After winning 10 games in 2014 and getting to the Orange Bowl with a quarterback who finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting, Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC West. Despite the return of that quarterback, and plenty of other contributors from that team. That speaks not only to the difficulty of the SEC West--every single team in the division received a first-place vote--but also to the unusual nature of the Bulldogs' 2014 season.
The media essentially asked Mississippi State to prove its legitimacy, which I suppose was fair enough given that this is a program that doesn't recruit at an elite level like a lot of others in its division. And more specifically, a program that had to replace multiple offensive line starters as well as running back Josh Robinson, who ran for 1,203 yards.
The Bulldogs didn't compete for a division title but still broke even in conference play and won eight games overall, and that's a nice year, even if it did end with disappointment in the Egg Bowl. They live in a tough neighborhood.
But they also have the best quarterback in the league--Dak Prescott was every bit as good as he was in 2014, just absent the Heisman hype because Mississippi State lost early in the season. (The entire Heisman everything is incredibly stupid.)
The noted departures from Mississippi State's offense may have been the cause for skepticism, but there probably was misjudgment of Prescott's potential, as well. MSU needed more from the passing game and he responded by cutting his interception total from 11 in 2014 to four in 2015, despite more attempts. A larger workload didn't really alter Prescott's overall efficiency. And Mississippi State's offense didn't fall off a cliff, or come anywhere close:
|MSU Offense||Off. S&P+ national rank||
||6.4 (27)||4.3 (75)||8.2 (31)
|2014||11||6.7 (13)||5.2 (23)||8.6 (12)
Prescott attempted 36.3 passes per game in 2015, compared to 30.5 in 2014. The Bulldogs also ran the ball only about 33 times per game, down from about 44 the season prior. They weren't ready to replace Robinson's production, and Prescott ended up leading the team with 541 yards on the ground. He ran for 986 in '14.
So, yeah, when you lose a star running back and a few offensive linemen, it tends to hurt a bit, and force you to adjust your priorities. Prescott didn't manage as much success running the ball, and his average per pass attempt went from 8.7 to 7.8 (which still ain't bad).
Prescott made up for those losses in other ways--he upped his completion percentage from 61.6% to 66.9%, for instance. He threw four interceptions in 435 attempts, or one every 109 or so.
He was good enough through the air and with his feet to help mask this unit's losses; he also had a couple of veteran, all-conference wide receivers to help him out. Fred Ross and De'Runnya Wilson accounted for more than 1750 receiving yards between the two of them in 2015, and they were the team's top two receivers in 2014 as well.
Not bad circumstances for a group that needed to switch to a more pass-heavy approach.
NC State's defense has a whole lot of work ahead of it, and the primary concern is Mississippi State's decided statistical edge in several respects on standard downs. A good, efficient quarterback is gonna make for a really tough offense on standard downs. That's definitely the case with Mississippi State.
NC State's biggest edge defensively is its sack rate on standard downs, compared to what Mississippi State's offensive line is allowing. That might end up being what decides the Pack's fate on this side of the ball, and it's simple enough--either NC State can consistently get to Prescott, or Prescott's out there carvin' up the holiday ham.
The Mississippi State offense -- tl;dr
Quarterback: Dak Prescott. Good sports player! Threw for 3400 yards, 25 TDs and four INTs this season. Completed 66.9% of his attempts. Threw for 3450 yards in 2014, with 27 TDs and 11 INTs, and a completion percentage just shy of 62%. He's a three-year starter.
Leading rusher: Dak Prescott. Ran for 541 yards and 10 scores on 148 carries (3.7 yards/att). He ran for 986 yards and 14 touchdowns on 210 carries (4.7 yds/att) in 2014.
Leading rusher, non-QB division: Brandon Holloway. Ran 79 times for 372 yards in 2015 (4.7 per attempt). Had a total of 53 carries combined over the previous two seasons. He's got 29 receptions for 318 yards and three touchdowns this year, and he has a kickoff return for a score.
Leading receiver: Fred Ross. Ross leads MSU in receptions (81) and receiving yards (933). Fellow veteran De'Runnya Wilson has 822 yards on 55 catches, with a team-high nine receiving scores. Those two combined for 1,169 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2014.
The big hefties: Mississippi State had to replace three seniors up front, two of whom started 40+ games for the Bulldogs. This transition has gone okay. Staying healthy always makes a difference. The Bulldogs' interior linemen haven't missed a start all year. Their tackles missed a combined three starts between the two of them. At RT they have Justin Senior, who is in fact a junior. (And Canadian!)
All-conference players: Prescott (1st team), Ross (1st), Wilson (2nd).