The Associated Press
The Meridian Star
Mississippi State returns one of the top quarterbacks in program history, one of the league's best running backs from a year ago, four starting offensive linemen and several key defensive players.
Yet the Bulldogs enter preseason as little more than an afterthought in the loaded Southeastern Conference Western Division.
Fifth-year coach Dan Mullen had a message for his team on Thursday during a steamy first practice under the blistering Mississippi sun: Enjoy the process of proving people wrong.
"A lot of people love the reward," Mullen said. "But you've also got to love the work that leads to that reward. That's what we're trying to stress for these young guys."
The lack of buzz surrounding these Bulldogs can be partly attributed to Starkville's zip code, which is right in the middle of arguably the toughest division in college football. With Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M hogging most of the headlines, the Bulldogs aren't receiving a lot of national — or even regional — attention.
But Mullen says Mississippi State is moving forward.
He took over the program after the 2008 season and has quickly turned the Bulldogs into a formidable opponent. They're coming off three straight bowl games for just the second time in school history.
But breaking into the league's upper crust has proved difficult. Mississippi State started last season 7-0 — rising to No. 12 in the national polls — but dropped five of six down the stretch against a brutal SEC schedule.
"You've got to just keep competing — find a way to win the close games and win the games against top teams," Mullen said. "But it is that process. You have a young team out here right now. They want to go play the game. They want to kickoff it off now, but they've got to enjoy the entire process. Enjoy that feeling of improving just a little bit from one day to the next and one repetition to the next."
Mississippi State appears in good hands at quarterback, where Tyler Russell was steady and even spectacular at times last season, throwing for 2,897 yards for 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Senior running back LaDarius Perkins also returns after rushing for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. Perkins said he wasn't concerned that the program hasn't received much publicity.
"I'm not worried about it — not surprised," Perkins said. "We're going to be the underdog in a lot of games this year, but we're going to open a lot of eyes."
The defense figures to be a work in progress — at least early in the season.
Holdovers like linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner, along with defensive linemen Kaleb Eulls and Denico Autry, give the Bulldogs some experience. But the secondary will have many new faces and must replace cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, who were each selected in the NFL Draft's second round in April.
Jamerson Love — a 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior — is one of the main candidates to help replace Banks and Slay at cornerback. He made 25 tackles and intercepted one pass last season in a backup role.
He said Thursday's practice was the first time it hit him that Banks and Slay aren't around anymore.
"It was kind of weird at first," Love said. "I know I've got to lead these guys in the right direction and just do the right things and help the young guys."