STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen has turned Mississippi State in the right direction during his first four years, but things went south the last half of the 2012 season. The Bulldogs lost five of their last six games, including Mullen's first loss to rival Ole Miss and a Gator Bowl setback to Northwestern.
So there is plenty of motivation to get better. The improvement will have to be substantial if MSU hopes to be more competitive in the SEC's brutal Western Division. Last season, State went 2-4 against division foes, with the losses coming by an average of 23.3 points.
The Bulldogs' level of improvement will be judged from Week 1, when they open the season against Oklahoma State in Houston. Two weeks later, it's a road trip to Auburn, which could be considered a "swing game" for MSU in terms of having a strong season -- or maybe just gaining bowl eligibility.
For MSU to keep building on Mullen's foundation, the defense needs to be more disruptive. That's the plan with new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who was elevated from co-defensive coordinator. He's been using the term "defensive mayhem" to describe his approach.
"We don't want (offenses) to know what we're in on defense before the snap, and that's a big emphasis," Collins said.
The offense has experience returning everywhere but receiver, but fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell and a stable of running backs could offset that shortcoming.
"I know everything, so it's kind of like I'm an extra coach," Russell said.
MSU will again close the season with a brutal stretch that includes games against Alabama, Texas A&M and South Carolina. Russell feels his team will be better prepared to bounce back from a loss and avoid another closing slide.
"If you lose one game," he said, "it cannot define the rest of your season."
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Bulldogs open Aug. 31 against Oklahoma State, which was picked to win the Big 12 title. "I think the sense of urgency starting with a big-time game like we're going to have to start the year off, I think that really draws that urgency right from day one that the clock is ticking to kickoff," coach Dan Mullen said.
Like MSU, the Cowboys are coming off an 8-5 season, but a lot of pieces are back, and Mike Gundy's high-flying offense will be a big challenge for MSU, which is breaking in new starters at cornerback. The home opener is against Alcorn State, then SEC play begins at Auburn, which has a new coach in offensive guru Gus Malzahn. Then Troy visits Starkville on Sept. 21, and the Bulldogs get the next weekend off.
AREAS OF CONCERN: MSU lost all three starting receivers from last year, so it's been a wide-open competition there. Coaches are hoping junior Jameon Lewis and sophomore Joe Morrow can have breakout years. There might be more concern about how the offensive tackles will play this fall. It was an issue last year, as leaky tackle play led to way too many hits on Russell. Junior Blaine Clausell is slated to start at left tackle, with senior Charles Siddoway on the right side. Clausell has 17 career starts, while Siddoway started all 13 games last year as a juco transfer. Can those two raise their level of play? Clausell said one area he's been working on is communication. "Making my calls quicker and better, to help everybody else out to know what's going on defense," he said.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: MSU's defense was very vulnerable to high-octane offenses last season, having trouble with the likes of Troy (572 total yards), Texas A&M (693 yards) and Ole Miss (527 yards). It wasn't the most aggressive scheme, but now that Collins has taken over, the plan is to be more proactive and try to confuse offenses as much as possible. MSU has capable pass rushers in ends Denico Autry and Preston Smith, who combined for 9.5 sacks last season. And the linebackers look to be a deep unit, led by rangy sophomore Benardrick McKinney in the middle. The offense is set up to be prolific once again with Russell and the running backs returning.