Dan Mullen was handed a microphone in the on-field pandemonium after Mississippi State's 41-27 Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss on Nov. 28 and thanked his loud, cowbell-wielding fans. Then, he told the crowd that his program was on the rise and heading in the right direction. The crowd roared.
"Maybe to the contrary of what other people are saying in this state," he told reporters later, when asked about his remarks. "I know one program that's certainly on the rise and that's right here in Starkville."
Mullen's words came six days after Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said his program was on the rise in the wake of some negative recruiting. Though Nutt didn't name names, it wasn't too hard to believe that Mississippi State was the subject of his derision.
Mullen got the last word, and last laugh, in the Egg Bowl.
But how long will that last? Mississippi State's coach heads into the offseason riding a crest of popularity among his own fans. He needs to ride that crest of popularity among recruits, his most important audience heading to the Feb. 3 national signing day.
Mississippi State got some recruiting momentum late in the season and can get some more if Mullen can convince junior college quarterback Cameron Newton, a Florida transfer, to sign with Mississippi State.
There's no doubting that Mullen has Mississippi State fans eating out of the palm of his hand with his words and his offensive brand of football. As he heads into the offseason, he needs to keep attrition at a minimum, develop more talent at the quarterback position and work on delivering on the promise of a program on the rise.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Mississippi State 41, Ole Miss 27 -- The Bulldogs had been so close so many times this season against ranked opponents, only to fumble away chances. In the most important rivalry game of the season, though, State ensured that there would be no such wasting of chances. The Bulldogs won going away, as QB Chris Relf and RB Anthony Dixon combined for 264 rushing yards against a Rebel defense that had previously been staunch against the run. The season-ending victory erased a lot of the bad feelings some players and fans had about a season that had been so close to a bowl game. In State's de-facto bowl, the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs delivered and set the tone for 2010.
PLAYERS OF THE YEAR:
RB Anthony Dixon -- The senior broke the single-game, single-season and career rushing records at Mississippi State this season. Dixon's 1,389-yard season passed J.J. Johnson, who had 1,383 yards in 1998, and he broke the single-game record with a 252-yard effort against Kentucky. He passed the Atlanta Falcons' Jerious Norwood in that category and in the career category, too.
LB Jamar Chaney -- A year after missing what was supposed to be his final season because of an ankle injury in the first game, Chaney came back to lead State in tackles -- and in the locker room, too.
WR Chad Bumphis -- A true freshman, Bumphis came in and contributed early, and State was all the better because of it. Coach Dan Mullen used him in variety of ways, ranging from receiver, runner and kick returner.
FAST FORWARD: Mississippi State loses two of its stars and biggest leaders in LB Jamar Chaney and RB Anthony Dixon. But beyond that, the future looks bright for State. It returns many young playmakers, including QB Tyler Russell, who was one of the most celebrated signings in recent State history. He redshirted this season.
RECRUITING TRAIL: Coach Dan Mullen had put together a solid, if not spectacular, 16-commitment class as of late November. The class turning from good to great hinges on the decision of Cameron Newton, a quarterback from Blinn College in Texas. Newton is a Florida transfer, and Mullen has the connection there. Newton visited Mississippi State for the Egg Bowl and was ringing a cowbell.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a young program. Our coaches are going to work hard and I think it's great to see. We're going to recruit the state of Mississippi hard. What's great is, you see all these kids who are out there making plays on the field." -- MSU coach Dan Mullen, after the Egg Bowl win.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010:
WR Chad Bumphis -- He finished the season as State's leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns. The speedster is clearly Dan Mullen's most dangerous weapon, and he'll just be a sophomore next year.
DB Corey Broomfield -- Despite starting just three games, the redshirt freshman had six interceptions. He's part of a nucleus of young talent in the secondary that took its lumps at times in 2009.
DE Pernell McPhee -- He was the playmaker in 2009 that he was promised to be when recruited, coming up with five sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He's also poised to be a team leader on that side of the ball in 2010.
RB Anthony Dixon -- Two of the important rushing records he broke this season belonged to Jerious Norwood, who has enjoyed a successful career with the Atlanta Falcons. Look for Dixon to get a serious pro look, too. He's a big running back at 6 feet, 235 pounds.
LB Jamar Chaney -- The middle linebacker returned for a successful senior season after an injury last year and could be marketable to pro teams looking for linebacker depth. Chaney is 6-1, 245 and his freakish nature in the weight room has been almost legendary at State.
DT Kyle Love -- At 6-foot-1, 310 pounds, Love could get a look because of his size and potential as a run-stopper.
--FS Zach Smith is debating whether to continue with his football career after suffering a series of concussions. He's a junior. He told The Clarion-Ledger in November that a return was unlikely.
--C J.C. Brignone's wife was due to give birth to their first child three days after the Egg Bowl, and he wasted no time telling reporters after the win that he was glad she would come into the world as an Egg Bowl champion.
--LB K.J. Wright is poised to take over as a leader of the defensive unit in Jamar Chaney's stead. Look for DE Pernell McPhee to be vocal there, too.
--RB Christian Ducre didn't play in the final three games after suffering a knee injury.
--RB Robert Elliott got more looks in the final few games of the season, perhaps a precursor to an increased role next year. Elliott is the lone underclassman in State's stable of tailbacks who played this year.