Mississippi State is the second program to crack the Top 10 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.
Final SEC Rankings of 2013:
Enjoy the debate.
9. Mississippi State (7-6, 3-5)
You can call it a season-saver, the Bulldogs’ Egg Bowl win over in-state rival Ole Miss. The gutsy win led by Dak Prescott propelled MSU to an emphatic bowl blowout of Rice and pumped life into a program that was teetering on the edge behind coach Dan Mullen.
On-field performance: B-; Three straight wins avoid catastrophe
At 4-6 following a two-touchdown loss to to-ranked Alabama on Nov. 16, it appeared that perhaps Mullen’s time in Starkville could be nearing the end of its journey this season. It was the Bulldogs’ fifth loss of the season in five tries to ranked teams and further proved a lack of progress in the West against teams not named Ole Miss.
State was stagnant until quarterback play over the final three contests triggered success and a sense of satisfaction. Tyler Russell helped the Bulldogs to an overtime win at Arkansas before Prescott’s performance off the bench shocked Ole Miss and steamrolled 10-win Rice.
All-league caliber tailback LaDarius Perkins never got on track in his final campaign without a 100-yard game in 12 starts, but sophomore Josh Robinson made the most of his brief opportunities and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. A wrecking ball at 5-9, 225 pounds, Robinson becomes the featured back this fall.
Expectations: B-; 2014 is defining year for Bulldogs
Prescott’s dual-threat magic provides optimism at Mississippi State for Mullen’s sixth season, one that will define whether or not the Bulldogs can ever become a legitimate contender in the SEC under the former Florida offensive coordinator. MSU has lost 15 consecutive games to ranked teams dating back to the 2010 season, a stretch filled with missed opportunities and embarrassing performances against teams that didn’t have a substantial talent gap.
Early 2014 Heisman odds have Prescott 50/1 which seems like a long shot but is newsworthy for a program that hasn’t had that kind of preseason hype for an individual player in years.
Coaching: B-; Mullen’s still standing
Despite the SEC’s fourth-best defense under ‘Minister of Mayhem’ assistant Geoff Collins and an impressive plus-7 turnover margin, the Bulldogs won just seven games last fall — one game behind 2012′s finish.
Point blank, Miss. St. underachieved and that ultimately falls on the head coach. It’s time the Bulldogs start seeing results and it has been 14 years since the program finished above .500 in league play, impressing college football with a 10-2 record and No. 12 final ranking under Jackie Sherrill. Can Mullen get MSU back to that point? He says it’s possible but time’s running out and next season, led by a standout quarterback, could be his best chance. The Bulldogs return an SEC-high 17 starters including eight off of Collins’ talented defense.
Recruiting: C; Class just outside the Top 30 could be sleeper
It’s not what MSU had in mind, but an average incoming class by SEC standards could pay off in a couple of years. Early enrollee Jocquell Johnson has tremendous size for a freshman tackle at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds and the JUCO transfer’s prowess in spread offenses benefits the Bulldogs’ balanced attack.
RELATED: MSU’s National Signing Day recap
Pro-style quarterback Nick Fitzgerald from Richmond Hill, Ga. took his first practice snaps in December during Liberty Bowl prep and is already adjusting well to life as a college quarterback in Starkville. Hand-picked by Mullen as the passer of the future, Fitzgerald could see second-team duties as early as this fall with the Bulldogs. Coaches rave about his arm strength and he’s already developed relationships with several Miss. St. wide receivers.
Program momentum: B; Returning starters provide lofty expectations
It’s important to know Mississippi State isn’t satisfied coming off a 7-6 season. The Bulldogs feel they deserve mention among the elite and glancing at the 2014 schedule, will certainly get their shot at proving doubters wrong. MSU avoids the power from the East in exchange for Kentucky and a rebuilding Vanderbilt and gets Texas A&M, Auburn and Arkansas at home. Should State open with three straight victories as a favorite, a Sept. 20 meeting at LSU will feature two ranked teams and decide the early leader in what promises to be a wild, wild West.
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