2013 Record: 7-6 (3-5 in SEC)
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (36-28 at Mississippi State, 16-24 in SEC)
Last Bowl Game: 2013 Liberty Bowl: beat Rice 44-7
Stadium: Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, MS (capacity = 55,082)
2013 Home Record: 5-2
Spring Football Highlights:
8/30 vs Southern Miss
9/6 vs UAB
9/13 at South Alabama
9/20 at LSU (2013 result: lost 59-26)
10/4 vs Texas A&M (2013 result: lost 51-41)
10/11 vs Auburn (2013 result: lost 24-20)
10/25 at Kentucky (2013 result: won 28-22)
11/1 vs Arkansas (2013 result: won 24-17)
11/8 vs UT Martin
11/15 at Alabama (2013 result: lost 20-7)
11/22 vs Vanderbilt
11/29 at Ole Miss (2013 result: won 17-10)
Stats to Fear: only had 20 sacks in 2013 (11th in SEC); gave up average of 34.8 ppg against ranked teams in 2013
Stats to Cheer: held opponents to 35.20% on third downs in 2013 (4th in SEC), created 25 turnovers on 2013 (4th in SEC)
Phil Steele’s Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 8, Special Teams: 1
Key Losses: OG Gabe Jackson (3rd round pick), RB LaDarius Perkins, OT Charles Siddoway, FS Nickoe Whitley, LB Deontae Skinner, DL Denico Autry
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Benardrick McKinney (70 total tackles, 3.5 sacks), DL Chris Jones (32 total tackles, 3 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Dak Prescott (58.4% completions, 10 passing TD, 7 INT, 829 yds rushing, 13 rushing TD), RB Josh Robinson (459 yds rush, 5.88 ypc), WR Jameon Lewis (64 rec, 5 TD)
9-4, 7-6, 8-5, 7-6. Those are the final records for Mississippi State under Dan Mullen the last four years. Not bad. 4-4, 2-6, 4-4, 3-5. Those are the final SEC conference records for Mississippi State under Dan Mullen the last four years. What that illustrates is that the Bulldogs have become a consistent winner and bowl team under Mullen but they are stuck in a weird place below the upper echelon in the SEC West. This is the slippery slope that Mississippi State must navigate. Should they be happy with a consistent winner or should they demand to be among the likes of Alabama, Auburn and LSU year in and year out and if so, is Dan Mullen the coach to bring them there. That is the dilemma that Mississippi State faces. A solid team but without much upward growth.
On offense, the Bulldogs return almost everything except two offensive linemen (one who was drafted in the third round) and LaDarius Perkins (who only had half the production as the previous season). The team is now fully Dak Prescott’s and the season will likely go as far as he can take it for the Bulldogs. Against ranked opponents in 2013, Prescott threw 2 TDs and had 6 INTs. He also only completed 54% of his passes in those games. He did run the ball well in these games (95 ypg and 5 TDs) but he needs to become more consistent and he has to deliver in the big spots if Mississippi State wants to live up to the high expectations that some have placed on them this season.
Despite losing Perkins, Josh Robinson should be able to plug that gap but he’s still untested as the go-to back. Good news for Prescott is that all of his favorite targets return. Jameon Lewis, Malcolm Johnson (30 rec), Robert Johnson (34 rec) and De’Runnya Wilson (26 rec as a frosh) so familiarity should help the passing game click early this season.
On defense, the Bulldogs finished the season ranked 4th in total defense in the SEC and fifth in scoring defense. Overall, the defense was good but not great. That seems like a running theme with Mississippi State under Mullen. He has built a good football team year-in and year-out but in the SEC West, you have to be great and can this defense take that next step?
If they are to take the next step, Chris Jones will have to be one that steps up. The Bulldogs struggled to sack the QB last year and Jones was one of the leaders with only 3. The defense returns the majority of their starters and second-stringers so we should see continued improvement on this side of the football.
Overall, the Bulldogs have been consistent under Dan Mullen and if they are to take the “next step” they are set up to do so on both sides of the football with so many returning starters. The question I have is if they have enough to get over that hump or if, under Mullen, they are destined to be a 4-4 SEC West team for the remainder of his tenure and, if so, is that such a bad thing?
Mississippi State has made an out of conference schedule that guarantees they will be in a bowl again in 2014 (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, UT Martin). Their SEC East schedule is about as easy as it will ever be (Kentucky and Vanderbilt). The question remains how he will do against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M. Against that quartet, Mullen is 1-16 as a head coach. Right now, Mississippi State looks like a 7 to 8 win team depending on how they fare against their in-state rival in Vaught-Hemingway on November 29th.
Note: final predictions for all SEC teams will be made in August in my conference preview.