SDS kicks off a series looking in-depth at teams and their biggest subplots heading into 2014. Next up: Mississippi State Bulldogs.

SEC Subplots 2014:

1. Set up for a run
MSU coaches, players and fans are optimistic about 2014 because it sets up perfectly. With one of the handful of returning starters at quarterback, a loaded defense and one of the conference’s most favorable schedules, MSU is looking to kick “average” to the curb. The reality is that MSU could be a top 25 team this season, but it could still be labeled as mediocre within its own division, as five preseason ranked teams hail from the SEC West. The player personnel should excite fans, and the schedule (no Power Five conference opponents) should help solidify one of Dan Mullen’s best seasons in Starkville.

2. Budding superstar or more sample size?
The college football world is foaming at the mouth to see Dak Prescott take the field. He’s been called the next Tim Tebow, and he’s been labeled as a real Heisman contender this season. Perhaps the one thing that excites fans the most about Prescott and makes him intriguing is the lack of sample size. Just a junior, Prescott has enough stats to make college football lovers very optimistic, and his leadership and intangibles thus far have been excellent. He’s one of the rare players who commands his teammates’ attention, and it’s obvious he can help take his teammates to another level. They were a different team under Prescott last season, as opposed to then senior leader Tyler Russell. Expect Prescott to put up some great numbers the first three weeks against Southern Miss, UAB, and South Alabama, but week four gets real with a road trip to LSU.

3. Better than his record?
Perhaps the biggest opposition to MSU defying the odds is the stigma against Dan Mullen and ranked opponents. Mullen’s 2-21 record against ranked opponents impresses no one, but this could be the year he could kick the label. The road trip at LSU is the first opportunity, and Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss could be the others. Mullen is 36-28 (.563) overall at MSU and 16-24 (.400) against SEC competition.

4. Underrated defense
Geoff Collins may be the country’s best defensive coordinator you’ve never heard of. He’s a Saban disciple, and he has a loaded defense, from the front seven to the secondary. Chris Jones and Benardrick McKinney are the superstars, but players like Matthew Wells, Taveze Calhoun and Kendrick Market, among others, are excellent role players. The rest of the SEC can’t sleep on this defense, and this group finished fourth in total defense and fifth in scoring defense last season.

SDS Takeaway: If you’re looking for a true dark-horse SEC West club, MSU is your team. Prescott and the offense is really loaded with talent and experience, while the defense has budding superstars of its own. The schedule sets up perfectly to ruin somebody’s season, and ironically, Ole Miss is in the same boat, as far as playing spoiler. The Egg Bowl could have many more implications than just bragging rights and a trophy this year.