Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended last week. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp isn't here yet; the regular season is even further away, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?
With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")
No. 7: Mississippi State
As one of the few teams in the Southeastern Conference with an experienced quarterback (Dak Prescott), Mississippi State is a team gutsier types may tab to win the league. At SEC media days, one reporter did just that. Along with Prescott, the Bulldogs bring back six of their top receivers from last year as well as 22 defensive players who saw action in 2013.
So it's certainly possible that Mississippi State wins the SEC West. They'll just have to hurdle a few obstacles to do so. One is history. The Bulldogs have only won the Western Division once (1999) since the conference split into two sides in 1992. And while Mullen's 36-28 overall record in five years is nothing to be ashamed of, his 16-24 mark versus conference opponents leaves a lot to be desired.
If the Bulldogs can turn that around this fall, they may just wind up playing in the SEC championship game come December.
Best-case scenario: Mississippi State doesn't make it to Atlanta — but it's not for lack of trying. The Bulldogs lay waste to the overmatched trio of Southern Miss, Alabama-Birmingham and South Alabama in their first three games. That sets up a date with fellow 3-0 squad LSU. In a battle of talented dual-threat signal-callers, Prescott shows Tiger QB Brandon Harris what it will take to be a top-flight player in the conference. Prescott totals five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) to give Mississippi State a 35-24 victory, the first time it has won in Tiger Stadium since 1991. Heading into a bye week, the Bulldogs are riding high. That doesn't change once it gets back on the field, this time hosting Texas A&M. Prescott tops another talented young quarterback for the second straight game. The Aggies' Kyle Allen plays well; Prescott plays better, lifting the Bulldogs to a 42-27 triumph.
Now 5-0, Mississippi State prepares for a titanic matchup against another 5-0 team: Auburn. This time, Prescott isn't the best quarterback in uniform, as Nick Marshall breaks Mississippi State's hearts for the second straight year. No, the Tigers don't need a last-minute drive this year; instead, they simply wear the Bulldogs down in a 45-20 decision.
Coming off their first loss, Mississippi State hits a soft spot in its schedule, easing past Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin to move to 8-1. But the Bulldogs catch Alabama at the wrong time; the Crimson Tide's defense is playing as well as ever and quarterback Jacob Coker has settled into a rhythm at the controls of the offense. The Bulldogs hang tough for a half, but the Crimson Tide pull away in the final 30 minutes to take a 20-10 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mississippi State closes out the regular season in style, though, routing Vanderbilt at home and topping Ole Miss for the second year in a row.
The conference losses to the Alabama duo relegates the Bulldogs to third in the SEC West. It's not a bad campaign by any stretch — heck, Mississippi State already has 10 wins with a bowl to go. Its postseason destination ends up being Orlando, Fla., for the Capital One Bowl. It's the third time in six years Mullen has led the Bulldogs to a New Year's Day bowl; their two previous showings both came at the Gator Bowl, posting a 1-1 record (beat Michigan 52-14 in 2011; lost to Northwestern 34-20 in 2013). On the first day of 2015, Mississippi State makes that mark 2-1, as they trounce Wisconsin 48-10.
The 11 wins set a single-season school record, one better than the 10 victories Mississippi State tallied in 1940 (10-0-1) and 1999 (10-1). With 47 career victories, Mullen already ranks third among Bulldog coaches, trailing only Jackie Sherrill (75 wins) and Allyn McKeen (65). He also ranks third in Mississippi State history in winning percentage among coaches with a minimum of five seasons in Starkville, as his 61 percent trails only McKeen (76.4 percent) and W.D. Chadwick (69.8; went 29-12-2 from 1909-13).
For Mullen, the world is his oyster. In a move that shocks many, Mullen turns down the chance to return to Florida — where he served as the Gators' offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer from 2005-08 — after Will Muschamp is let go, electing to remain in Starkville, citing the "opportunity to accomplish big things next season." And he's right — with Prescott back for a final year, the Bulldogs boast not only the best quarterback in the SEC, but one of the best in the entire country.
Worst-case scenario: Mississippi State's first three opponents (Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama) put up little resistance to allow Mullen's club to begin 3-0. Not surprisingly, those contests aren't the kind of preparation a team needs when it goes on the road to Tiger Stadium. In a battle of undefeated teams, it's LSU that emerges with its unblemished record intact. The Tigers' mega-talented true freshmen trio — Harris, running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Malachi Dupre — live up to the billing; Harris throws three touchdowns (two to Dupre) and Fournette scores twice himself, one being a dazzling, tackle-breaking 64-yard score that highlighted LSU's 38-20 win. It's the first of three straight losses for Mississippi State, as it falls to Texas A&M and Auburn as well.
At 3-3 overall but 0-3 against conference foes, any dreams of winning the division are gone. Now, the Bulldogs' sole focus is to make it to the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. The Bulldogs conclude the regular season by going 4-2, beating the teams one would expect (Kentucky, Arkansas, UT-Martin and Vanderbilt) and losing to the pair one would expect (Alabama and Ole Miss), too. Going 7-5 isn't bad, but the Bulldogs were certainly hoping for more. Nonetheless, they accept a bid to the Texas Bowl in Houston, where they draw the Red Raiders of Texas Tech. Although it's supposed to be a "neutral site," it feels like a home game for Texas Tech, and that plays itself out on the field. The Red Raiders look far more comfortable than the Bulldogs, who get out of the gates slow. Though they stage a rally, it's too little, too late, as Texas Tech takes a 42-38 victory.
Finishing at 7-6, the Bulldogs post the same record they did in 2013. As high as expectations were this season, though, it feels like a step back. They barely eke out a top-40 recruiting class, and the only positive they take into 2015 is that Prescott returns for one last go-round.