Back 4 x 4 Preview: Mississippi State

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4 x 4 Preview: Mississippi State

By Matt Smith
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With a tough schedule awaiting, Mississippi State very well may find it difficult to return to a bowl game this fall.

4 Household Names

1. QB Tyler Russell (Sr.) – Every major passing record in school history should belong to Russell by season’s end, despite him not taking over the full-time starting role until his junior year. Russell doesn’t make a ton of mistakes, but trimming his interception total from 10 a year ago to 7-8 could make a significant difference in the Bulldogs’ win-loss record. His biggest challenge will be adjusting to an entirely new receiving corps after the losses of the team’s top three receivers from 2012.

2. RB LaDarius Perkins (Sr.) – Perkins picked up right where Vick Ballard left off last season, topping 1,000 yards and finding the end zone eight times. He returns for his final season, where he should easily surpass the school’s all-purpose yards record, needing just 980 to top Anthony Dixon. He’s more effective between the tackles than his size would suggest and has the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.

3. OG Gabe Jackson (Sr.) – Jackson has started all 39 games since arriving in Starkville, and another strong season could have him in the mix to be a first-round NFL Draft pick next spring. You won’t find many bigger guards than Jackson, who stands 6’4” and 335 pounds. The Bulldogs were held under 100 yards rushing in four of their final six games a year ago. With Jackson and his fellow linemates all returning, that won’t happen again.

4. S Nickoe Whitley (Sr.) – Mississippi State’s secondary was gutted after last season, as Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, both second-round NFL Draft picks, must be replaced, in addition to safety Corey Broomfield. Whitley, with 31 career starts and 10 interceptions, will have to anchor an inexperienced unit that combined has just two career starts at the other three positions.

RELATED: Mississippi State will Turn to the Ground Game for Production on Offense

4 Relative Unknowns Who Will Become Household Names

1. WR Robert Johnson (Jr.) – Joe Morrow may be the most physically gifted of the Bulldogs’ young receivers, but Johnson has shown more when given the opportunity, catching 17 passes a year ago, two for touchdowns. He’s incredibly strong at 225 pounds and does not go down easily after the catch. 50 catches and six touchdowns would be a very nice season and what Mississippi State needs from Johnson in order to maintain an efficient passing attack.

2. DT Kaleb Eulls (Jr.) – To this point, Eulls might be most well-known for de-arming a student on his high school bus. He’ll be more than just a local hero after this season, as the 6’4”, 290-pound junior returns for his third year starting on the interior of the Bulldogs defensive line. He’ll draw more attention from opponents with Josh Boyd gone, but having 345-pound sophomore Nick James beside him should still allow him to have plenty of one-on-one battles as a three-technique tackle.

3. LB Benardrick McKinney (So.) – McKinney wasn’t invited to SEC Media Days last month just because he has a really cool name. Head coach Dan Mullen tabbed McKinney for the honor because he may be the most important player on the Bulldogs defense this season. A freshman All-American a year ago, McKinney finished second on the team with 102 tackles. At middle linebacker, he’ll have the responsibility for pre-snap calls with 2012 leading tackler Cameron Lawrence no longer around.

4. CB Jamerson Love (Jr.) – The term “next man in” is a common coaching maxim, but you just don’t replace the best cornerback in college football and have things run as smoothly. Making his first career start against pass-happy Oklahoma State only adds to the already large amount of pressure on Love. The challenge for Love is great, but he’s not a pup after playing in 25 games in his first two seasons and making 43 tackles.

4 Must-See Games

1. Aug. 31 vs. Oklahoma State (Houston) – Neither program is known for challenging non-conference games, but this neutral-site battle gives the Bulldogs a great opportunity to knock off the preseason Big 12 favorite. The young secondary has to exceed expectations, but Mississippi State has the size in the trenches to be able to control the clock and keep the ball away from Mike Gundy’s potent offense.

2. Sept. 14 at Auburn – This game always sets an early tone in the SEC West, with the Bulldogs using a 27-10 win last year in Starkville to spark a 7-0 start, while Auburn never recovered and finished 3-9. Mississippi State has won just once in its last six trips to Jordan-Hare Stadium, but may need this win to help put itself close to bowl eligibility before its November gauntlet of at South Carolina, at Texas A&M and Alabama, all in consecutive weeks.

3. Oct. 5 vs. LSU – We told you earlier this summer why this was the biggest trap game in the conference. The Bulldogs have Troy and then a week off in the two weeks prior to LSU’s visit, while the Tigers must play Auburn and Georgia, with Florida looming a week later. Last year’s game was closer than the 37-17 score would indicate, as the Bulldogs were about to pull within six late in the game when LSU returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown.

4. Nov. 28 vs. Ole Miss – The Egg Bowl is back on Thanksgiving Night this season, giving the nation a chance to see one of the most heated and underrated rivalries in college football. The Bulldogs were humbled a year ago in Oxford, but get this year’s meeting in front of a cowbell-filled Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State hasn’t lost an Egg Bowl at home since Jackie Sherrill’s final game in 2003.

RELATED: Mississippi State has Become the Forgotten Team in the SEC

4 Bold Predictions

1. The Bulldogs will lose a late lead to Oklahoma State. With a punishing offensive line, Mississippi State will control the line of the scrimmage for much of the afternoon in Houston as Perkins easily will go over 100 yards. Alas, the young secondary won’t be able to hold up for 60 minutes, and the Cowboys will rally late to hand the Bulldogs a heartbreaking loss and avoid what would be a colossal defeat for not only themselves, but the Big 12 as a whole.

2. The Golden Egg will return to Starkville. Mullen quickly helped Mississippi State regain control of the rivalry with “The School Up North”, winning three straight by an average of 17 points before falling last year. Sitting at 4-7 and with bowl hopes gone, the Bulldogs will come up with a spirited effort on Thanksgiving Night to end the season on a high note with an upset over the 7-4 Rebels.

3. Mississippi State will not make a bowl game. There aren’t the four sure-thing non-conference wins like the Bulldogs have had the past three seasons. The loss to Oklahoma State will keep the team home for the holidays after going 2-6 in SEC play, defeating only Kentucky and Ole Miss. It will be a tough pill to swallow, but three bowl trips in four years should be considered par for the course in Starkville.

4. Dan Mullen will return in 2014. The last coach to be fired after winning the Egg Bowl was David Cutcliffe at Ole Miss after the 2004 season. We all know how that worked out for the Rebels, as they went 3-21 in conference play the next three seasons under Ed Orgeron. This year might be a down one for the Bulldogs, but starting over would be a major mistake. A fourth Egg Bowl win in five years should be more than enough for Mullen to get a sixth season.

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Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.