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'14 Season Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Frankly, the Bulldogs have a hard time matching up with the Tide year after year. But will this season be different? A dark horse Heisman contender and a veteran D could have something to say about it...

Can Dan Mullen and CLANGA finally upset Alabama in Bryant Deny?
Can Dan Mullen and CLANGA finally upset Alabama in Bryant Deny?
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Let's face it. For most of our recent memories, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have been Alabama's whipping boy. With the shortest distance between SEC schools spanning the highway between Starkville and Tuscaloosa, one would think the annual meeting of neighbors would be a blood-feud rivalry. But that is not the case. For a true rivalry to evolve, both sides of the fence must see some success.

Alabama has dominated the series with the Bullies with only a few notable exceptions. Yes, the Bulldogs managed to beat the Bear, and they have upset a few strong seasons for the Crimson Tide.  But during the Nick Saban tenure, CLANGA has found it hard to get a toe-hold against their nearby neighbors to the east, and while they generally put up at least some kind of fight, the games end with Alabama the victor.

This year may be a different story, however. Alabama will be replacing a great deal of veteran talent, while Mississippi State finished 2013 in strong fashion with a dark horse Heisman contender under center and possibly the league's most veteran defense. Sure, Alabama will once again be Alabama, a known commodity that deals in the currency of domination on both offense and defense. But will the Tide be able to hold this year's Bully squad in check? Let's take a closer look...

What happened last year?

While the Bulldogs had to finish strong in order to drum up a 7-6 season in 2013, don't be deceived by that record. Sure, Mississippi State compiled a rather mediocre 3-5 record in the SEC, but take a closer look at the nature of those losses. Five games last year were decided by a touchdown or less, and though the team in maroon eventually lost to the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU, those games were all closer than pundits anticipated going in. Mississippi State almost pulled out an early season victory against an Auburn team that went on to the BCS NCG. Though the record may be misleading, this is not your father's Mississippi State team.

Take last year's Alabama game, for example. Alabama ended up winning 20-7. However, the Tide struggled in a sluggish performance, failing to dominate the point of attack on defense and letting the Bulldog D under rising star defensive coordinator Geoff Collins dictate far more than Bama coach Nick Saban would have liked. On offense, the Bulldogs were forced to start Tyler Russell after an injury to dual threat QB Dak Prescott prevented his participation. Prescott is a known threat running the ball, and his presence in the game could have given the Bulldogs more offensive weapons with which to assault a Bama defense which failed to put a foot on the throat of the Bulldogs throughout the game.

The Tide was sloppy against Mississippi State, which is often the case considering the spot into which the Bulldogs fall on Bama's schedule each year. Last year, Alabama surrendered far too many turnovers: two interceptions from Mr. Reliable, AJ McCarron, combined with fumbles by both T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, almost put the Tide in a hole. Eventually, the more talented team pulled out the win, as McCarron went on to throw two touchdowns on the day, and Yeldon amassed a whopping 160 yards rushing against a developing defense.

It was another example of "close, but no cigar" for MSU. They hope to remedy that trend this year.

How does Mississippi State look in '14?

In a word: better. The Bulldogs return an astounding amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball, and Prescott is back and healthy, which should put a little scare in defensive coordinators across the league. Prescott has great size, and if his heroics in last year's Egg Bowl are any indication, his heart is big as well. He is adept running from the QB position, and in fact, was MSU's leading rusher a year ago, outpacing runner up LaDarius Perkins (now graduated) by nearly 300 yards. Prescott hit 58.4% of his passes for 10 TDs and 7 INTs last year while picking up another 839 yards and 13 touchdown on the ground.

Prescott may be the most dangerous running QB the Tide will face this year outside of Auburn's Nick Marshall, and rumor has it, Prescott has spent much of the year polishing his passing game. Under the tutelage of former Utah QB Brian Johnson (who led the Utes to a victory over Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl), Prescott has reportedly become a better passer, which will further enhance his ability to keep defenses off balance. In the past, Prescott has struggled against superior secondaries, and given the talent across the board in the SEC, that is a puzzle he must solve if he hopes to show improvement on the field. If Johnson is right about Prescott, and if he remains healthy this year, it's easy to understand why many are looking for a big year from the maturing signal caller.

At running back, Perkins is gone, but he's replaced by talented junior Josh Robinson, who will step into his shoes. Robinson, who showed flashes of greatness last year while spelling Perkins, has reportedly shed 10 pounds coming into this year's camp and gained muscle. Robinson has a chance to make a name for himself running behind an offensive line that is one of the league's largest per capita, though Bulldogs fans have to hope that the line has matured since 2013 when they struggled, particularly in the running game. Robinson will be spelled by senior Nick Griffith, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and four-star freshman Aeris Williams.

The wide receiver corps for the Bulldogs is adequate if not spectacular, though given Prescott's struggles in the passing game, much remains to be seen from the group. Jameon Lewis was the Bulldogs' leading receiver a year ago with 923 yards, and will likely resume that roll again this year. The remainder of the wide receivers are young but talented, and freshman Jamoral Graham is expected to be one of the Bullies' primary receiving threats after a little seasoning.

The offensive line is gigantic, as has historically been the case with MSU. However, as has also usually been the case, that size hasn't translated to domination at the point of attack. The line's only All-SEC player from last year, guard Gabe Jackson, is now competing for a spot on the depth chart of the NFL's Oakland Raiders. The Bulldogs must also replace stalwart tackle Charles Siddoway. After the conclusion of the spring, the offensive line was still in a state of uncertainty, which could be a major Achilles's heel for a team that counts on running the ball as much as Coach Dan Mullen fancies.

