Mississippi State must send message in opener

Dak Prescott is all smiles on sideline

Mississippi State enters year seven of the Dan Mullen era Saturday at Southern Miss. As the saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” and the Bulldogs have had a lot of fun under Mullen.

From five consecutive bowl appearances to 16 NFL draft selections to spending five weeks at No. 1 with a Heisman-caliber quarterback – the Bulldogs have traveled uncharted football waters under Mullen. Still, despite the return of that Heisman-caliber quarterback, MSU endured an offseason full of doubt, disrespect and limited expectations.

Miss State coach Dan Mullen during a game

Dan Mullen, entering his seventh season, is coming off his most successful year with the Bulldogs. SPRUCE DERDEN/USA TODAY

Most preseason predictions have the Bulldogs finishing last in the SEC West, and Saturday night is the Bulldogs’ first opportunity to send a message to everybody that they will be a factor in the West race.

The Bulldogs are 21.5-point favorites and beat Southern Miss 49-0 last season. You must look hard to find anyone objectively giving Southern Miss an edge in this game and for good reason. Still, the Bulldogs need to look crisp and play well with LSU traveling to Starkville next weekend.

Senior quarterback Dak Prescott must have a big night, maybe not so much in the yardage or rushing departments as in completion percentage, decision-making, third-down efficiency and red-zone opportunities.

The Bulldogs’ offensive line needs to keep Prescott clean and open holes for running backs Ashton Shumpert, Dontavian Lee, Aeris Williams and Brandon Holloway.

We’ve heard how good the Bulldogs’ receivers are. They need to be on-point in game one, not just catching the ball but also blocking and showing a physical presence on the edge.

Defensively, the Bulldogs need to demonstrate a grasp of new coordinator Many Diaz’s system and dominate the line of scrimmage. Chris Jones, Nick James and the rest of the defensive front need to live in Southern Miss’ backfield and show no effects of losing Preston Smith. Similarly, without Benardrick McKinney and Matthew Wells, the linebackers need to prove they can stand on their own.

The secondary will have the biggest target on its back. This unit was out of position way too many times in 2014. Saturday night, they need to show they can be a strength, not a liability, against what is expected to be a solid Southern Miss passing attack.

The Bulldogs obviously want a big score and a big win to open the 2015 season, but they need more than simply a lopsided victory heading into the Week Two showdown with LSU. The Bulldogs need to show against Southern Miss that they aren’t going anywhere.


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