1. With Dak Prescott and a host of other playmakers returning, there has to be a lot of excitement in Starkville these days, right?
Mississippi State fans are very excited, but it is a cautious optimism. For far too long, Mississippi State fans have been burned by high expectations. This season feels a bit different with the momentum of the final three games of 2013. The Bulldogs won at Arkansas with a true freshman playing quarterback and a solid defensive effort. The Battle for the Golden Egg had a heroic ending for Dak Prescott, and the way the defense forced a fumble on Bo Wallace's way into the end zone to tie the score was awesome. Then in the Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State pummeled Rice.
There is obviously some concern with losing players like Gabe Jackson. Someone will have to step up to solidify the offensive line. However, at most other spots, there is only optimism. Josh Robinson can be a stud at the running back spot. Prescott should show improvement. The defense continued to improve as the season went along, and Jameon Lewis and Bear Wilson should prove capable playmakers in the wide receiver corps.
2. Focusing on Prescott, he's been getting a lot of good press since his huge off-the-bench win in the Egg Bowl and strong showing in the bowl game, and has a case to be called the SEC's top returning quarterback. How's he handling the spotlight?
Prescott seems to be a player that handles the spotlight well. The kid obviously has mental toughness given that he played through the death of his mother last season. He has always deflected the praise well, but he has not had to handle much criticism yet in his career. When the season starts and he has an off game or two, it will be interesting to see how he handles that. Right now, most of the pressure is coming from excitement of MSU fans and folks calling him a dark horse for various awards. That is a good type of pressure, and I think he can handle that.
3. That said, who else is emerging on offense to help take some pressure off of him?
A few folks will have to emerge at the running back position because Prescott cannot continue to carry the ball and take as many hits as he did last year. Look for Josh Robinson to take a lot of carries next season. At the wide receiver position, Prescott has developed a great chemistry with Jameon Lewis, so I would expect that to continue. Bear Wilson has all the skills to become a big time player, so watch for him to break out a bit. Another name to watch for is Brandon Holloway. When he is used correctly, he can be a very dangerous player in the mold of Percy Harvin.
4. Bernardrick McKinney and Chris Jones are two potential big-timers on defense. Anybody else emerging this spring?
It will be interesting to watch who will emerge with these two this spring. Richie Brown has gotten a good bit of talk in his time in Starkville. Will Redmond is expected to be a big time player as well. There is a great opportunity for someone in the secondary to become the man. Justin Cox may end up being that guy because he is looking to move back to safety, which has been a much more natural position for him.
This defense is only a year old, so I think that the players who had some experience with it last year will be the ones most likely to have a big season. If you want a deep sleeper, look at Nick James. He missed much of last year because off-field issues becoming on-field issues. If his head really is in the right place, the kid has enormous size and talent and could be a beast on the defense.
5. What are some reasonable expectations for this team in 2014? Is it time for Dan Mullen to get this team in contention for the SEC West? Is there any pressure to do better than the 6-8 wins that have become the norm?
Fans are clamoring for more, and they rightfully should. Finishing 7-6 last year felt like a bit of a disappointment, but the Bulldogs did face several injury issues at the quarterback position. That said, just about the entire SEC did. This is the season that Mississippi State should strive for nine wins, maybe ten, if things go right. The four out of conference games should be a given: Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, and UT Martin. In the SEC, the Bulldogs should be favored against Kentucky, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt.
The key for Mississippi State will come in the other five games. At the end of the season, can Mississippi State keep up its success against Ole Miss? How good will Texas A&M be this season? Their defense was abominable last year, and they do not have Johnny Football or Mike Evans to help on offense. How good will Auburn be this season? Yes, they played for a national championship last year, but they had an awful lot of lucky plays go their way.
Yes, good teams make their own luck, but the Bulldogs had Auburn knocked off last year until the very end of the game. If Mississippi State makes good in two of those three, they should have at least nine wins going into the bowls season.
The tough two games will be LSU and Alabama. It has been a while since the Bulldogs have really struck fear into either of these teams. A win here would help fans be happy with a seven or eight win season.
Will the Bulldogs contend for the SEC West? That seems unlikely with Mississippi State still seeming behind Alabama and LSU, but the Bulldogs should have their sights set on no worse than a third, maybe fourth, place finish in the toughest division in college football.