STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) When Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi agreed to a home-and-home football series five years ago, it was hailed as an intriguing matchup between two fairly even programs.
Things have changed drastically.
Now the Bulldogs are a perennial postseason team while the Golden Eagles have fallen off a cliff, losing 23 of their past 24 games over the previous two seasons. Mississippi State will be more than a four-touchdown favorite when it hosts Southern Miss on Saturday at newly renovated Davis Wade Stadium.
Even so, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen isn't taking anything for granted this weekend.
''It's going to be a huge challenge,'' Mullen said. ''... Probably on a national level (this is) a very underrated game, but on a state-wide level a game that has been waiting since 1990 to be played. I think everybody is pretty fired up about it.''
Mississippi State's expectations are high this fall after finishing 7-6 last season. Junior quarterback Dak Prescott returns after a stellar first season as the starter and the Bulldogs return nearly their entire starting defense.
Southern Miss - which is led by second-year coach Todd Monken - is still in a state of flux. The Golden Eagles do return sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens and have a deeper roster than last season, when they lost their first 11 games before a 62-27 victory over UAB in the season finale.
The opener against Mississippi State is part of a tough early-season schedule. The Golden Eagles also travel to face Alabama on Sept. 13.
''We have to play good football,'' Monken said. ''We have to take care of the football. We have to try to find a way to get explosive plays. We have to find a way to create turnovers and not give up explosive plays. That is really it. I don't know if there is any individual match up that you say, ''Ok, that is our advantage.'' I don't look at it that way. I look at it as we have to play well.''
Here are some things to watch when Mississippi State hosts Southern Miss:
DAK'S THE MAN: Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott enters his junior season as the unquestioned leader of the offense. He came into last season as the backup to Tyler Russell, but after Russell was injured in the opening game Prescott asserted himself as a quality dual threat, throwing for 1,940 yards and rushing for 823.
HOW DOES THE LINE LOOK: Mississippi State's experienced roster doesn't have many question marks, but the offensive line is a bit of a concern. Damien Robinson, the projected starter at right tackle, was lost for the season after a knee injury last week and the Bulldogs will be looking for depth and quick improvement from young players.
A RETURN TO THE RIVALRY: This is the first time Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State have met on the football field since Sept. 22, 1990. There was a lot of hype for this matchup when the two teams agreed to it in 2009, though that's diminished some since the Golden Eagles have lost 23 of 24 games during the past two seasons.
MULLENS YEAR 2: Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens was thrown into the action as a true freshman, having occasional success despite playing behind a dreadful offensive line and having no support in the run game. Now that the talent around him is better, it might be easier to see if he's truly the Golden Eagles' quarterback of the future.
EAGLES MUST LEARN TO RUN: Southern Miss able to move the ball through the air in 2013, but managed just 875 total rushing yards. The Golden Eagles hope a revamped offensive line and experienced running backs like Jalen Richard and George Payne can produce better results.
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