Sept. 1, Jackson State (Starkville)
Sept. 8, Auburn (Starkville)
Sept. 15, at Troy (Troy, Ala.)
Sept. 22, South Alabama (Starkville)
Oct. 6, at Kentucky (Lexington)
Oct. 13, vs. Tennessee (Starkville)
Oct. 20, Middle Tennessee (Starkville)
Oct. 27, at Alabama (Tuscaloosa)
Nov. 3, vs. Texas A&M (Starkville)
Nov. 10, at LSU (Baton Rouge)
Nov. 17, vs. Arkansas (Starkville)
Nov. 24, at Ole Miss (Oxford)
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Dan Mullen has managed to build a good football program during his four years at Mississippi State.The problem for Mullen and the Bulldogs, in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division, good isn't good enough.
Mullen takes a glass-half-full look at the program's current predicament, saying the program is closer than ever to challenging Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn for the division crown.
"We're not far off from there, which means we're not far off from the national title," Mullen said. "As you're developing, as you're building the program, the confidence that comes in our guys, I think they see that."
The Bulldogs have undoubtedly improved during Mullen's tenure, but haven't been able to make much headway within the SEC, which is home to the past six national champions. Mississippi State has a 3-12 record against its division, with all three wins coming against in-state rival Ole Miss.
Junior Tyler Russell takes over at quarterback after a part-time role last season. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Russell threw for 1,034 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions in 2011, and his presence under center will mark a stark contrast from last year's starter Chris Relf, who was an accomplished runner but inconsistent passer.
Mullen said Russell's strengths should make Mississippi State more proficient in the passing game.
"We will tweak," Mullen said. "I think every year, you take your playbook, you take what you have in your playbook, and you're not going to use 100 percent of it. You have to take whatever percentage, 60, 75, 80, whatever, fits that year's team."
Russell said he feels ready to take on the added responsibility, but was confident he wouldn't be shouldered with too much of the burden.
"If you look across the board on offense, you've got four or five running backs who can tote it," Russell said. "All of them can play. You've got receivers plenty of seniors and then some other guys who have experience. And the offensive line, we've got a lot. They did great in the spring and have picked up right where they left off."
LaDarius Perkins steps into the starting role at running back after two years behind Vick Ballard. Perkins is generously listed at 5-10 and 190 pounds, and it remains to be seen whether his body can manage the physical burden demanded of a full-time SEC back.
He rushed for 422 yards and two touchdowns last season and also caught 13 passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Perkins bristles when asked about how his smaller frame will hold up over a full season. Nick Griffin and Josh Robinson are also options at running back.
"I feel like I can get the job done," Perkins said. "I'm in top-notch shape, I'm more experienced and I've played in a lot of big-time games."
Mississippi State's veteran receivers will finally get a chance to stand out thanks to Russell's emergence. Seniors Chris Smith, Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis all caught at least 25 passes last season, and figure to play a more prominent role in the revamped offense.
Mississippi State's defense has several returners, including defensive tackle Josh Boyd, linebacker Cameron Lawrence and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield.
Boyd teamed with first-round NFL draft pick Fletcher Cox to dominate the interior defensive line last season. Now that Cox is with the Philadelphia Eagles, the focus is on the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Boyd, who made 51 tackles last season, including 8[ ] for a loss and 4[ ] sacks in 2011.
Lawrence was one of the SEC's most productive defensive players last season, ranking second in the league with 123 tackles.
Banks and Broomfield anchor a seasoned secondary. The 6-2, 185-pound Banks led the Bulldogs with five interceptions last year.
Mississippi State is helped by a relatively friendly early-season schedule. The Bulldogs have a crucial game against Auburn on Sept. 8 which will be the team's first chance to beat a prominent Western Division opponent.
"Obviously that's huge for us, to find a way to win that first (SEC) game this year and put ourselves in position hopefully to make a run at an SEC championship," Mullen said.
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP