Yes, the Bulldogs were in transition in 2016 and everyone expected some growing pains with Mississippi State icon Dak Prescott moving on the NFL. A losing season? No, that really wasn't in the pre-season prognostications, at least not in these parts.
Even in a rebuilding year, State fans felt that they were a bowl team and that first year starter quarterback Nick Fitzgerald would lead the team to at least six regular season wins.
Those six regular season wins turned out to be just within reach, but just out of Bulldog grasp in large part to losing three games on the final play of the contest. The season began with a still unexplainable loss at home to South Alabama. From there, the Bulldogs were chasing wins in hopes of extending a school record streak of post season appearances.
A double overtime loss on the road at BYU gave the Bulldogs no margin for error as they rolled into Lexington, Kentucky for a match-up with the Wildcats. The Dan Mullen coached Bulldogs took the field in Commonwealth Stadium having not lost to the 'Cats in seven consecutive tries.
With baited breath of the frigid variety, Bulldog fans rose to their feet waiting for one final play. State had taken the lead on the previous possession courtesy of a seven yard touchdown toss from Fitzgerald to Bulldog record breaking receiver Fred Ross.
The final snap brought the game clock to double zero as Wildcat Kicker Austin MacGinnis connected on a 51-yard Bluegrass bomb that gave Kentucky the victory and provided Mississippi State with the stark reality that they were running out of winnable games.
The Bulldogs needed a strong October in order to capture a winning season and earn a spot in the post season once again. With Samford coming to town, State was O-for-October.
Yes, State did manage a win over the FCS Bulldogs from Birmingham, but questions about the State defense persisted. Samford signal caller Devlin Hodges, a quarterback state elected not to offer, torched the Bulldog secondary for 468 passing yards. Now 3-5 on the campaign, the Maroon and White faithful wondered if the team could win another game.
November would present the toughest month of the 2016 slate on paper. Dates with #4 Texas A&M, #1 Alabama, a streaking Arkansas team and the annual Battle for the Golden Egg lie ahead for a team that had given away as many games as it had won.
A funny thing happened on the way to the woodshed; the Bulldogs found new life.
Led by sophomore quarterback Fitzgerald, the Bulldog offense found solid footing and thrust the talented dual threat signal caller from Richmond Hill, Georgia into the national spotlight. Throwing for 209 and rushing for 182 yards against the Aggies, Fitzgerald would earn SEC offensive player of the week honors after a home win over Texas A&M.
The Tide would turn the following week on the road in Tuscaloosa as the Bulldog offense struggled to find any rhythm against the Crimson Tide. Fitz and the offense would return to form against Arkansas, but defensive issues once again plagued the team. Mississippi State simply could not stop Arkansas in what turned into a good old fashioned shoot out.
The last weekend in November would bring the Bulldogs to Oxford to face arch-rival Ole Miss who had won two in a row in the series. Ranked #11 in the pre-season by the Associated Press, the Rebels had fallen on hard times with defensive struggles of there own as well as a season ending knee injury to All-Conference quarterback Chad Kelly.
Two weeks earlier, Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze made the decision to lift the redshirt designation from true freshman quarterback Shea Patterson. The young freshman led the Rebels to a come from behind win on the road at Texas A&M, but struggled mightily in a loss the following week at Vanderbilt.
Heading into the annual grudge match with State, Ole Miss had the chance to essentially set the off-season narrative. A win in the Egg Bowl would have vaulted the Rebels into a bowl game, given the program a three game winning streak over the Bulldogs, made Freeze look smart for playing his five star freshman and likely made Patterson the talk of the pre-season publications.
55 Bulldog points later, State had the Egg and the Ole Miss football season was over. It was Mississippi State's quarterback, Fitzgerald, who won the day along with SEC offensive offensive player of the week honors once again.
As fate and good grades would have it, the Bulldogs snuck into the bowl picture thanks to five wins and their Academic Progress Report. In fact, the Bulldogs were the last team into the post season field. Miami of Ohio, winners of six straight, provided the opposition in the St. Petersbug Bowl.
While the game proved to be too close for Bulldog comfort, State emerged victorious thanks to another strong effort from Fitzgerald and a pair of strong special teams plays. The final margin was provided by a blocked extra point and game clinching field goal block on the game's deciding play.
All told, State had the Golden Egg and had extended their school record bowl streak to seven. The Bulldogs are now 5-2 in Bowl games in the Mullen era. Even though the Bulldogs ended the season winning four of their final six, concerns about defensive play loomed large.
Rumors began to circulate that change was coming. A new defensive coordinator in Starkville has nearly become an annual rite of football passage. This go around things proved to be a little different. Mullen opted to pass on hiring an up and comer and set his sights on proven coaches with Power 5 coordinating experience.
Former Louisville defensive coordinator, a veteran of two SEC title games at Georgia, Todd Grantham would take over for the outgoing defensive boss Peter Sirmon. Sirmon eventually took the post vacated at Louisville once Grantham had agreed to terms here.
With Grantham hitting the Bulldog recruiting road wide open as soon as his hire was official, State had some priority targets in need of attention. Hometown hero and All-American linebacker Willie Gay of Starkville High School became a personal project for Grantham. In fact, the first in person visit the newly hired coach would make in a Maroon and White pullover would be to see Gay.
The personal attention paid off as the talented four star announced for the Bulldogs on National Signing Day aiding in the Bulldogs efforts to ink a top 25 class, the second in three years for State.
Having won the Golden Egg, the St. Petersburg Bowl, had the better ride on the in state coaching carousel and inked the top signing class of instate programs, Mississippi State clearly has momentum as spring practice approaches.
Looking back at at where things stood as the calendar turned on Halloween, it is awfully interesting to see how events have unfolded. Winning the Egg Bowl seemed like wishful thinking then, but now the Bulldogs have fans hopeful about next fall.
Last spring, prognosticators had all sorts of questions about how the Bulldogs would be at quarterback. Now some pundits are tabbing Fitzgerald as the league's top returning quarterback. Now there is rising confidence that the Bulldog defense will be in better shape with a play caller who has SEC title game experience.
With major sanctions looming up the road, the recruiting playing field within the borders of the Magnolia State appear to be shifting towards the Bulldogs. You may not see any billboards. You may not hear any official declarations from school administrators, but there is the rising sense of optimism once again that this is OUR STATE!