STARKVILLE, Miss. – Mississippi State's football program is in better shape since coach Dan Mullen took over five years ago.
The Bulldogs have been to three straight bowl games for only the second time in school history and are in the midst of a $75 million renovation to Davis Wade Stadium that will increase seating capacity and add more amenities, like a second high-definition video board.
But for all the good news, here's the bad: The SEC Western Division is still a tough place to reside in college football.
The Bulldogs will once again try to figure out a way to muscle past powers like Alabama and LSU this season. Mullen said that the program's "ultimate goal is to find a way to get to Atlanta and compete for an SEC championship."
Mississippi State has some key players returning, including senior quarterback Tyler Russell and senior running back LaDarius Perkins. But there are many new faces — especially on defense.
There are "a lot of opportunities for young guys to step up, not just as playmakers on the field, but young guys need to step into leadership roles for us this year," Mullen said. "I think that's going to be a real defining factor of our season, how fast these young guys, not just step into the playmaking role, but step into leadership roles and take over for that big senior class that we had last year that walked out the door."
One of the most talented young players is linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who was second on the team with 102 tackles last season as a freshman. He'll headline a defense that lost several productive players like linebacker Cameron Lawrence and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
Russell returns after an impressive junior season that included 2,897 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. But like most of the team, he played well during last year's 7-0 start before faltering down the stretch when the Bulldogs lost five of six games.
Russell said that collapse has motivated the team during the offseason.
"We got to a point in the year that we said we couldn't be beat, and then we got one loss, and that changed everything," Russell said. "This year our focus is one game a time. You have to have the mental toughness to get back on that horse if you get knocked down. That's something we struggled with last year, and that's one thing I'm trying to change."
Five things to keep an eye on when watching the Bulldogs this season:
1. RUSSELL'S PLAY: Mississippi State's Tyler Russell was fantastic early last season as the Bulldogs bolted out to a 7-0 record, but faltered down the stretch with an especially bad game against Northwestern in a Gator Bowl loss. Russell still finished the season with good stats — 2,897 yards, 24 TDs and 10 interceptions — and when he's on the senior can be one of the SEC's best.
2. MULLEN'S GLASS CEILING: Fifth-year coach Dan Mullen has done a good job beating the teams he's supposed to beat during his tenure. But the Bulldogs have never beaten LSU or Alabama under Mullen and the road to an SEC Western Division title usually goes through one of those teams.
3. BENARDRICK'S TIME: Linebacker Benardrick McKinney was one of the league's best freshmen last season, finishing with 102 tackles in the middle of the Bulldogs' defense. Now the 6-foot-5, 235-pound sophomore will be counted on to provide a much bigger leadership role and carry out first-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins' plan.
4. REPLACING THE CORNERS: The Bulldogs have big shoes to fill at both cornerback positions after losing Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay to the NFL. Mississippi State's pass coverage has been one of its strengths the past few seasons and will now rely on former backups like Jamerson Love to fill the gaps.
5. GROUND GAME: LaDarius Perkins might be a little undersized for an every-down back at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, but the senior has proven to be a very durable option for the Bulldogs. He rushed for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns last season and with another good season, will be among the school's most productive running backs.
Predicted order of finish in the SEC West: Sixth.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP