Of course Mullen may—may—have been exaggerating just a little bit how quickly coaches were to return to their offices. Yet the fact is, Mississippi State minds had already turned towards the new football year within hours of walking off Scott Field with the regained Golden Egg. Anyone attending the campus phase of Bulldog bowl camp was essentially seeing the first phase of 2014 spring practices as coordinators and position coaches mixed-and-matched all sort of underclassman combinations and let them compete with their peers.
State didn't abuse the opportunity to be sure, as the '13 lineups were reunited plenty early enough to prepare properly for the Liberty Bowl. A 44-7 final score certainly showed that. Still, Mullen and staff now have valuable hours of practical video for evaluating returning and redshirted Bulldogs in advance of spring drills. This will take over the attention once every aide has completed review of the 2013 team; what went as planned, what didn't work, and how the frequent and forced in-season adjustments played out.
That was the true story of 2013 to Mullen really, how staff and squad adapted to all sorts of unexpected issues that could have derailed the entire season. It didn't happen, though the Bulldogs did cut things close to be sure. They were 4-6 in mid-November and a hairsbreadth from both a losing season and no bowling. How they got in such a position is now much more easily understood than would have been the August case.
"I think we played the third-hardest schedule in college football," Mullen said, and most analysts agree. Not only did the Dogs face two outright conference champions in Rice and Bowling Green, they opened against an Oklahoma State team which played for it's own league title on the last day. And of course eventual SEC champs Auburn were third on the schedule, a game that came down to the last ten ticks before the first of several amazing Tiger finishes. State with a #2 quarterback was one yard from winning that one and who knows what that would have done eventually to the BCS landscape?
So now all know what was already regarded as a tougher-than-usual slate for State was nothing short of brutal. But in mid-October, State fans just saw struggles they couldn't really appreciate at the time even allowing for opening-day loss of the starting senior quarterback, the ‘quarterback' of the defense at strong safety, and starting right guard. More well-known-now but at the time not, was how the starting right tackle and free safety were playing despite back and knee injuries respectively which by all rights should have had them safely sidelined. And even in pre-season a starting defensive tackle hurt a foot and literally limped through the full season.
All teams deal with season injuries; many have more margin than MSU figured to have in August. Yet while it took time to show up successfully the results of recent recruiting came to the eventual rescue as underclassmen and backups rose to the opportunity. A perfect if under-appreciated example among many more would be Ben Beckwith; he won't make any all-conference lists but this former walk-on stepped in at right guard and steadied the interior line that was key to keeping this offense operating. He never counted towards any signing class yet Beckwith provided further proof to Mullen's declaration that his is a ‘development program'. The same could be said of other recruited but low-star signees who took over in the defensive secondary and became on-field stars. And on and on.
Yet it was still a fragile situation for two-plus months. Mullen even reminded in Memphis that overall expectations of State in 2013 were modest, likely based on the frustrating way 2012 ended. The Bulldogs weren't high on any post-season projections in summer or on them at all with some forecasters, Mullen said.
"With a very young impressionable group, they didn't listen to that. They stuck together, they battled, they fought through unbelievable adversity and injuries. To do that and finish with our fourth-straight bowl game and fourth-straight winning season is very, very special."
One of those still-young Dogs is middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney. He represented State at SEC Media Days and had to hear such not-so-subtle suggestions about State. Sophomore McKinney kept cool and just told inquisitors the difference would come by ‘finishing' strong in 2013 compared to '12.
"And we finished. We needed two wins to get to a bowl and we finished against Arkansas and Ole Miss. so I think we accomplished some goals." The Dogs indeed did finish strong with two overtime victories which ‘dramatic' doesn't truly define. Even better, this bunch didn't consider their work done after qualifying for a school-record fourth consecutive bowl berth as would have been so easy for everyone.
They went to Memphis and crushed a conference champion. "We ended the season with two big wins against Arkansas and Ole Miss, so it gave us the confidence to go out and get a win," McKinney said. So on the whole about the season? "I feel it went very well. We could have done better as a team but we accomplished goals."
Goals that likely didn't sound realistic to a numbed Mississippi State at the end of November 2008. At that troubled time winning anything against anyone seemed goal enough. And recruiting for a battered Bulldog program? This was something that came to Mullen's mind in the Liberty Bowl after-glow as he considered the six remaining seniors from his first group of signees that frenzied winter for a first-time head coach. That sextet would play their parts in the 36 victories scored since Mullen arrived, and posting four-straight winning records.
"I always talk about that consistency in winning," said Mullen. "To have four-straight winning seasons, with going to four-straight bowl games; we've won four out of five in our rivalry, the Egg Bowl game. I think that just shows the stability of a winning program. And when you have that stability you're going to have the opportunity to have great seasons."
"This senior class, when I was sitting in their living room I'd just been hired and Mississippi State had been to one bowl in eight year. (It meant) Kind of getting a vision of what we had. And they bought into that and believed in that and have built an unbelievable foundation for the future."
