The 2012 season started off outstanding for the Bulldogs as they won their first seven contests, highlighted by conference triumphs over Auburn (28-10), Kentucky (27-14) and Tennessee (41-31). The hot start allowed the team to climb all the way to No. 13 in the AP poll.
MSU hit a rough patch in late October, however, dropping three straight bouts to ranked foes Alabama (38-7), Texas A&M (38-13) and LSU (37-17). After snapping its losing streak with a 45-14 win versus Arkansas on Nov. 17, the program closed out the regular season with a 41-24 setback in its rivalry game against Ole Miss.
Despite the late-season slide, the Bulldogs were bowl eligible for the third straight year, something they last accomplished from 1998-2000. They lost to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl, 34-20.
"Three consecutive bowl games is not something that has been done very often in Starkville," Mullen said. "I'm proud of our team, how they've embraced the program we're trying to build."
OFFENSE: Mississippi State had a very productive offensive season a year ago, averaging 29.5 ppg and 381.9 ypg, both of which ranked in the middle of the pack in the SEC. The return of starting quarterback Tyler Russell should mean equal or better results in 2013.
Russell was arguably the most efficient passer in the nation during his team's seven-game win streak to start the season, tossing 15 touchdowns to just one interception over that time. He cooled off significantly down the stretch, but his year-end numbers were still impressive (.586 completion percentage, 2,897 yards, 24 TDs, 10 picks), and he is looking forward to the opportunity to improve as a senior.
"I'm ready to get back on the field," Russell said. "Our team started really well really early in the year and kind of fell off towards the end. Partly, I put it all on my shoulders. I feel like if I would've played the last two games (against Ole Miss and Northwestern) like I'm capable of playing, we would've won those last two games."
Also back in the fray for his senior season is running back LaDarius Perkins, who was a workhorse in 2012 with 1,024 yards on 205 carries and 10 total touchdowns. Both he and Russell will benefit from working behind an offensive line that returns four starters.
The receiving corps has been thinned significantly following the departures of Chad Bumphis (922 yards, 12 TDs), Chris Smith (564 yards) and Arceto Clark (487 yards). Robert Johnson, Jameon Lewis and Joe Morrow will fill in as the starters, but the trio combined for only 32 receptions in 2012.
DEFENSE: The Bulldogs' defense was surprisingly effective in 2012. Although their scoring defense (23.3 ppg) and total defensive figures (387.4 ypg) weren't among the SEC's best, they caused havoc by creating 33 turnovers, tied for sixth-most in the nation. The bad news, however, is that Johnathan Banks (four interceptions) and Darius Slay (five picks) have moved on, leaving some gaping holes in the secondary.
The lone returning starter in the defensive backfield is Nickoe Whitley (88 tackles, three INTs), who, without Banks and Slay, is the clear leader of the unit, and is in line for a monster season.
The team remains relatively strong at linebacker with Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles), and both are likely to compete for All-SEC honors. Denico Autry (9.5 TFL, four sacks, two FF) brings a veteran presence to the defensive line.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Devon Bell is a solid placekicker, knocking through 14-of-21 field goal attempts as a freshman, with a long of 47 yards. Baker Swedenburg averaged 41.1 yards per punt a season ago with 18 landing inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Lewis ran back 20 kickoffs for 517 yards in 2012, including a 100-yard touchdown versus Ole Miss. He'll likely get some punt return action too in the absence of Banks.
OUTLOOK: What Mullen has accomplished during his tenure in Starkville has been impressive, especially considering the talented team that surround the Bulldogs in the SEC. They have proven themselves worthy, although taking that next step to a championship-level squad will be difficult considering the amount of player turnover they've experienced.
"We're going to have a young football team," Mullen said. "Only 10 seniors on the roster. A lot of opportunities for young guys to step up, not just as playmakers on the field, but young guys need to step into leadership roles for us this year. I think that's going to be a real defining factor of our season."
Mississippi State's schedule does it no favors either, with matchups against LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama bogging down its likelihood for competing in the SEC West. Still, with Mullen's solid track record and the return of Russell under center, another bowl bid is within reach.