By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
Over the past few years, there's been no division in college football as loaded from top to bottom as the SEC West. Of the conference's seven straight BCS championships, five have come from teams within the division, and Alabama has claimed three of the last four titles by itself. Meanwhile, several programs appear to be on the rise: Texas A&M should be a force in Johnny Manziel's sophomore campaign, Ole Miss could be dangerous on the heels of its heralded 2013 recruiting haul and Arkansas and Auburn seem to be back on the right track under the leadership of new regimes.
The SEC West is a daunting place to call home, which may help explain why Mississippi State and coach Dan Mullen have yet to break through. But entering Mullen's fifth season, the program hopes to make the leap from an intriguing dark horse to a legitimate SEC contender.
When Sylvester Croom resigned as Mississippi State's head coach in 2008, Mullen -- then Florida's offensive coordinator -- was hired to inject life into a floundering program. Upon arriving in Gainesville under then-head coach Urban Meyer in 2005, Mullen took a Gators' attack ranked 49th in the FBS in scoring offense and helped it finish third in 2007 and fourth in 2008, respectively, in the same category. Bulldogs' fans hoped he could find similar success in Starkville -- and that Mullen's familiarity with the league would help lure high-profile recruits that had previously slipped through the program's fingers.
Almost five years later, Mississippi State has made some definite strides under Mullen: Croom won more than four games just once during his five-year tenure; Mullen has won five or more games every season he's been the head coach. The Bulldogs went 9-4 in 2010 and routed Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl, and they've attained a top-20 ranking in the AP Poll at least once in three of Mullen's four seasons at the helm. The program never cracked the Top 25 even once under Croom.
Still, Mississippi State hasn't been able to take the next step and challenge Alabama and LSU as a real SEC West threat. In fact, the Bulldogs have come up empty in a handful of key opportunities. During Mullen's 9-4 season in 2010 -- his best mark so far -- the Bulldogs dropped close home contests to both Auburn (17-14) and Arkansas (38-31) that might have kept them in the thick of the SEC title hunt. In 2011, Mullen's team dropped all but one of its divisional games despite a strong defense, and in 2012, Mississippi State raced to a 7-0 start before it faded: It lost five of six games to close out the season, capped by a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
On the recruiting side of things, Mullen has bolstered the Mississippi State brand, but the program still lags behind its SEC West brethren. While Croom never landed a top-30 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com, Mullen's 2009 haul (No. 25 per Rivals.com) and 2013 class (No. 26) were good examples of how the culture has changed in Starkville. Mullen is responsible for locking up standouts like Pernell McPhee, Chad Bumphis and Vick Ballard, but a lack of consistency still plagues Mississippi State, and the school's recent NCAA sanctions will place restrictions on future recruiting, including limits on recruiting days and official visits.
Another concern for the Bulldogs should be the recent resurgence of Ole Miss. The Rebels shocked much of the country by hauling in consensus top recruit Robert Nkemdiche and a star-studded 2013 class, and they currently sit at No. 13 in Rivals.com's early 2014 team rankings. Ole Miss' recent boost comes despite losses to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl in three of Mullen's four seasons as coach. No big-time program can afford to concede the battle for the best in-state prospects, and the Bulldogs seem to be playing catch-up to a less successful program: The Rebels have averaged fewer wins per season (5.5) than Mississippi State (7.25) since Mullen's hiring.
Perhaps most significantly, Mississippi State won't emerge as a threat in the SEC -- or its own division -- unless it can win when it matters most, something it's failed to do over the last few years. Mullen's biggest victories occurred in 2010, when the Bulldogs notched a win over Georgia and a road upset of No. 22 Florida. Since then, they've failed to keep pace with the SEC's powers; Mississippi State's four conference losses in 2012 (Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss) came by an average of 23.25 points.
There's reason for optimism entering this fall, as fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell returns after throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns and running back LaDarius Perkins comes back after rushing for 1,016 yards and eight scores. The defense was an average unit in the SEC last season, but the Bulldogs found ways to capitalize on takeaways and return most of the group that led the conference in turnover margin (+1.23). Of course, Mullen can only hope his team learned a lesson from 2012's late-season missteps, because its 2013 schedule unfolds very much the same way. Though Mississippi State opens against Oklahoma State and hosts LSU on Oct. 5, it has a strong chance to start 5-2 or 6-1 entering a brutal November slate that includes consecutive showdowns with South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama.
Fairly or not, Mullen no longer holds the reins to a rebuilding job in Starkville. Now, he'll be asked to make his mark -- we just don't know what that mark is. Has Mullen peaked with a middle-of-the-pack SEC squad? Or are the Bulldogs ready to really make a push toward conference contention? The 2013 season should certainly offer answers. Photo gallery: Top returning players in the SEC entering 2013