Orlando Sentinel college insider Matt Murschel has ranked all 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 125 to our projected No. 1 team.

Today at No. 37: Mississippi State

Coach: Dan Mullen (29-22 in fifth season, 29-22 overall).

2012 results: 8-5 (4-4 in SEC, fourth place in West Division)

Offensive starters returning: 6

Offensive starters lost: 5

Defensive starters returning: 5

Defensive starters lost: 6

Key losses: CB Johnthan Banks, WR Chad Bumpis, CB Darius Slay

Top returnees: QB Tyler Russell, WR Robert Johnson, RB Ladarius Perkins, DE Denico Autry, LB Benardrick McKinney, G Gabe Jackson, TE Malcolm Johnson

Look back: Coach Dan Mullen, the former Gators offensive coordinator, has led the Bulldogs to their best run since the days of coach Jackie Sherrill. But last season ended on a sour note. Mississippi State opened 2012 with a 7-0 mark — their best start since 1999 — to reach No. 11 in the BCS standings. Fans rallied around the team with a “We Believe” campaign on Twitter, but Alabama then beat the Bulldogs 38-7 in Tuscaloosa to begin a 1-5 slide the rest of the way. The swoon included a 41-24 loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, Mullen’s first to the school’s in-state rival.

Strengths: Fifth-year senior Tyler Russell broke nine school records in 2012, highlighted by 24 touchdown passes. But he ended his season with a four-interception game during a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. Russell will welcome the return of running back LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards, eight touchdowns in 2012) and four starters on the offensive line, led by All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson. The Bulldog’s hope the defensive line, anchored by senior end Denico Autry, is the strength of the defense under new coordinator Geoff Collins. Sophomore middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney and senior safety Nickoe Whitley also will be key pieces for Collins’ defense.

Weaknesses: The Bulldogs lost all three starting wide receivers, including Chad Bumpis and Russell’s safety valve. Bumpis led the SEC in touchdown catches (12) and had a team-high 922 receiving yards on 58 catches. Junior Robert Johnson will try to lead a green receiving corps. The projected starters at receiver and tight end combined for just 496 yards among the four of them a season ago. Cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay combined for nine interceptions last season and were taken in the second round of the NFL Draft. New coordinator Collins will have to rely on a pair of new cornerbacks in a blitz-heavy defense looking to improve its 2012 sack total (18, 13TH in the SEC).

Outlook: Mullen has turned a downtrodden program into a perennial bowl team, but the Bulldogs found out how difficult the next step can be during their second-half collapse last season. If Russell can limit turnovers and find a go-to receiver, he could be a top quarterback in a quarterback-laden league. The secondary has some big holes to fill, but the good news is that six of seven projected starters at receiver, cornerback and strong safety are juniors. The season opener against Oklahoma State will provide an early test, but no team in the nation will face a tougher three-game stretch than visits to South Carolina and Texas A&M, followed by a home date with Alabama in November.

2013 schedule

Aug. 31 Oklahoma State (Houston)

Sept. 7 Alcorn State

Sept. 14 at Auburn

Sept. 21 Troy

Oct. 5 LSU

Oct. 12 Bowling Green

Oct. 24 Kentucky

Nov. 2 at South Carolina

Nov. 9 at Texas A&M

Nov. 16 Alabama

Nov. 23 at Arkansas

Nov. 28 Ole Miss

 

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