In the NFL, outside of a core group of players, the rest of the roster must wait for an injury to get significant playing time. There are no easy weeks, and even 21-point second-half leads often don’t feel safe.

Even an SEC schedule presents opportunities for backups to play at an exponential rate relative to the NFL.

Not every coach places a strong emphasis on exploiting those, but Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen did it as well as anyone in the SEC in 2014. The Bulldogs return the fewest number of total starters in the SEC (seven, according to Phil Steele), but Mullen’s strategy will mitigate that concern at least in part.

So, was it intentional, knowing Mississippi State would lose so many vital starters after the ’14 season? Or is it part of Mullen’s general philosophy?

“It’s a little bit of both, depending on depth,” Mullen said in a recent interview with Saturday Down South. “To me, guys earn playing time. We have guys who come out and really work hard and earn playing time. If they come out and perform really well in the game, they’re going to get┬ámore playing time.”

It’s an interesting mindset, considering the ever-increasing agitation among high-profile recruits in the social media era if they arrive on campus only to never see the field in the first few seasons.

Engaging in some amateur, speculative psychology, Mullen’s message to players would seem to incentivize those who more or less are spending the season developing in order to play larger roles in the future. At Mississippi State, those players still can count on playing significant time, especially against lesser non-conference opponents, and will get in some SEC games that aren’t close late if they work hard in practice and perform when given the chance.

Nine different Mississippi State players caught at least 14 passes last season. An additional eight managed single-digit receptions. Even more jaw-dropping: 24 different Bulldogs managed at least one tackle for loss in 2014, while 21 different players broke up at least one pass.

Mullen unloaded his bench early against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama as the team coasted to a 3-0 start. That helped prepare some rotational players, but also kept the starters fresh for a brutal three-game stretch against then-Top 10 teams in LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. (Mississippi State won all three, rising to No. 1 in the country.)

“I think by us doing that, it really helped build the program. It really got a lot of guys experience. And it helps you when you’re going through such a long season,” Mullen told SDS. ?It helped guys to be ready. You keep some of your starters fresh while you’re developing younger guys and giving them a great opportunity to go out there, develop themselves and play.”

If the Bulldogs are able to remain competitive in the SEC West this season, quarterback Dak Prescott will get tons of credit — and add to his trophy case after the season. But if that scenario plays out, Mullen will deserve credit as well for having the foresight to prepare for 2015 when given the opportunity and for finding a way to keep the entire roster engaged and ready.