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Team countdown: No. 38 Mississippi State

Expectations were high for Mississippi State last season. They are more tempered this year, even though this team should win more games.

In 2010, Mississippi State won nine games and routed Michigan in the Gator Bowl. While the Gator is a second-tier bowl, it was the Bulldogs' first Jan. 1 game since the 1998 season. There was hope for a repeat last season, but it wasn't to be. The Bulldogs finished 7-6 and just 2-6 in the SEC, with the wins coming over doormats Kentucky and Ole Miss.

This season should be better. The non-conference schedule is tissue-soft, and the hope is that a revitalized passing attack will make the Bulldogs tougher to defend.

The particulars

Last season: 7-6 overall, 2-6 in SEC (5th in SEC West)
Coach: Dan Mullen (21-17, 4th season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (5)– WR Chad Bumphis, WR Arceto Clark, C Dillon Day, G Gabe Jackson, WR Chris Smith. Defense (7) – CB Johnthan Banks, T Josh Boyd, CB Corey Broomfield, E Caleb Eulls, LB Cameron Lawrence, LB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley. Special teams (1) – P Baker Swedenburg.
Fast fact: The Bulldogs have enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons, the first time that has happened since 1999-2000.

Offense

Mississippi State coaches say the Bulldogs will be throwing the ball more. But think about this: Mississippi State hasn't had a quarterback average even 200 passing yards per game since Derrick Taite in 1995 (203.7 ypg).

Coaches are high on junior Tyler Russell, who has started four games in his career and thrown for 1,669 yards, 13 TDs and 10 interceptions. Remember, though, that he couldn't beat out predecessor Chris Relf, who was more of a good, tough runner than a passer.

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Chad Bumphis heads a solid receiving corps for the Bulldogs. (Getty Images)

There actually is a solid group of receivers. The question is how often they'll get the ball. Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith combined for 35 starts but just 90 catches last season. Bumphis is a legit deep threat, and Smith is a good possession receiver. Depth looks good at receiver, too.

TE Malcolm Johnson had a good spring and looks to have the talent to become an important weapon.

Mississippi State will miss tough TB Vick Ballard, who ran for 1,189 yards and 10 TDs last season. Relf's departure means the Bulldogs return just one of their top three rushers, junior LaDarius Perkins. He is expected to start at tailback, but sophomore Nick Griffin will get some work, too.

The line is an issue. Junior G Gabe Jackson has the potential to vie for all-league honors, and senior G Tobias Smith's return from a torn ACL should provide a boost. The tackles are a big question, literally and figuratively. Sophomores Blaine Causell (6 feet 7/305 pounds) and Damien Robinson (6-7/315) head into fall camp as the starters, but can they hold onto their job? JC transfer Charles Siddoway went through spring drills, but was outplayed by Robinson. Will he be able to return the favor this summer? Dillon Day returns as the starting center, but will have to hold off JC transfer Dylan Holley.

Defense

The Bulldogs have played solid defense the past few seasons, and though there are holes, that should be the case again this season.

The headliner is senior CB Johnthan Banks, a big guy (6-2/185) who can run and is a potential NFL first-round pick. He will be a four-year starter for the Bulldogs and has 12 picks and 19 pass breakups in

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Johnthan Banks should be one of the nation's best corners this fall. (Getty Images)

his career. The 12 interceptions rank fifth among all current FBS players (four players are tied for first with 13). Banks also is active in run support and was fourth on the team in tackles (71) last season.

His running mate at corner will be senior Corey Broomfield, who is heading into his third season as a starter. He has nine interceptions and 14 breakups in his career; he didn't have any picks last season, though. Junior FS Nickoe Whitley is the third returning starter in the secondary. He had four interceptions last season and has seven in his career. The strong safety will be either senior Louis Watson or sophomore Dee Arrington. Neither distinguished himself last season in a reserve role.

Up front, senior T Josh Boyd is a proven performer and sophomore E Kaleb Eulls was steady last season. The other two starting spots are open. The Bulldogs are counting on touted JC transfer Denico Autry to provide a big boost at end. Autry was the No. 2 JC recruit in the nation, and Mississippi State needs him to provide a consistent pass rush. There also are high hopes for freshman T Quay Evans, who enrolled early and should parlay the extra practice time into playing time this fall. Sophomores P.J. Jones and Curtis Virges will see time at tackle, too.

LB Cameron Lawrence led the Bulldogs with 123 tackles last season and is a stabilizing influence. Deontae Skinner returns on the other side, but there is no proven middle linebacker.

Special teams

P Baker Swedenburg returns after averaging 41.8 yards per attempt, but the Bulldogs need a new kicker. True freshman Devon Bell and junior Brian Egan, who began his career at FCS member Western Illinois, are the candidates. Replacing Derek DePasquale shouldn't be that tough; DePasquale was 12-of-18 last season, but just 7-of-13 from longer than 30 yards.

Banks is one of the SEC's top punt returners, but the Bulldogs likely will be searching for a new kick returner.

The coverage teams were among the best in the nation last season.

Schedule

The schedule definitely is back-loaded. The Bulldogs do play host to Auburn in a huge Game 2 matchup, but the other September games are against FCS member Jackson State, Troy, FBS newcomer South Alabama and SEC bottom-feeder Kentucky. Then come back-to-back home games against Tennessee and Middle Tennessee (that's three Sun Belt teams and a FCS opponent in the non-conference portion of the schedule, in case anyone is wondering). If Mississippi State doesn't start at least 5-2, something will have gone horribly wrong. And a 6-1 or even 7-0 start is possible.

But games at Alabama and LSU, as well as home games against Arkansas and Texas A&M, loom after mid-October.

Overview

On paper, this team might not have as much talent as last season's, but the schedule means a better record is a distinct possibility.

Still, until and unless Mississippi State can beat Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn or LSU, this program is going to lag behind on the national scene. In games last season against the SEC West's "Big Four," Mississippi State was outscored 128-64 by Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and LSU – and 34 of the Bulldogs' points came against Auburn.

This team should win at least seven games; that would mean 23 wins in the past three seasons, which would be just the third time since 1940-42 the Bulldogs had won that many in a three-season stretch (they won 25 from 1997-99 and 26 from 1998-2000).

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 36th nationally
The buzz: Mississippi State signed 28 prospects, with four-star junior college DE Denico Autry the top signee. He should provide immediate help. Another defensive lineman who should give Mississippi State an immediate boost is four-star DT Quay Evans. Four-star LB Richie Brown should be the eventual quarterback of the defense in Starkville. The strong defensive haul for Mississippi State is rounded out by four-star athlete Will Redmond, who is expected to begin his career at defensive back. Chris Nee, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

DE Denico Autry. He should make a big impact in his first season after transferring in from junior college. The Bulldogs desperately need a consistent pass rusher to emerge, and Autry’s credentials would suggest he is the guy. A solid secondary would become even better with a pass rush.

For more on Mississippi State throughout the season, check out BulldogBlitz.com