Whoever claims Mississippi State's starting quarterback job, he'll have a doubly difficult assignment.
Not only must he compete in one of college football's toughest divisions, he'll be replacing Dak Prescott, arguably the greatest player in school history.
A four-man battle has dwindled to three, but Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen has not tipped his hand as to who will start the opener against South Alabama just yet.
2015 in review: Prescott did not run nearly as much as he had a year earlier (986 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns in 2014), but was a more efficient passer in 2015. Prescott still led the Bulldogs with 588 rushing yards and 10 scores, and his passing numbers (316-for-477, 3,793 yards, 29 TDs, six interceptions) spiked as he proved to NFL scouts that he is no one-trick pony.
What's the buzz?: "With my background being in coaching quarterbacks, having a great quarterback coach in Brian Johnson who also played for me ... I trust in us that we're going to get the right guys the reps and the opportunity, see what we need to see and hopefully separate it and define it out.” – Coach Dan Mullen
Key weapons: Other than Prescott, the Bulldogs' running game was a problem last season and it will be again. Brandon Holloway (413 rushing yards), Ashton Shumpert (228 yards, 1 TD), Aeris Williams (206 yards, 3 TDs) and Dontavian Lee (137 yards) are all back, but those guys will not scare many SEC defensive coordinators. Starter Holloway (third on the team with 33 catches for 396 yards and five TDs) is quick and dangerous in the open field, but he's also 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds. At wideout, the Bulldogs return leading receiver Fred Ross (88 catches for 1,007 yards and five TDs). He lost partners De'Runnya Wilson (60-918, 10 TDs) and Fred Brown (27-412, 3 TDs), but Gabe Myles (12-175, 2 TDs), Donald Gray (21-386, 2 TDs), Malik Dear (22-217, 2 TDs) and sophomore Jesse Jackson are part of a deep group that should be fine even after those veterans' departures.
What to watch: Mullen has said that he won't have an issue with letting this competition drag well into the season or even rotating quarterbacks if necessary. Will he find roles for multiple quarterbacks based on situations or matchups? He has done that before at both Florida and Mississippi State. Or will he settle on a No. 1 option and stick with him as long as he plays well? It will be interesting to watch how Mullen plays things.
Next in line: Our assumption has long been that sophomore Nick Fitzgerald would claim the starting job, but Mullen hasn't made any such declaration. Elijah Staley reduced the competition when he announced early in preseason camp that he will transfer. That still leaves three QBs in the hunt: junior Damian Williams (37-for-70 for 434 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs in 12 career appearances), Fitzgerald (11-for-14 for 235 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs in eight games last season) and redshirt freshman Nick Tiano. Williams has the only start out of the bunch, although Fitzgerald served as Prescott's primary backup last season while Williams redshirted. Fitzgerald and Tiano are generally considered to have the highest ceilings in the bunch.
Grade: C-minus. There is some potential here, but limited experience against top-level defenses. We simply haven't seen enough of any of these guys to have the confidence to grade them more favorably. Their grade could certainly be much higher by season's end. We'll just have to see how the competition plays out this fall.