Schedule analysis: Mississippi State

There’s still the not-so-small matter of taking on the SEC West, but otherwise Mississippi State couldn’t ask for an easier path to Atlanta for the league championship game.

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Southern Miss (1-11)

Sept. 6: UAB (2-10)

Sept. 13: South Alabama (6-6)

Nov. 8: Tennessee-Martin (7-5)

SEC home games

Oct. 4: Texas A&M

Oct. 11: Auburn

Nov. 1: Arkansas

Nov. 22: Vanderbilt

SEC road games

Sept. 20: LSU

Oct. 25: Kentucky

Nov. 15: Alabama

Nov. 29: Ole Miss

Gut-check time: Let’s face it -- we won’t learn much of anything about Mississippi State in the first three weeks of the season. We’ll get to the competition in the “Snoozers” section below because the Bulldogs really should be able to sleepwalk through it. Dak Prescott should post big numbers and the defense should be dominant, especially at the line of scrimmage, where it's as stout as any team in the SEC. Chris Jones, for example, isn’t even technically a starter and he was one of the most promising defensive linemen in the league last season. But Week 4 reality hits State hard in the form of a trip to Death Valley. We’ll learn as much about the mental makeup of this team as its talent. LSU’s defense will challenge Prescott’s arm and legs (ask Johnny Manziel), and the Tigers’ running game should give the Bulldogs' defensive line all it can handle.

Trap game: As tempting as it is to pick South Alabama -- a game before a huge matchup with LSU and a game in Mobile, Ala., which feels crazy -- it’s just too impossible to imagine an upset of that epic of proportions. Instead, circle Vanderbilt on the calendar. Yes, those same Commodores who are rebuilding under new coach Derek Mason. But Vanderbilt should have worked out the kinks by Week 13 of the season, and coming between games at Alabama and at Ole Miss, there’s a chance the Bulldogs won't give the Commodores their full attention. With the all-important Egg Bowl looming and the potential to shore up its postseason chances on the horizon, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see the Bulldogs sleep on a Vanderbilt team that is likely to fly under the radar this season.

Snoozers: Southern Miss. UAB. South Alabama. Oh, you want more? Can you handle the FCS squad UT-Martin? The 2016 season can’t get here soon enough if you’re a fan of quality nonconference games. Mississippi State is adding a bunch of seats to its stadium this year, but it might be a dicey proposition to fill them all against the Golden Eagles, Dragons and Skyhawks. (See, chances are you can’t match the mascot with the team. It’s that bad.) A year after traveling to Houston to open the season against ranked Oklahoma State, Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule comes as a major letdown. Sleep in on those Saturdays because you’re not likely to miss anything.

Telltale stretch: Thankfully for Mississippi State, there’s a bye week that falls during its most challenging four-week stretch of the season. We’ll find out whether Mississippi State is a contender or a pretender based on how it survives LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Getting LSU and Texas A&M early on is a plus, as both teams are much younger this season, but they’re also loaded with talent and led by two pretty darn good coaches in Les Miles and Kevin Sumlin. Then there’s the matter of Auburn, which brings back both experience and talent. But if Mississippi State plays well, watch out. Running the table would make the Bulldogs front-runners to win the West and taking two out of three would ensure that they stay in the race. Lose two or all three and there might not be any surviving that.

Final analysis: Dan Mullen is staring down something of a double-edged sword this season. On the one hand, his schedule sets up perfectly with a cakewalk of a nonconference slate and the least threatening crossover games any team could hope for with Kentucky and Vanderbilt. And with Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama to start the season, he’ll have plenty of time to work out the kinks before going on the road to LSU -- a young team that you’d rather get early than late. Then it’s a bye week before Texas A&M and Auburn come to Starkville on consecutive Saturdays -- and if you’re going to get those two, get them at home. Realistically, the over/under on wins could be around 8.5, and that might be conservative, as Mississippi State should be heavily favored in at least seven games and Ole Miss looks like a toss-up. But that points to the perilous edge to the schedule Mullen must consider: strength of competition. Can you go from Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama to LSU? Can you get up for Alabama when you’ve gone bye-Kentucky-Arkansas-UT Martin in the previous four weeks? On the one hand, Mississippi State is eyeing prime conditions, but on the other hand you wonder what its conditioning will be like when the challenges come.