Mississippi State season preview

Our SEC preview continues today with a look at the Mississippi State Bulldogs

Coach: Dan Mullen (29-22 overall, all at MSU)

2012 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC

Key losses: WR Chad Bumphis, LB Cameron Lawrence, DB Darius Slay, DB Johnthan Banks, WR Chris Smith, WR Arceto Clark.

Key returnees: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, LB Benardrick McKinney, OG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, S Nickoe Whitley.

Newcomer to watch: DE Chris Jones, WR Jeremey Chappelle, CB Justin Cox, WR Fred Ross.

Biggest games in 2013: Oklahoma State (In Houston), Aug. 31; LSU, Oct. 5; at South Carolina, Nov. 2; at Texas A&M, Nov. 9; Alabama, Nov. 16; Ole Miss, Nov. 30.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can the Bulldogs take the next step? Last season, they started 7-0 and were in the top 15 nationally before a loss to Alabama began a stretch where they lost five of their final six games, which also happened to be when their schedule became its toughest. All five of those losses were by double digits. With the return of quarterback Tyler Russell, guard Gabe Jackson and a talented offensive line, as well as some key pieces in the front seven and secondary, the question is whether the Bulldogs can fare better against the top SEC West squads. One plus for the Bulldogs is that they get LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss all in the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium. Mullen has said several times that the Bulldogs' goal is to get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.

Forecast: This is a young group for Mullen with only 10 seniors on the roster and Mullen said that he thinks the team let the Alabama loss affect them in the weeks following. This young squad will have to learn how to respond to defeats like that this year and Mullen said he feels the group comes in with a chip on its shoulder after the way 2012 ended.

But there are key pieces back at key positions, namely at quarterback with Russell and along the offensive line led by Jackson at guard. There is production to be replaced at receiver. On defense, guys like Benardrick McKinney, Nickoe Whitley and Kaleb Eulls are part of a group of six returning starters on that side of the ball.

Taking the next step won't be easy for this crew though, considering the schedule. There are five ranked teams on the slate (Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama) and those last three fall in consecutive weeks in November. That doesn't count the Egg Bowl rivalry game against Ole Miss, which the Bulldogs lost last season. This year, though, they host the Rebels.

Winning around eight games again, as they did a season ago, is certainly achievable, but taking the leap forward into the top three in the SEC West might be asking too much, at least this season, unless one of those three (Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M) falter. A win against Oklahoma State to start the season would go a long way toward building some momentum early in the year, which they hope to carry into the Oct. 5 tilt against LSU. Bottom line is for the Bulldogs to be real contenders in the SEC West, they have to show that they can beat one of the big dogs in the division.