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3 years after 2014’s No. 1 appearance, how high can Mississippi State climb this time?

MSU faces a tough test at Georgia after arguably the country’s hottest start.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Mississippi State Bulldogs had themselves a weekend, with their 37-7 upset victory over then-No. 12 LSU at home. The win vaulted the Bulldogs into the AP Poll at No. 17 and marked MSU’s largest margin of victory over a ranked opponent since Oct. 17, 1942.

Yes, it’s only Week 4, but Dan Mullen’s team, predicted to finish second-to-last in the SEC West by the media, is in shape to prove everyone wrong yet again.

OK, so what about the rest of Mississippi State’s SEC schedule?

The Bulldogs really could run the table in the division, other than the Alabama game, or at least come close. Win projections, by S&P+:

This is an especially tough conference schedule. A road game at Georgia might be the toughest possible SEC East draw this season, and Kentucky’s been improving for a couple years now as well. Going 5-3 or 6-2 against that SEC schedule would likely put MSU in the running for another New Year’s Six bowl.

If you filter out preseason projections and recruiting rankings, MSU might even be better than that.

For the first few weeks, S&P+ includes numbers beyond just what happened on the field, to ensure the numbers retain some predictive quality. Bill Connelly showed that if you stripped all those out and went by nothing but what’s happened in games, you’d have:

  1. Mississippi State (3-0)
  2. Penn State (3-0)
  3. Oklahoma State (3-0)
  4. Washington (3-0)
  5. Wake Forest (3-0)

Just look at what the Bulldogs did against LSU.

The Tigers went into Starkville as 7.5-point favorites, as the team with far more blue-chip recruits, the million-dollar coordinators, and the big advantage in the all-time rivalry series.

None of that mattered. MSU’s defense clamped down on a speedy, supposedly overhauled offense. When MSU had the ball, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald finished with 266 total yards, and Aeris Williams ran for 147 and a touchdown, much of it on the right side, thanks to a size advantage they had over LSU’s defense:

Even with all-conference pass rusher Arden Key returning for LSU, MSU still boasted a size advantage and figured out how to use it. That frequently meant pulling a guard to take on either an end or OLB on the right side, and it created an opportunity for Williams.

I charted the first three quarters or so of this game (I stopped when MSU went up 37-7). On rushes I categorized as off right tackle, MSU carried 11 times for 125 yards and a 64 percent success rate. Four of those rushes went for at least 18 yards. Williams’ ability to make quick cuts, combined with MSU’s ability to clog up LSU’s vision with big bodies, created a lot of success. These 11 right-tackle plays accounted for only 30 percent of the rushing plays I charted, but 52 percent of the yards.

The Bulldogs have solid production on both sides of the ball.

And that’s with the talent from Mississippi State’s past recruiting classes, which historically rank in the bottom half of the SEC West. LSU entered with the sixth-most talented roster in the country, per 247Sports, MSU with No. 26. Mullen’s already destroyed an SEC West team with better recruiting resources, so what’s a few more?

Offensively, Mississippi State has the balance and skill. The unit ranks 28th in offensive S&P+. Fitzgerald’s thrown for seven touchdowns, second in the division, and scored another five on the ground, all with just one interception through three games.

The Bulldogs are fourth in the nation in total defense, allowing just 3.34 yards per play. They’re top 10 in third down conversion defense — against LSU, the Tigers converted just three third downs.

Mississippi State has been steadily improving since 2014.

Just three years ago, there was a point when the Bulldogs looked like the best team in the nation. When the first College Football Playoff rankings came out in late October, the Bulldogs were 7-0 and given the No. 1 ranking. They finished with a 10-win season and an Orange Bowl bid, something plenty of other SEC West teams would’ve been happy with over the last few years.

Losing Dak Prescott took some time to recover from, but Mullen and Fitzgerald show the program’s now capable of replacing all-time stars.

This stat from MSU lacks a little bit of context, since MSU hasn’t played in many big non-conference games and usually draws a lighter SEC East schedule, but still:

MSU’s not Bama. But that’s not exactly fair.

Mississippi State hasn’t won an SEC West title since 1998, and the last time the Bulldogs beat the Tide was 10 years ago. But not being able to beat Alabama is a problem every SEC team has.

Having three nine-win seasons from 2014 to 2017 is well within reach either way, and that’s something you can’t say about Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, or Texas A&M.