August 25, 2014 11:11:34 AM
STARKVILLE -- For the first time in 24 years, game week leading to a showdown against in-state rival Southern Mississippi has arrived for Mississippi State's football team.
That's one of the storylines for MSU's 2014 season opener, which is five days away. In addition to renewing a rivalry that has been dormant since 1990, the Bulldogs also will open a landmark expansion of Davis Wade Stadium with a team that returns 18 starters and faces its highest preseason expectations in six seasons under coach Dan Mullen.
To say excitement is high in Starkville this week would be an understatement.
"It's a fun time of the year," said Mullen, who is 36-28 in five seasons at MSU. "We're winding down preseason, and when we get here (today) we will be in game week. That's when we'll really kick our preparations into gear."
The programs, which have met 27 times, will battle at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network) for the first time since the third week of the 1990 season, a 13-10 win for MSU. Announced in September 2009, the game is the first of a home-and-home series that concludes next season in Hattiesburg.
Mullen, who had just arrived at MSU when the series was announced, is a fan of renewing the matchup.
"We want to have those in-state rivalries, and I think it's great for the people of Mississippi and it's great for football in Mississippi," Mullen said. "You have people excited at every level."
For the Bulldogs, the game is more than the rejuvenation of an in-state rivalry. It also is the first opportunity to hit the field with Mullen's deepest and perhaps most talented team. MSU boasts 30 players, 15 on each side of the ball, with starting experience. Throw in the fact that junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who accounted for 25 touchdowns as a sophomore, is the unquestioned starter, and it adds up to a MSU team anxious to get rolling.
"I can't wait," said MSU senior safety Jay Hughes, a senior who played his high school football at Oak Grove High School, just outside of Hattiesburg. "I know a lot of those guys. I've lived down there. I've been waiting for this game for a while."
Hughes and the Bulldogs, 7-6 with a Liberty Bowl victory against Conference-USA champion Rice in 2013, are trying to build on the success of Mullen's past four years, which all ended in bowl games. Southern Miss, meanwhile, is trying to rebuild. Three years removed from a conference title, USM has won one game in the past two seasons. The Eagles were 0-12 in 2012 under then-coach Ellis Johnson and improved to 1-11 under first-year head coach Todd Monken in 2013. Monken said the excitement surrounding USM's season opener began with a 62-27 victory against Alabama-Birmingham in last year's finale.
"The energy that came from that, I think that starts it," Monken said in an interview with the Hattiesburg American. "I think Mississippi State adds to it. A number of these kids were recruited by them, and they know a lot of their players."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
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