Mississippi State has reached the SEC Championship Game just one time—in 1998—since the annual contest began in 1992.
The Bulldogs, coming off a 7-6 season, likely won’t reach Atlanta again this year, either.
Yet they could be the surprise of the SEC West and potentially provide a roadblock for divisional favorites Alabama, Auburn and LSU.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen knows all too well how tough the division will be, though he eyes taking the “next step.”
“The difference in the SEC West is that, in the last five seasons, six SEC West teams have competed for the national championship,” Mullen told BleacherReport’s Barrett Sallee. “A lot of times, the next step is ‘Hey, we’ve built a program as a consistent winner; now let’s go win a conference championship.’ In the SEC West, you skip that step.
“A conference championship is also a national championship here. And that’s just in the West, never mind the Florida run before that. Our next step is to play for a national championship, because that’s where it’s been if you win the SEC West.”
Mullen also points out the brutality of his program’s 2013 schedule, which featured games against five teams that won 10 or more games. State went 0-5 in those games and also lost a road shootout to then-No. 11 Texas A&M.
The slate becomes easier in 2014 when the Bulldogs face no real challenges in the nonconference season and trade a road game at South Carolina for a home game against Vanderbilt.
Mississippi State required overtime wins in the final two regular-season games—against Arkansas and Ole Miss—last year just to reach a bowl game last season.
Getting those two victories did more than allow the Bulldogs to sneak into the Liberty Bowl. They showed that—even without rising offensive star Dak Prescott—they could rely on a sneakily good defense to win games.
Now Mississippi State finds itself in a position of having expectations from some even outside the Magnolia State.
Of course, Mullen isn’t completely correct about taking the next step.
Which of the big three is Mississippi State most likely to beat in 2014?
For Mississippi State there’s a little more remaining on the checklist than simply winning a national championship.
The next step would be taking down one of the big boys within the division. Since 2008, the Bulldogs are 1-19 against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M with the lone win coming against an Auburn team that went 0-8 in the SEC in 2012.
The Aggies could be down in 2014 while trying to replace quarterback Johnny Manziel, but the other three seem to be line to battle it out for the divisional title.
Mississippi State’s next step is creating waves in the race by ruining the season for one of the would-be contenders rather than allowing them to settle it amongst themselves.
Mullen should have the team to do just that.
Prescott, one of the top breakout stars in the SEC last year, returns with a full spring under his belt as the unquestioned starter.
The rising junior evokes memories of Cam Newton—a big-bodied sledgehammer of a running back. If Prescott can evolve in the passing game, adding a bit of polish to a plenty-strong arm, he could spell trouble for SEC defenses.
Prescott, who opens 2014 as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate, gets his favorite target back as well. Receiver Jameon Lewis accounted for 1,040 total yards of offense and eight touchdowns last season.
Tailback Josh Robinson is already drawing hype as this year’s potential breakout star.
More importantly, the Bulldogs will field a defense capable of keeping them in games with LSU, Alabama and Auburn.
State finished fifth in the SEC in scoring defense.
Sieve-like defensive performances such as the ones seen against LSU and Texas A&M in 2013 can no longer be accepted from Geoff Collins’ unit. Those two opponents combined for 110 points—more than one-third of the total points State allowed all season.
Instead, the State defense needs to cling on to the efforts seen for 58 minutes of the Auburn game or the entirety of the Ole Miss and Alabama games.
Ole Miss, especially, appeared lifeless on offense for much of the game against the rival Bulldogs.
State plays two of the perceived favorites—LSU and Alabama—on the road.
It does, however, get Auburn in Starkville.
Mullen’s team has given the Tigers scares in the past, including a near miss against Newton’s 2010 team that ultimately won the BCS National Championship. Nick Marshall’s remarkable two-minute drive allowed Auburn to escape with a home win over Mississippi State last year.
Alabama also had trouble dispatching State in 2013. A defensive touchdown pulled the Bulldogs to within a field goal early in the third quarter before the Crimson Tide scored the final 10 points to clinch the game.
LSU was the only one of the big three from the SEC West to dismantle the Bulldogs. Though the Tigers should again boast a disruptive defense, an unsettled quarterback position leaves questions about how good the program will be in 2014.
Mullen says Mississippi State is on the verge of winning its first SEC West title since 1998.
He might be off, but the Bulldogs seem as likely as any program to take the next step in 2014. That would mean delivering a devastating blow to one of the three strongest teams in the division.