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2016 season preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs

We’re in the homestretch. With the opening weekend of the college football season less than two weeks away, here’s a look at where things stand at Mississippi State.

Key question heading into Week 1: We’ll get to the obvious question in a minute, but for now let’s look at the bigger picture. As in, where does Mississippi State go from here? There’s no clear answer at quarterback, the running game is coming off a down season, and the offensive line was a sore spot, too. What’s more the entire defensive coaching staff — from coordinator on down to grad assistant — is new. Dan Mullen is still the man steering the ship, which should inspire some confidence, but where it goes in the post-Dak Prescott Era remains to be seen.

Make-or-break stretch: Week 1, 2 and 3. Seriously. That soon. With so much up in the air and so many young players stepping into pivotal roles, getting off to a good start is of the utmost importance. That means playing well against a cupcake in South Alabama. That means not expecting to walk over South Carolina at home. And maybe, having established some sort of identity, they’ll have a shot at going on the road at LSU and playing a competitive game.

Best case: First, a quarterback has to emerge. And as much as Mullen might object, it has to be one. Because then the offense can begin to put together a cohesive game plan. Then the rest should fall into place. If that happens and the secondary improves like many expect it to, this could turn out to be a seven- or eight-win team.

Worst case: If a quarterback doesn’t emerge, if the running game continues to suffer and the right pieces don’t come together on the line, things could get ugly. The defense is talented, but not enough to win games on its own. If State struggles early, and somehow loses to South Carolina — losing their confidence in the process — don’t be surprised if the wheels come off and the Bulldogs win only four or five games and miss a bowl for the first time since Mullen’s first season as a head coach in 2009.

Position battle to watch: For a moment, the quarterback battle was trimmed to three. Elijah Staley left, leaving Nick Fitzgerald, Damian Williams and Nick Tiano to do battle. But then junior college transfer Wyatt Roberts enrolled and we were back where we started. In truth, there’s little separating the QBs. Fitzgerald is likely the favorite, but Williams has good experience and Tiano has a high ceiling and strong intangibles. And, yeah, they wouldn’t have brought Roberts in as a transfer if he didn’t have a shot.

Instant impact freshman: Mullen and Mississippi State stuck by Jeffery Simmons through his arrest for a reason. Yeah, there’s something to be said for how it plays well in recruiting, but there’s also no denying that Simmons is someone State badly wants in the trenches on defense. He was their highest-rated prospect in the 2016 Class, a late win when the general consensus was that he would choose between Ole Miss and Alabama. Simmons already has good size to play in specific packages. Don’t be surprised if you see him early in the season rushing the passer on third down.