After a potentially treacherous three-game road trip to Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, Carolina returns home to face another opponent that it should beat but that could certainly pose some problems: Mississippi St.
The Bulldogs come into 2013 with some question marks surrounding the program. Dan Mullen has brought respectability to the SEC West's traditional doormat. Mullen hasn't had a losing season since his first year in Starkville, which is no small feat at a program that had previously only posted two non-losing seasons since the turn of the millennium. However, Mullen's program seems to have stalled out. After a promising nine-win season in 2010 that ended with a drubbing of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, the Bulldogs won only seven games in 2011. They reached eight last season, but the best wins of the bunch came against Arkansas and Tennessee, and the season ended on a very sour note with losses to rival Ole Miss and to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. The loss to the Rebels has assumed heightened gravity with Ole Miss's success on the recruiting trail, which lends to the sense that the worm is turning in a rivalry the Bulldogs controlled during the end of Houston Nutt's tenure in Oxford. It seems unfair to ask much more of Mullen than he's already provided, but he's definitely entering 2013 under a little pressure to prove that the program isn't hasn't plateaued.
For Carolina, the main challenge in this game is to make the Bulldogs one-dimensional on offense. I feel that our offense should be able to score without too much trouble against a defense that loses some key players in the secondary, its major defensive strength from a year ago, but the MSU offense does look somewhat formidable with an experienced QB in Tyler Russell, a 1000-yard rusher in LaDarius Perkins, and four returning starters on what should be an excellent OL. In recent years, one of the stories for MSU on offense has been that a running game that terrorizes lesser competition has wilted against the better defenses in the league. This has allowed opponents to make the Bulldogs one-dimensional, and while Tyler Russell has shown a lot of promise at QB, he's been prone to throw costly interceptions when forced to drop back constantly and deal with a pass rush. Needless to say, there's no reason to believe that won't be the case against us if Russell is forced to throw into a talented Carolina secondary with Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton, and Kelcy Quarles in his face. The Bulldogs, though, have the talent and experience to take another step offensively this year, and if they can achieve more balance against us, they could definitely make a game of it.
I'd be a lot more worried about that happening, though, if this game were away from Williams-Brice. After all, a pedestrian MSU team gave us a really tough game in 2011 in Starkville, but early spreads project a two-TD victory for Carolina this fall. I see MSU as being roughly equivalent to a little better than Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, and while those games worry me because they're on the road, I'd pick us confidently if they were at home. Same deal, basically, for MSU. Unless we come into this game really banged up after the road trip, we should be fine.