Mississippi State fans have come to expect a grueling schedule year after year; it comes with the territory when you play in the SEC West – the most difficult football division in the nation.

But the Bulldogs do benefit from an easy slate of non-West games in 2014, and those six games may be the team’s saving grace. Here’s a rundown of MSU’s non-divisional opponents:

  • Southern Miss, home, Aug. 30: Southern Miss did end last season with a 35-point victory over UAB to snap a 23-game losing streak over two years. And USM coach Todd Monken does seem to have the program heading back in the right direction within Conference USA. That all said, this team is nowhere near ready to compete against a fresh SEC opponent on its home field, which is what it is being asked to do in the season opener in Starkville. Ask fans of either side and they’ll tell you it’s been far too long since these intrastate rivals squared off, but the excitement surrounding this game won’t be enough to help the Golden Eagles overcome a major talent deficiency compared to the Bulldogs’ roster. Look for MSU to open the season with a bang in this Magnolia state showdown.
  • UAB, home, Sept. 6: For the second week in a row the Bulldogs will host a Conference USA opponent, and for the second week in a row it should be a blowout early. The Blazers were a putrid 2-10 last season and, as stated above, lost by 35 points to a team that entered the game on a 23-game losing streak. Even if UAB has its best game of the season it’s unlikely it can keep the game within two scores heading to the fourth quarter.
  • South Alabama, away, Sept. 13: This game will be a nice chance for Dan Mullen’s group to spend a weekend away from Starkville, but it isn’t likely to test MSU any more than the first two games of the year. The positives of this early-season schedule are that the Bulldogs are nearly certain to open 2014 with a 3-0 record, and the roster should be fairly fresh as it begins SEC West play with a trip to LSU in Week 4. The biggest negative, however, is that once SEC play begins the Bulldogs will have few breaks remaining on its schedule. Either way, this game against South Alabama, albeit on the road, isn’t stressing anyone out.
  • Kentucky, away, Oct. 25: State is used to benefitting from having one of the conference’s traditional doormats, Kentucky, as its annual cross-division rival, but it rarely beats UK as soundly as many think they should. The Bulldogs have only topped the Wildcats by a combined 19 points over the last two seasons, during which time Kentucky failed to register a single win in conference play. Once again MSU will have the better team, but Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has the Cats’ program trending up. This could be a trap game for Mississippi State if it doesn’t take Kentucky seriously enough.
  • UT-Martin, home, Nov. 8: Mississippi State’s last non-conference game couldn’t come at a better time. The Bulldogs will have the opportunity to take their foot off the gas against an FCS opponent one week before traveling to Tuscaloosa to take on the Tide. Like most SEC-FCS showdowns, the key will be staying healthy and staying sharp for the final stretch of the regular season.
  • Vanderbilt, Nov. 22, home: It is tough to determine what Vandy will look like this deep into November with a first-year head coach in Derek Mason and no starting quarterback as of today, but this game falls in a difficult place on State’s schedule: after a road trip to ‘Bama and right before the annual Egg Bowl against Ole Miss. This is far and away MSU’s most dangerous non-West opponent, but it is a must-win for Dak Prescott’s Heisman campaign and State’s chance at double-digit wins.

Mississippi State should have no trouble with its four non-conference foes, and if Prescott and his fellow Bulldogs meet expectations then their annual game against Kentucky should be another easy victory. But with no certainties on its West division schedule, the game against Vanderbilt at the end of the year could decide whether the Bulldogs’ season was a success or not.