The waiting began well before midnight in Miami as Dan Mullen’s sixth squad ended a milestone season in the Orange Bowl. Though a historic year by any Mississippi State standard with ten regular-season wins and a runner-up finish to overall champion Alabama in the SEC West, it wasn’t something to stand pat on. Losing three of the last four tests took some shine off the success, and left Mullen with an easy motivational job all spring, summer, and now preseason.
But, Mullen cautions…this is not just a case of picking up where left off. No, not even for a lineup that is much more seasoned than predictors and pollsters seem to notice. The same holds true for a Southern Mississippi side which the Bulldogs crushed 49-0 to open 2014.
“This year’s teams are going to be very different than last year’s teams,” Mullen said. So, “In the early games the important part is really focusing on yourself, making sure we’re executing at a very high level and we’re putting guys in position to go make plays.”
The most prominent play-maker of the bunch is quarterback Dak Prescott. More than most ’15 underclassmen he has a sour taste from how 2014 finished. Returning for a senior season, Prescott has been as much a driving force for eight months as has his coach.
Now? “We’ve all been waiting for this. We had a great camp and transition week so we’re all excited. We’re preparing for Southern Miss, I just can’t stress enough to play someone besides ourselves finally.”
Southern Mississippi is the someone on that other sideline. The long-dormant series was renewed a year ago and brought a Bulldog victory. The win also began a perfect home-field season for State to coincide with the 100th season of play on Scott Field.
Now Mississippi State visits a stadium not seen by Bulldogs since 1989. No current State player was born when that team pulled off a 26-23 upset, or when State also won 13-10 the next September to end the rivalry. The Golden Eagles finally got the renewal they thought they’d wanted, only to have the two-game series begin after decades of consistent USM success crumbled in 2012.
Mullen strikes all the correct cautionary notes. So do his players speaking on-record. “A lot of those guys are coming back,” defensive end Ryan Brown said. “They have a lot of experience. They have that chemistry now because they went through a lot last year. We’re expecting them to try to shock America, but we’re going to do our best to do our job.”
Bulldog teams have generally done their opening-day job well under Mullen. Only in 2013 did State drop a debut, that a neutral-site loss to Oklahoma State. Otherwise Mullen’s men are 5-1 in kickoffs. Though, this is the first time State has opened in a true road game, on the opponents’ campus, since 2008. And that brought a stunning loss at Louisiana Tech which spun Sylvester Croom’s last season immediately out of control.
And, cleared the way for Mullen to take charge. The six seasons since are literally history. Mullen already is third in career victories at 46-31 and has 22 SEC wins. Of more immediate point this weekend, Mullen teams are 21-3 in regular-season games outside the conference. And he is 6-0 in non-conference games played in the opponent’s home stadium.
Despite the ten-win season, an all-star quarterback and collection of other offensive and defensive Dogs tabbed on national watch lists, Mississippi State did not quite crack the preseason polls. They are receiving votes, just not enough to make top-25s. Not yet. A big opening-night show could correct this.
Mullen is not complaining about polls, much less playing the ‘respect’ card. He even understands why outsiders look at such facts as few returning starters. Only seven Dogs who started last year’s opening win, four offense and three defense, will be on the field Saturday. The number of Orange Bowl starters back is barely better, eight.
But. Starters Lost or Returning is both an easy fact to notice and put far too much stock in. More so than any of his previous seasons, Mullen has a 2015 team with ‘new’ starters in every position who has played plenty snaps and won lots of games. Thanks to years of steady recruiting, “We are always playing with veteran teams or teams that have guys who have been in the program and developed,” Mullen said.
Along that same line, opening evening begins the next stage in developing the next Bulldog team. Mullen has a junior-heavy roster and for that matter lineup, so developing younger classes is crucial this season. So is evaluating all the sophs, redshirted and true freshmen under real game conditions to help with further recruiting decisions between now and December.
For a non-conference game State can take a larger than usual roster, and being an in-state game there’s incentive to give Mississippi kids a short trip too. Will any true frosh play? Mullen can’t say.
“But we are trying to have a lot of guys making the trip. After all of the hard work the guys have earned the opportunity to be on the sideline and be a part of it. Games are the reward.” Meanwhile redshirts almost certainly will get their first varsity action, conditions permitting, to speed-up their development.
