. After that, it's almost all down hill for Mississippi State. A trap game against Texas A&M brings them their second conference loss, followed by losses to Alabama & Ole Miss. One shining moment for the Bulldogs will be a win on Senior Day against Arkansas. Mississippi State will be okay in 2016, and end up in a decent bowl game, perhaps against another Power 5 team.