The good news for Mississippi State fans mostly falls on the defensive side of the ball, where injuries last year resulted in increased playing time for a bevy of young players who return this year. The Bulldogs return eight of their nine players in the defensive line rotation, which is definitely a bright spot for a team that is beginning to fall into synch with Collins' 4-3 defensive scheme. In fact, eight members of the defensive line rotation played in at least 10 games for the Bulldogs last year, making it clear that the defensive front will be a decided strength for the team. Sophomore Chris Jones is a future NFL specimen, and he will be joined in the trenches by standout seniors Kaleb Eulis and PJ Jones.

Five of six linebackers also return to the 2014 incarnation of the Bulldogs, and the secondary is easily the most veteran in the SEC, returning 10 of its 11 defensive backs from last year. The LB corps is led by Benardrick McKinney, who after an injury shortened 2013, plans to return to form in a big way. The secondary's depth is a function of last year's misfortune, as injury forced Collins to juggle defensive backs almost constantly. Keep an eye out for Taveze Calhoun, Jamerson Cole and Will Redmond in the defensive back field, as all will have improved after 2013.

Why Mississippi State may win?

There are several reasons that the Bulldogs could catch Bama slipping this year, though many things can change between now and November. Firstly, Alabama always plays sluggishly against Mississippi State because of the game that usually precedes the annual contest: namely, the LSU game. In recent years, the LSU game has been so exhausting that a shadow of the Crimson Tide generally takes the field in its wake, at least for that first week. Mississippi State's defense could also cause substantial problems for an offense that will have a first year starter under center, regardless of whether Jake Coker or Blake Sims ultimately wins out the QB competition. Sure, Alabama's stable of wide receivers probably still has a talent advantage over the Bully secondary. But if they play sloppy, drop balls, lack focus...let's just say the QB-to-be-determined could have a rough time of it against the veteran MSU defense.

Also, Alabama's offensive line struggles last year were well documented. Yes, the line was better than average in many respects, but it struggled to establish the run at times and was unable to protect the QB against lighter, quicker defensive ends as the season wore on. If any team has the veteran presence to cause the offensive line trouble this year, it could be Mississippi State. Remember, other than talent, experience is the most critical factor in the success of a unit like the defensive line. The Bulldogs have that, and it may cause Bama's O line trouble if they haven't fully gelled by November.

Then there's Prescott. Bama has struggled to contain dual-threat quarterbacks under Saban...there's no doubt about that. Most of these QBs had enough passing skill to keep the Tide off balance, and time will tell if Prescott has improved enough to be a legitimate threat passing the ball. If Prescott can attack the Tide secondary, another weak spot for Bama last year, it will only serve to open up the running game for him and Robinson.

Make no mistake, if any MSU team in recent memory can make a run at the Tide, it's this one. The returning talent, Prescott's freak athleticism and the ticking clock on Mullen's tenure can all generate lightning in a bottle for the Bulldogs, however unlikely that may seem at this point in August.

Why Bama may win?

This one is simple: because Bama usually wins. Whether it's some backwoods mojo or just the disparity in talent between the two programs, the Bulldogs just seem to be snake-bit when they face the Tide, more times than not.

The brass tacks of it are that Alabama is immensely more talented, if not as experienced, on defense. The secondary that struggled in 2013 has been praised by Coach Nick Saban thus far in camp. The Alabama defensive line has plenty of starts between the group, and the physical talent possessed by the same is stunning. That is a deadly combination for all but the best offensive lines, and given the Bullies' struggles in the trenches last year, this looks to be a match-point for the Crimson Tide. The linebacking corps is the youngest segment of the defense, but an argument could be made that the unit possesses the most raw talent, with several five-star players dotting the roster in addition to returning bruiser Trey DePriest. While Saban has said the defense must improve, one has to be happy about the possibilities for this group as they mature and learn how to play to a standard.

Despite the lack of a starting quarterback, the Tide offense is stacked at the running back and wide receiver positions. As previously mentioned, despite the talent and experience among Bulldog defensive backs, I expect them to have a difficult time keeping up with the stable of elite receivers Saban has assembled. Add into the mix the wild card of new OC Lane Kiffin's passing attack, and it may just be too much for the Bulldogs to handle.

Also, let's not discount that the Bulldogs are playing in Bryant Denny Stadium this year. As if the Bulldogs didn't have a tough enough task ahead of them, they'll have to quell 102,000 screaming Tide fans. That, my friends, is a tough row to hoe.

What I think will happen...

This is a stab in the dark, given we've seen neither team in action and Alabama still doesn't have a starting quarterback. However, I think Alabama would wear down the Bulldog defense if they did nothing but run the ball, work the screen and execute the play-action passing game without flaw. If Kiffin's offense is indeed all it's cracked up to be, then the Tide offense could take control of this game in the second half and lead the team to a win.

Mark my words, the Tide offensive line will struggle to assert itself in the early going. They'll be tired out from a war with LSU the previous week, and the Bulldog defensive line is physical enough to cause problems up front. This game will likely start slowly for Alabama, but as has been the case in the past, the tide of conditioning will turn against MSU in the second half as wave upon wave of Bama attackers continue to lean on the Bully D.

I am also relatively confident that the Bama defensive front will dominate in the trenches. Given the depth and talent of the unit, and the struggles of the behemoth Bulldog O line, this could be a real treat to watch. If the defense can adequately pressure Prescott, I have a feeling he'll revert to his old ways and begin to flounder in the passing game. It is at that point that the Bulldogs' fate will be sealed, as a Bama defense with its ears pinned back, attacking aggressively, is a scary, scary thing.

Bama should win the game by a closer-than-comfortable margin of 28-20. Roll Tide.