We continue our five-part series on the upcoming Southeastern Conference football season by looking at our #11 ranked squad entering 2013, the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
State raced out to a 7-0 start in 2012 only to drop five of their last six games. Skeptics say they benefited from an abnormally soft schedule early. The schedule is not nearly as forgiving this season, as the Maroon Bulldogs open with top-10 Oklahoma State, have a trip to new-look Auburn, and host LSU in this season’s first seven.
For State to extend their bowl streak to four, senior QB Tyler Russell must find consistency. He threw 24 touchdown passes last season, but struggled against the better teams with accuracy and decision-making. LaDarius Perkins should make his life easier as the 1,024-yard back returns. Problem is, Perkins is also the leading receiver returning, the top-4 from 2012 are gone.
The Jim Thorpe Award winner for top defensive back in college football, Johnthan Banks is also gone underscoring the inexperience throughout the roster. Inexperience is never a good thing in the SEC. If State makes it four straight bowls, they will have squeaked by to do it.
At #10 are the Tennessee Volunteers. It seems not that long ago we were speaking of the Vols ranking #10 nationally, but the truth is that it has. Still reeling from the ill-conceived firing of Phillip Fulmer and the even more ill conceived hirings of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, the Volunteers have not won more than seven games since 2007 and have not been to a bowl game since 2010. Could you have ever imagined there would be two consecutive years where Tennessee did not go to a bowl and Vanderbilt did?
This low-water mark was punctuated by Vandy’s 41-18 pounding of the Vols last November 17. Dooley was immediately fired. Soon after, Cincinnati Coach Butch Jones was brought in. Jones should return Tennessee back to traditional Tennessee football in how they look and play.
UT’s strength may be the offensive line so the running game should flourish. But the defense was the worst in memory last season allowing 35.7 points per game. They need to get tougher. Jones will bring that quickly. Can Tennessee return to postseason play? An extended Volunteer preview is coming soon as we countdown to kickoff.
The #9 team in the league may be the most interesting to watch as former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn returns as head coach of the Auburn Tigers. In just two seasons, Auburn went from BCS champions, to winless in the SEC. Fact is Auburn caught lightning in a bottle with Cam Newton, but former coach Gene Chizik’s acumen was just not enough—particularly when you are trying to stare down Nick Saban on the other side of the state.
Malzahn is not intimidated. Words have already been flying back-and-forth. Saban has made a point to voice concern over all the no-huddle offense now in the league. Malzahn plans to run the fastest of those. Saban speaks of how injuries could pile up and how it is so completely untraditional. The Auburn people say Nick is already afraid of what is coming.
What is coming in 2013 will be exciting, and very much a work-in-progress. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace head a three-way QB battle with JUCO transfer Nick Marshall. Tre Mason returns at RB and nine starters return on what should be a very athletic defense. Expect Auburn to win a couple conference games and to return to a bowl this season, the excitement is just beginning.