Head coach Dan Mullen might finally take Mississippi State to the next level in 2014. He certainly has the quarterback to compete for the Bulldogs' first SEC West title since 1998.
Sophomore Dak Prescott showed why he'll go into next season as one of the more intriguing quarterbacks in the SEC. In a 44-7 win over Rice in the Liberty Bowl, the sophomore passed for 283 yards, ran for another 78 and had five total touchdowns.
Beyond the numbers, Prescott looked confident and in control of the offense. He had help from the running game, which picked up significantly in the second half after averaging less than four yards a carry in the first, and from his offensive line as well.
But even when Prescott was pressured, he was able to evade while keeping his eyes downfield. He looks like a real playmaker.
It's easy to knock Rice, and the Owls probably aren't a 10-win team outside Conference USA, but they're no slouch of an opponent, either. This is a Rice team that gave Texas A&M fits to start the season and hammered Marshall in the C-USA championship game.
How many games will Mississippi State win in 2014?
Rice's defense isn't anything to write home about, but ranking 33rd in scoring defense (NCAA) and 50th overall in defense in F/+ rankings isn't terrible either. For Mississippi State's offense to blow through the Owls after the long layoff is worthy of at least some praise. Not to mention motivation can sometimes be a factor in bowl games.
The Bulldogs, led by Prescott, look motivated to make some noise in '14 as well. Prescott was thrown into the fire early and often while Tyler Russell, who started the season at quarterback, missed what amounted to roughly six or seven games with various injuries.
The potential was always there for Prescott—he led the team with 751 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns in addition to his 1,657 yards passing—but he had some growing pains, too. He struggled mightily in losses to LSU and South Carolina, throwing four interceptions and zero touchdowns. He also played while grieving when he tragically lost his mother to cancer in November.
But with a full offseason to develop, Prescott can enter next year with a leg up on other SEC West teams. The SEC was a noted quarterback conference in 2013, something that hasn't always been said about it in recent years. But Alabama's AJ McCarron, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and likely Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel will be gone—and that's just in the West Division.
ESPN's Edward Aschoff is already fond of Prescott for next year:
This Prescott I'm seeing is a top 5 guy RT @Rock_of_Alpha: where do you rank Prescott with the returning qb's in the SEC?— Edward Aschoff (@AschoffESPN) December 31, 2013
Auburn's Nick Marshall and Ole Miss' Bo Wallace return, but Prescott is physically gifted with a ton of upside. If he cuts down on the mistakes and plays more like he did against Rice, Prescott's ceiling will be unbelievably high.
Keep in mind that Mississippi State also has a receiving group that, if it stays intact, can be special next year. The passing game wasn't great in '13—Jameon Lewis led the way with 703 yards and five receiving touchdowns—but the Bulldogs have the potential to put up a ton of points with some more time to come together.
Bowl season can be a goodbye party for some teams. For Mississippi State, it was an exciting reminder of what's coming back.