Mississippi State started something in 2012.
The Bulldogs just couldn't finish.
Following a 7-0 opening that led to a rise into the top 15 of the rankings, MSU stumbled down the stretch, losing five of its last six — by a margin of 21.4 points — as the schedule eventually stiffened with the likes of Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss, then Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
So where does that leave the Bulldogs for 2013, which begins Saturday in Houston against Oklahoma State?
This appears to be a team in transition, with just 10 seniors on the roster and a total rebuild in place at wide receiver and cornerback, where MSU lost a combined six starters. Still, there are core parts returning, including quarterback Tyler Russell, running back LaDarius Perkins, a veteran offensive line and six regulars on defense.
“We're going to have a young football team,” said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen. “A lot of opportunities for young guys to step up, not just as playmakers on the field, but young guys need to step into leadership roles for us this year.
“I think that's going to be a real defining factor of our season.”
Definition should gain clarity in the opener, when the Bulldogs could reveal a ground-heavy offensive style of play, while the defense faces the test of OSU's up-tempo, spread attack with two new corners.
Despite Russell's return, there's a sense that Mississippi State will lean on its known strength, which is a running game geared around Perkins and an offensive line led by guard Gabe Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 335-pound mauler. Perkins already ranks sixth all-time in Bulldogs history with 3,463 all-purpose yards and is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season.
If MSU does go with a ground-and-pound approach, it'll present a vastly different approach than anything the Cowboys see in the Big 12 at a time when the OSU defense is trying to establish its own new identity as an aggressive attacking unit under first-year coordinator Glenn Spencer.
“We want to prove that our defense is dominant every Saturday, not just against an SEC opponent,” said Cowboys linebacker Shaun Lewis.
The Bulldogs defense plans to similarly turn up the heat under Geoff Collins, who like Spencer has been elevated into the coordinator post.
“A lot of juice,” promised Bulldogs linebacker Bernardrick McKinney. “It's going to be a lot of new things we didn't do last year. A lot more mayhem — more sacs, interceptions as a group.”
They, too, will be tested outside of their SEC comfort zone, facing a Cowboys offense that returns eight starters and pushes pace to the limit.
“We pretty much have to do what we know how to do,” said OSU running back Jeremy Smith, “which is move the ball fast. I think that if we can get them tired, then it will be a good game for us.”
It'll be a good start for one team.
And it's a start that could heavily influence each squad's finish.