What a difference a year can make. Heading into the 2012 season, the feeling from many – including me – was that Mississippi State needed to beat Auburn and Arkansas to take that next step in the highly competitive SEC West.
The Bulldogs did that, forcing five turnovers in a 28-10 win over Auburn and a dominant 45-14 victory against Arkansas.
A lot has changed since then, which greatly affects how MSU is viewed as it enters its SEC opener against Auburn on Saturday.
Not many expected Auburn or Arkansas to be as awful as they were last season. The two teams were a combined 2-14 in conference play and 7-17 overall, leading to coaching changes at both schools.
SEC newcomer Texas A&M proved it belonged with the big boys, going 11-2 and knocking off powerhouse Alabama in Tuscaloosa behind Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Ole Miss also enjoyed a resurgence under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, and a strong second half showing in the Egg Bowl not only sent the Rebels bowling but gave the Rebels the Golden Egg Trophy for the first time during Dan Mullen’s tenure.
So where did that leave Mississippi State?
The Bulldogs reeled off seven straight wins to start the year, thanks to a cupcake-like schedule but sputtered down the stretch losing five of the last six including a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
MSU was 4-4 in SEC action last year, finishing fourth in the Western Division behind Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs were predicted to finish sixth in the West in a preseason poll at SEC Media Days behind Auburn and just ahead of Arkansas.
State’s schedule is challenging enough this year and, barring an upset, will have three “toss-up” type games against Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss remaining. Those three games could be the difference in the Bulldogs keeping their bowl streak alive for a fourth year or preventing the natives from becoming restless concerning Mullen’s job.
Saturday’s game against Auburn could be a good indicator of how the rest of the season will go. A loss would not seal their fate by any means. After all, it’s only the third game of the year. But a win on the plains could go a long way in helping the Bulldogs hold their status as a middle-tier SEC program.
Logan Lowery (logan.lowery@ journalinc.com) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal.