Chasing Alabama: Mississippi State Bulldogs

The departure of NFL-bound Dak Prescott from Mississippi State leaves a question mark at quarterback. Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

For the previous two seasons -- and honestly, for the majority of several seasons before that -- the rest of the SEC was chasing Alabama.

Everyone will open the 2016 season as the Crimson Tide's pursuers, again, although only a few teams are legitimate threats to catch up to Nick Saban's juggernaut. Over the next several days, we'll take a look at the Tide's fellow SEC contenders and their cases for overtaking Alabama in the upcoming season.

Next up are the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team that will look much different this spring without star quarterback Dak Prescott.

How they can beat Alabama: At first glance, some might say the window of opportunity has closed at Mississippi State. Prescott is gone and who knows if and when the Bulldogs will find another player of his caliber. Maybe never. But all is not lost. Six starters return on offense, eight on defense, and though he’s not Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald showed flashes in limited action at quarterback last year. Also, thanks in large part to Prescott and the success he brought to the program, Dan Mullen has been able to recruit at a higher level in recent years. He went head-to-head with Alabama and kept stars like Jamal Peters, Leo Lewis and Jeffery Simmons in state. Now the roster is littered with ESPN 300 recruits, including seven from the 2015 class, and there might be more talent now than at any other point since Mullen has been there.

What’s standing in their way: While Mississippi State might have a deeper roster than in years past, it doesn’t take away the sting from losing stars like Prescott, De’Runnya Wilson and Chris Jones. All three likely will hear their names called in April’s NFL draft. But the bigger concern heading into 2016 is the turnover on the coaching staff. With defensive line coach David Turner’s move to Texas A&M on Tuesday, every defensive coach from a year ago has now moved on and taken a job elsewhere. Mullen has worked hard to find replacements, beginning with new defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, but it doesn’t change the fact that the staff has undergone a complete overhaul. Mississippi State hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2007, and with all the departures in the offseason, it’s not likely to happen this year.

X factor: Peters. He’s not a new face, but don’t expect many new faces to play in 2016. That’s not how Mullen operates. Instead, look for Peters to emerge as a possible breakout star in his sophomore campaign. As a freshman, the 6-foot-2, 206-pound safety played sparingly in 12 games and finished with 25 tackles, one sack and two passes broken up. That’s just scratching the surface for a player who has the potential to be a star in the SEC. Peters likely will see his role expand this fall, and the defense should be better for it.