“Hopefully they’ll get the opportunity to become starters sometime down the road (as in future seasons mostly),” Mullen said. “When they do get that opportunity they already have a bit of experience on the field.” Plus, as State has seen in recent seasons, it never hurts to have a new kid seasoned at a potentially-thin position as did Damian Williams and Jamaal Clayborn in 2013.
There are few lineup questions heading into the opener on offense and defense. Special teams? That’s a whole different matter. Mullen hasn’t named a punter, placekicker (long, short, PAT, any of it), kickoff man, nor any returners. Depending on the coin toss some of these will get answered quickly. If the game plays out as most believe, the PAT guy will also be learned reasonably soon.
Mullen isn’t a fan of such late starts. Still he’s adjusted the practice schedule these past two weeks for later work and review so the Bulldogs ought be acclimated chronologically. Physically, all reports are positive with no first- or second-line player ruled out on injury so far.
And if not kicking it off until deep into the evening is annoying…it is good practice. Because a week from now when the Bulldogs host Louisiana State in an early-season SEC West showdown, game time at Scott Field isn’t until 8:15. If it starts on time, that is.
*The scoreboard gives Mississippi State a 15-12-1 lead in the series. A pair of forfeited wins as part of NCAA sanctions for using an ineligible player in 1975 and ’76 though means Southern Mississippi officially leads 14-13-1. Eagle teams owned a seven-game streak from 1977-83. But before the series halted the Bulldogs had won in both 1989 and ’90; and now it is a three-win run by State.
*There have only been two shutouts in the whole series. And they are bookends by the Bulldogs. State won 27-0 in the 1935 inaugural meeting, then last year’s 49-0 rout. State has never been blanked by USM.
*Dan Mullen has won all eight meetings with teams currently in CUSA. But that is possible by not counting a 2009 loss to then-CUSA member Houston, since moved on to the AAC.
*The last time Mississippi State opened a season with the reigning All-SEC quarterback? 1969. And Tommy Pharr was unable to repeat as first-team All-SEC due to injuries. The only Bulldog ever to repeat at quarterback was Billy Stacy in 1956 and ’57, when it was as a back officially.
*Who has the longest active starting streak on the squad? OT Justin Senior and CB Taveze Calhoun, having opened all games last season. If he had not missed the 2013 Liberty Bowl, Calhoun would have a 22-game streak going.
*The record for career starts by a Bulldog is shared by DT Kaleb Eulls (2011-14) and LG Gabe Jackson (2010-13) at 52 games each.
*Prescott already owns an even-dozen season statistical records, and five Bulldog career records. Which is the next benchmark he seizes? Prescott begins the senior season one touchdown pass behind former teammate Tyler Russell, 42 to 41.
*He is two games away from the career completions mark. Wayne Madkin had 462 of his throws caught; Kevin Fant 461. Prescott has completed 418 passes.
*In a SEC perspective, Prescott is 20th in career touchdowns (passing or rushing); and already 5th in rushing touchdowns for a quarterback. By the way, former Bulldog John Bond is still #3 on that latter list.
*Yes, on paper State lost lots of starters from 2014. But the degree of quality depth is reflected in this fact: four Bulldogs are on national award watch lists who will be making their first college starts Saturday. They are RB Ashton Shumpert (Walker Award), DT Chris Jones (Bednarik, Outland, Nagurski), LB Richie Brown (Butkus), and CB Will Redmond (Bednarik, Nagurski).
*There are 14 scholarship freshmen of 2014 class who redshirted and hope to make their varsity debut this weekend: QB Elijah Staley, LB Gerri Green, QB Nick Fitzgerald, S Brandon Bryant, CB Chris Rayford, RB Aeris Williams, RB Dontavian Lee, DT Cory Thomas, OG Deion Calhoun, OG Ronald Cochran, OT Elgton Jenkins, WR Jesse Jackson, DE Grant Harris, DT Braxton Hoyette.
*State also has a pair of junior college redshirts from last year, DE Will Coleman and OC Jocquell Johnson.
*Three true frosh played last season; WR/KR Jamoral Graham, LB J.T. Gray, and KO/P Logan Cooke.
*Mississippi State led the SEC in both total offense and red zone defense last season.
*And all the scoring in 2014 allowed plenty practice in covering kickoffs, which the Dogs also led the league in.