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Thursday, July 18, 2013
Tide schedule preview: Mississippi State

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is nearly upon us and TideNation is taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Tuesday and Thursday we'll go through each week of the Crimson Tide's schedule, starting with the season-opener against Virginia Tech and closing with the finale against Auburn.

The rundown
2012 overall record: 8-4
2012 SEC record: 4-4, fourth in the SEC West
Record all time against Alabama: 18-75-3
Last meeting: Alabama 38, Mississippi State 7 in 2012

Starters returning
Offense: 6; Defense: 5; Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
DE Denico Autry, C Dillon Day, OG Gabe Jackson, LB Benardrick McKinney, RB LaDarius Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, DE Preston Smith, S Nickoe Whitley

Key losses
CB Johnthan Banks, DT Josh Boyd, WR Chad Bumphis, TE Marcus Green, LB Cameron Lawrence, CB Darius Slay

2012 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: LaDarius Perkins* (1,024 yards)
Passing: Tyler Russell* (2,897 yards)
Receiving: Chad Bumphis (922 yards)
Tackles: Cameron Lawrence (120)
Sacks: Preston Smith* (4.5)
Interceptions: Darius Slay (5)

What they're saying:
“When you win consistently, the next step for us to compete for a championship consistently. And when you start to do that, you’re going to find that you win a championship. That, to me, is the progress that we’ve built in this program and the expectations that I have of our program, and those expectations have really spread to our fanbase," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen told ESPN.com in late April.

Three things to watch:

1. Rebuilding the secondary: The hope is that junior college transfer Justin Cox will step right in and provide some stability for a group that lost its two most talented cover guys to the NFL in Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. Nickoe Whitley is a budding star at safety and someone to build around, but defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will need more players to step up if the Bulldogs hope to stop some dangerous passing attacks, most notably season-opening opponent Oklahoma State. The Cowboys' aerial attack will be a good measuring stick for the revamped secondary, as Mike Gundy's squad annually finishes among the top 15 in passing nationally each season. Just this past season it finished seventh overall with more than 340 yards passing per game -- remarkable considering the quarterback carousel Gundy was forced to use all season.

2. Reading Russell: It was an up-and-down campaign, but 2012 wasn't all bad for Tyler Russell, as the talented quarterback threw for 24 touchdowns and 2,897 yards. Now a senior, he must take his game to another level and truly lead Mississippi State to victory. He's got all the tools to be a top quarterback in the SEC. The question is whether or not he and the coaching staff can translate a strong arm into strong leadership and decision making. With an offensive line featuring All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson, Russell will have the protection he needs. And despite the loss of top receiver Chad Bumphis there is enough coming back in terms of weapons for Russell to work with in the passing game.

3. Readying for Alabama: Mississippi State came to Tuscaloosa in late October undefeated, ranked No. 11 in the BCS and ready to compete for an SEC title. The Bulldogs left Tuscaloosa looking much different. A 38-7 beat down by the Crimson Tide sent Dan Mullen's squad on a free fall from No. 17 in the polls the following week to unranked by season's end. Why? The illusion of competitiveness and the lack of readiness brought on by poor scheduling. The Bulldogs simply weren't ready, having failed to face a single ranked team before they went after Alabama. This season will be different, though, as Mullen begins the season with a primetime matchup against Oklahoma State before traveling to both South Carolina and Texas A&M in the two weeks prior to the Bulldogs' home date with the Tide.