Opening preseason camp: Mississippi State

Schedule: The Bulldogs’ first practice is Thursday at 6 p.m. ET. The first day in pads is scheduled for next Tuesday. Mississippi State opens the season Sept. 1 against Jackson State at Scott Field. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised by Fox Sports Net.

Returning starters: Five on offense, seven on defense and the punter on special teams.

Star power: Johnthan Banks enters his senior season as one of the premier cornerbacks in college football. He’s tied for fourth among active FBS players with 12 career interceptions.

New faces: It didn’t take junior college newcomer Denico Autry long this spring to show what he could do. He’s the outside pass-rusher the Bulldogs lacked at end last season. Another junior college transfer, Charles Siddoway, may end up starting at right offensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Benardrick McKinney will compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Two more redshirt freshmen, Josh Robinson and Derrick Milton, make for what will be a deep running back stable, while redshirt freshman receiver Joe Morrow is a 6-foot-4, 205-pound target who will be a key addition to the Bulldogs’ receiving corps. The true freshman they’re all waiting to see this season is defensive tackle Quay Evans, who enrolled early and had three sacks in the spring game.

Don’t forget about: Senior Tobias Smith has been one of the SEC’s hardest luck players. He’s missed 31 games because of injuries and went down against LSU in the third week last season with a torn ACL. He returns at his right guard spot, and the Bulldogs desperately need him to stay healthy. He provides the kind of stability up front that would make a big difference for an offense that averaged just 18.1 points per game in SEC play last season.

Big shoes to fill: Fletcher Cox closed out last season as one of the more dominant interior defensive linemen in the league, which is a big reason he was drafted in the first round. Now that Cox is gone, it’s on Josh Boyd to raise his game to another level. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior tackle is certainly capable. He had eight tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks last season.

Key battle: The Bulldogs return three senior receivers in Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, but Morrow will push all three for playing time. He made a ton of plays in the spring. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is counting on the receivers being one of the most improved units on the team this fall.

Rising star: Mississippi State is oozing with depth at running back, and there are only so many carries to go around in a game. Nonetheless, sophomore Nick Griffin possesses a blend of size, speed and strength that could make him a special back in this league. The 6-foot, 225-pound Griffin was slowed by a knee injury to begin his career at Mississippi State, but this may be the year he breaks out and becomes a consistent playmaker for the Bulldogs.

Bottom line: The Bulldogs are coming off back-to-back winning seasons, and the last time that happened was 1999 and 2000. They’ve also won bowl games each of the past two seasons and won three in a row over archrival Ole Miss, so Mullen has the program headed in the right direction. But as he enters his fourth season, the real challenge will be kicking down that door in the Western Division. Ole Miss is the only West team Mullen has beaten since taking the job in 2009. What’s more, the Bulldogs were 2-6 in the SEC last season. There have been several close losses along the way, and Mullen is adamant that Mississippi State isn’t that far away from competing for an SEC championship. It’s a must that the Bulldogs get off to a good start this season. They play five of their first seven games at home, and the two road dates are at Troy and at Kentucky. It sounds like Mullen is going to open up the passing game and let junior quarterback Tyler Russell air it out. Protecting him will be the key. If a couple of new faces come through on defense, the Bulldogs could surprise a few teams in the West this season. The home game against Auburn the second week of the season is huge. Mississippi State has lost its SEC opener each of the past 12 seasons.