Know Your Opponent: MSU

David Murray of the website at Mississippi State answers a few questions about the Bulldogs of 2014.

Spirit: When did you and others seem to know Mississippi State might be headed toward this type of season, now 10-1 overall and 6-1 in the Southeastern Conference?

Murray: Mississippi State wasn't ranked heading into the preseason but was getting votes. Dak Prescott got a lot of preseason buzz. They finished strong last year, but people still saw 7-6 (in 2013) and there are a bunch of good teams in the SEC West. So people were very reluctant, and rightfully so, to put a lot of stock in it. Three impressive non-conference wins to open the year just kept them right there on the edge. But when the Bulldogs went on that tear, beating LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn, as best we know that is the fastest climb from unranked to No. 1 since the Associated Press has been in business. It was absolutely the LSU game that got everybody's attention.

Spirit: What were the biggest question marks about this team that have been answered to this point?

Murray: There were really two of them. One was the offensive line. They thought the offensive line would be competitive. But could it hold up to a really physical SEC? They were much better than anyone expected against LSU and Texas A&M. But when they lined up against a really good Auburn defensive front and overwhelmed them for two and a half quarters, then it was just trying to keep them healthy from then on, which they have been able to do so far. The other question was the secondary. That's an area going into this (Ole Miss) game that there are still some concerns. They are all veterans and played pretty well last season. But this year there have been some things that just haven't clicked with it. But part of that is the defensive approach. The defense blitzes very, very rarely. They rely on a three or four front man pressure on the line up front. The thing with this secondary is they don't give up a lot of pass plays. But the ones they give up are big. And there actually is a third question. State has yet to kick a field goal longer than 37 yards. At this point you are what you are.

Spirit: Offensively MSU has been productive throughout the year.

Murray: This is the most productive offense in Mississippi State history. While that may not be setting the bar high admittedly, this one is just blowing away the record book. The best average per game before this was 430 yards per game. This one is averaging over 500 yards per game. And that's against SEC competition. Even against Arkansas and Alabama they were able to get 450 or 500 yards. They're doing that consistently. And they're on an all-time scoring record pace, past 400 points for the first time ever. Of course they play more games these days. This offense has been efficient and productive and at times explosive.

Spirit: The quarterback is who really makes them go, right?

Murray: Dak is actually still developing. Remember, he's still just a junior. He's not a finished product. He's the best runner-passer combination Dan Mullen has had since he's been here. The record book is his. Even after he finishes his junior season he will own all the meaningful career records, or be in the top three by then. And what he has going for him, and you've seen that in some of the great (Ole Miss) quarterbacks, it's not just his skills, it's not just his rapport with his coach, he's just got that leadership. There are great quarterbacks who maybe don't have that streak of grit in them that would make a team run with him through that proverbial brick wall. Dak has that. And he's still just a first-year true starter.

Spirit: There seems to be a debate concerning these two schools' fan bases that goes like this. Is it better to try to first win the Egg Bowl battle for Mississippi supremacy and then try to shoot for the top of the SEC, or try to be an Alabama or an Auburn or other highly successful program and then worry about the instate rival later. It appears MSU in this era has decided to work from the inside out, starting with beating Ole Miss and then shooting for other top teams in the league.

Murray: (Dan Mullen) did what most coaches do when they walk into a program that has been struggling. You have to focus the fans. You've got to give them something exciting more than just the fact that here's the new coach. He's a guy that had no exposure to this rivalry but knew instantly what button to push with the fans. And it worked. In his case, he was able to back it up. That 2009 (Egg Bowl) game still stands as one of the most unexpected outcomes of my career at Mississippi State, which goes back to the 1970s. I had no clue that game was going to develop the way it did. Neither did anybody else. I remember Coach Mullen saying that was probably the worst practices they had all season, and then they went out and played their best game against a good Rebel team in 2009. Addidas now helps out, and a lot of things are their idea, not State's. Addidas has grabbed onto this wearing a gold theme as a marketing tool. The rivalry is there, but it is not the absolute, overriding, 12-month a year issue that maybe it's made out to be. I'll say this about Mullen, he's been great about keeping the fans fired up about whatever game's coming up. And he keeps his team focused. (The Bulldogs) are going to approach this game like they would an Alabama or like they would a Southern Miss. Because they're good enough and deep enough and talented enough, unlike a couple of years ago, that they can afford to be business-like. That's where you want your program to be. And it's that way for both programs now. If State wins, they can expect, right now it appears, the Orange Bowl, if they don't make the playoffs. And, boy, has the world changed when you're disappointed with that. And for the Rebels, I can't see them falling past the Gator Bowl. Both programs in a lot of ways are where they want to be so that (a loss) in this game won't destroy either season. They're both recruiting well. They've both got solid leadership. They're both financially well off thanks to the SEC Network coming in. I think the best days are still ahead for both programs.

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