Dan Mullen has been Mississippi State’s coach for six seasons and expectations have never been higher.
Even though the Bulldogs were 7-6 last season, the way they finished the year — with consecutive wins against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Rice in the Liberty Bowl — and the fact that 18 starters return, have some thinking this could be the breakthrough season for which Mississippi State has been waiting.
“I think for us when you look at expectations on the season, I think how last season ended, with a lot of young guys coming back on our team, our team immediately put a lot of expectations on themselves,” Mullen said Tuesday during SEC media day. “So we've talked to them about it, embrace all those expectations. Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta. That's what we can control and compete for that SEC championship this year.
“When you embrace that expectation early on as a program, when you embrace that for this year's team, all those guys, that's what they're working for from day one. I don't think they shy away from it. I think they embrace everything that's going on.”
But making good on those expectations won’t be easy. Since 2009, when Mullen took over, the Bulldogs have not finished better than fourth in the SEC West. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise considering the SEC West has produced the SEC champion in each of the last five years and the BCS National Champion is four of those seasons.
But perhaps winning the SEC or even the SEC West shouldn’t be the focus. Mississippi State has just one 10-win season in its history and just four nine-win seasons. The 9-4 record in 2010 was the best finish for the Bulldogs since that 10-win season in 1999.
The schedule sets up nicely with games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama to start before traveling to LSU on Sept. 20. That's when the schedule becomes daunting. Mississippi State won just three SEC games last season and two of the teams they beat had losing records. In Mullen’s tenure, the Bulldogs have never beaten Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M (though it’s only been two seasons) and have only beaten Auburn once. So, a major step forward for this program would be taking down one of those powers and becoming a formidable for in the West Division.
“What we have to do is follow through with it and live up to what we want,” Mullen said. “Playing in the SEC West, the most competitive conference in all of college football, look at the depth and quality of the teams that are on our side of the league just alone to get to that championship game, is unbelievable. So for us to do that, we're going to have to have a pretty special year. But I think we have some special guys that can make that happen.”
Dak Prescott, the next big thing
If Mississippi State is going to have a breakout season, it’s going to start with the play of junior quarterback Dak Prescott.
Prescott emerged as one of the SEC’s top run-pass threats despite nearly being lost for the year with a severe shoulder injury. Prescott threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and rushed for 829 yards and another 13 scores.
“Dak is a guy that because of his skill set, he can beat you with his arm, with his legs, he can run between the tackles and he can run in the open field,” Mullen said. “He has a lot going for him. But most importantly he has that will to win.”
Mullen said Prescott has worked on his passing this offseason and is a much better passer than he was a year ago. He’ll have many veteran targets from which to choose, including senior Jameon Lewis, who had 220 yards against Rice in the bowl game. And he won’t need to be so quick to leave the pocket with veteran running threats in Nick Griffin, who is coming back after injuries to both knees last season, and Josh Robinson.
“I know he has that will,” Mullen said of Prescott. “He is big, strong, can lift, out work you. He's a guy that understands the importance of the skill of the quarterback position and he's constantly working on his skill at that position.”
Dan Mullen loves futbol as much as football
When Mullen isn’t watching film of Mississippi State or its opponents, he’s often enjoying his other favorite team, Liverpool.
Mullen’s mother is British and so he grew up around soccer. Even though he found an affinity for the American style of football, it didn’t damper his love for the game he embraced as a child.
“Believe it or not, as a football coach, some of our downtime is in the spring,” Mullen said. “I'm a big sportsfan. My wife sometimes questions what I'm doing, but I don't mind waking up early Sunday morning and watching the Premiership if you have a little bit of the break. Get a workout in, watch that 6 a.m. kick.”
Mullen then likened the fervor for SEC football to that of European soccer fans and their respective teams.
“I do think SEC football could be compared to European soccer,” Mullen said. “The passion our fans have is equal. I'm sure I'll have a lot of European nations very upset, teams throughout the world upset. That is one of the things that makes this league so much fun, is the passion that our fan bases have for football is similar to watching the passion these European soccer teams and followings have, which is a pretty neat deal.”
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