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Pressing Mississippi State

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For nearly a decade, LSU and Alabama have clearly been the superior programs in the SEC West. Now obviously, the previous statement didn't apply to Auburn last season and in 2010 with Cam Newton. But other than those years, the rest of the division has been looking up at 'Bama and LSU.

In 2014, however, I think the West is wide open. In fact, with the exception of Arkansas, there are six schools that have the potential to get to Atlanta.

I mainly say this because 'Bama and LSU don't know what they are going to get out of the quarterback position. I doubt there are many that would argue that the Crimson Tide has the most talent in the nation on offense at 10 positions.

But if a defensive coordinator can make things murky for that 11th and most vital player under center, an offense can only accomplish so much. Jacob Coker appears to be the likely starter at QB for 'Bama, even though Nick Saban wouldn't go that far at SEC Media Days last week.

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Coker has excellent size and skills, and there's no shame in riding the pine behind E.J. Manuel and Jameis Winston. There are lots of reasons to think he'll be a quality SEC quarterback, but Coker hasn't jumped in the fire against live bullets yet. His only playing time at FSU came in mop-up duty.

Coker also missed spring practice and didn't arrive in Tuscaloosa until the first week of May. Has he had enough time to gel with his teammates and learn the offense? Only time will tell.

Anthony Jennings helped LSU pull out a win over Arkansas in last year's regular-season finale. With Zach Mettenberger injured, Jennings made his first career start in a 21-14 win over Iowa at the Outback Bowl. He'll battle with Brandon Harris for the starting job in Baton Rouge.

Jennings and Harris are both athletic guys in the mold of Jordan Jefferson, meaning you can expect Les Miles to get back to living and dying with a ground attack and a stout defense. In other words, last year was an aberration in terms of LSU's style of play.

Auburn certainly feels as if it is as talented as its in-state rival, but Gus Malzahn's team has to play in Tuscaloosa and has a much tougher schedule than the Crimson Tide. As for Texas A&M, it has to vastly improve on defense and, like LSU and 'Bama, the QB position is a question mark.

Where I'm going with all of this is that if there's a year for Ole Miss or Mississippi State to break through, this could be it. There's a lot to like about both squads that hail from the Magnolia State.

I'll hit on the Rebels at some point in the next week or two, but I want to spend the rest of this column talking about Dan Mullen's team. That's because I'm extremely bullish on backing Mississippi St. to go 'over' 7.5 wins (at even money via LVH SuperBook).

When breaking down a season win total (that's based on the 12 regular-season games only), the schedule is the most important part of the handicap. Unlike last year when Mississippi St. lost a tough non-conference game to Oklahoma St. 21-3 in Houston, the Bulldogs have four lay-ups in non-con play. We can mark down four wins vs. So. Miss, vs. UAB, at South Alabama and vs. UT-Martin.

Mullen couldn't ask for a better draw in terms of the two games against SEC East foes. Mississippi St. hosts Vanderbilt and plays at Kentucky off an open date. Those aren't two given victories, but the Bulldogs will almost certainly be favored in both matchups.

Another 'chalk' spot for MSU will come in the form of a Nov. 1 home game vs. Arkansas. My thinking is that I've already mentioned seven wins, leaving us to find just one more in five remaining games. The best spot to get that 'W' will be at home vs. Texas A&M on Oct. 4.

When the Bulldogs went to College Station last season, they produced 556 yards of total offense but couldn't stop Johnny Pigskin in a 51-41 loss. When the Aggies come to Starkville this year, they will be playing their sixth game in six weeks and their third in a row away from College Station (A&M plays at SMU and vs. Arkansas in Arlington the two previous weeks). On the flip side, MSU will have two weeks to prepare for the Aggies thanks to an open date.

MSU's four other games include three road assignments (at LSU, at Alabama and at Ole Miss) and a home game against Auburn. Those are most likely four underdog situations, but the game in Oxford and the home game against AU are certainly winnable contests.

Remember, Mississippi St. had a 20-17 advantage at Auburn last year in the final two minutes. The Tigers had to mount a drive of 80-plus yards and get a last-second touchdown pass to pull out the win.

Now let's talk personnel. Mississippi St. brings back eight starters on each side of the ball from a team that went 7-6 straight up and 8-5 against the spread. We noted the narrow loss at Auburn and the Bulldogs had more yards in defeats at Texas A&M and at South Carolina.

And we haven't even hit on the injuries and off-the-field turmoil quarterback Dak Prescott was dealing with. Prescott spent the entire season concerned about the failing health of his mother, who finally succumbed to a long battle with cancer on Nov. 4. If Prescott hadn't been injured in a 20-7 home loss to Alabama, who knows how that game goes?

In the setback against the Tide, MSU could only muster 199 yards of total offense. The Bulldogs' defense was tenacious on that night, setting up the offense with several short fields they couldn't capitalize on.

Prescott returns for his junior campaign brimming with confidence. He's healthy and ready to build upon an impressive sophomore season. Prescott rushed for 917 yards and 13 TDs, while also throwing for 1,940 yards and 10 scores. Six of his top seven pass catchers are back, including one of the SEC's best wideouts in Jameon Lewish, who had 64 receptions for 923 yards and five TDs in 2013.

The defense is led by rising junior linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, who has made 173 tackles in two seasons. In Mel Kiper's most recent 2015 mock draft, McKinney is listed as a first-round pick. The Bulldogs also have a rising superstar in sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones, who had three sacks and 10 QB hurries while playing as a reserve last year.

Despite giving up 59 points to LSU and 51 to Texas A&M, Mississippi St. only allowed 23.0 points per game last year. With Mettenberger and Manziel gone, I see MSU playing better defense in 2014. And with Prescott poised for a breakout season, I have no doubt that the Bulldogs are going to be more prolific offensively. They'll average more than last year's 27.7 PPG output and will also put up at least eight wins. Jump on this 'over' right now.


  
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