HOOVER, Ala. — Mississippi State has been a reasonably successful program during coach Dan Mullen's five-year tenure, advancing to four straight bowl games.
Now the Bulldogs have a roster that looks as if it can attain even more.
Mississippi State returns a veteran defense and one of the league's few experienced quarterbacks. Dak Prescott threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns — and also rushed for 13 touchdowns — after becoming the starter early last season. The charismatic junior is now the unquestioned leader of the Bulldogs' offense.
The defense has nine starters returning, including junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney.
Mullen said on Tuesday at SEC Media Days that his team isn't backing away from expectations and the goal is "to find a way to get to Atlanta" and compete for an SEC championship.
"When you embrace that expectation early on as a program, when you embrace that for this year's team, that's what they're working for from Day 1," Mullen said. "I don't think they shy away from it."
Prescott's dual-threat ability is a big reason for the optimism. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder was often labeled as a running quarterback early in his career, but his passing progressed rapidly last season.
He'll have some experienced receivers, including Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De'Runnya Wilson, as targets. Lewis led the team with 64 catches for 923 last year and the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Wilson provides the big play threat the Bulldogs' offense has sometimes lacked.
"Dak is a guy that because of his skill set, he can beat you with his arm, with his legs, he can run between the tackles and he can run in the open field," Mullen said. "He has a lot going for him. But most importantly, he has that will to win."
Mississippi State's defense will have at least five seniors starting and several experienced juniors. The unit ranked fifth in the league last year in defense, giving up just 23 points per game.
Now, the Bulldogs must prove they can break through against elite opponents in the SEC's brutal Western Division. Mississippi State hasn't beaten Alabama or LSU during Mullen's tenure — a trend that almost certainly has to change if the Bulldogs want a real shot at playing in Atlanta.
"It's going to be a big road," McKinney said. "In the offseason, we train every day for games like that to be able to play four quarters of relentless effort."