A very impressive one when looking at the Liberty Bowl depth chart. Just four seniors were on the entire offensive two-deep, and only one on defense. True, injuries had quarterback Tyler Russell and free safety Nickoe Whitley watching what should have been a fitting finish to their five-year careers. And no one downplays the impossibility of fully-replacing All-American left guard Gabe Jackson as he heads to the NFL.
At the same time State won SEC games with lineups dominated by juniors and sophomores and a handful of redshirt or true freshmen. Expectations for the offense are magnified not only by the plays Dak Prescott made, and he has made plenty in two seasons with 33 touchdowns rushing, throwing, even receiving. Prescott simply is a comfortable and confidence-building fit for Mullen's core offensive philosophy from 2009-11…though it speaks much to both Russell's passing talents and the coach's adaptability that the graduating senior smashed passing records in 2012.
Combine Prescott's abilities and pure inspirational leadership, with the stepping-up skills already seen at running back and receivers, and 2014's offense ought to rewrite records set, to the shock of some, in 2013. Yes, despite all the issues and injuries, the '13 offense was among the most productive in program history, which bodes better for '14 not just from the experience standpoint but an apparent easing of the schedule.
Defensively, a MSU monster is in the making. Whitley is owed a prominent place in our memory for his remarkable big-play production in November to literally save those wins on a bad knee needing December surgery. There are still fresh safeties coming up, and veteran Jay Hughes—lost just seven snaps into the season—coming back along with everyone who made a play at cornerback(s). And plays they made as the interception and tackle charts show. The defensive front? Bold though this statement be, the returning and redshirted linemen could make this 2014 group the equal of State's great late-90s units and maybe, maybe even the rightly-fabled foursomes of 1980 and '81. The talent and the depth and the versatility is there, and all backed by a linebacker corps that is again up to historical State standards. If, that is, everyone comes back.
Maybe the most important recruiting Mullen and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins can do is convince McKinney to return for a junior season. The third-year sophomore is of age to declare for the NFL draft. He is among several old-enough Dogs who are submitting their names for pre-draft evaluations by experts, as allowed by the NCAA.
At Memphis, McKinney would only say "I was going to think about staying next year to make myself better." Which is a noncommittal sort of comment to be sure, and a wise way of leaving all his spring options open. Certainly a junior campaign will allow McKinney to establish himself among the SEC's leading linebackers but play for All-American stature. Coordinator and linebackers coach Collins would love having #50 running the show another season.
Statistically, McKinney's first year at starting middle was ‘down' with 71 tackles after a 102-stop 2012. Realistically, his impact was greater in organizing the Dog defense so others could make stops and get stats. "Yeah, being a leader stats are not a big things for me. I wanted to be a leader and make everybody around me a better player." Besides, there was no drop-off when Richie Brown subbed-in for the star starter…a point which relates to quite a few defensive positions where other sophs and freshmen are rising to 2014 prominence.
Speaking of recruiting, this absolutely takes precedence in January though within the constraints of the NCAA off-season calendar. In fact, today is the first of a three-day ‘dead' period with no on- or off-campus contacts and evaluations, though general correspondence is allowed via email and such. There will be another dead-zone during the annual coaches convention coming up shortly, during which rounds of official visits for the rest of January weekends will be scheduled.
Also, Mullen is likely to be making further staff adjustments if last year's intentions hold up to bring in a tight ends coach and allow Scott Sallach to take over administrative duties. This was planned last January but circumstances brought Sallach back to on-field duty. And his unit produced, too. What fans obviously hope is dodge poaching of other impressive aides, after the revamped staff fit together so well in '13. Staff raises and extensions and such are expected during January, not coincidentally timed to aid recruiting impact.
As for the varsity, they left Memphis for a well-won break at last. Fans often forget, most of the participants had been on campus and working together since early June. Or for that matter January, something Mullen brought up while seated behind all those trophies. "These guys are off until January 10. And I told our team, tonight we've laid to rest the 2013 team. The 2014 is born on January 10 when we report for our first meeting."
If this sounds as though Mullen and Mississippi State have literally turned over their coaching calendar to 2014, correct. "We've got a lot of work still to do," Mullen said.
"I told our coaches they're off New Years Day. And January 2 we're right back at getting to work for next year's program! I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish so far, but there's so much more we want to accomplish still out there."
Which is why any review of 2013 ought actually be presented as stage-setting for 2014. Maybe that wasn't how Mississippi State and Mullen planned for and from the fifth season together, but now-obvious issues kept it from being the sort of year this coach wants. For all the frustrations involved, though, the end-result is a program in even better position for the coming year. No, make that the year which is already underway. A new Bulldog team is about to be born.
"We have one year to go show what we can do. Our expectations are always to find a way, we want to win the SEC West and go represent Mississippi and the whole state of Mississippi in Atlanta next December. And we embrace those high expectations."