Mississippi State appeared to be headed for a sub-.500 season in mid-November 2013, but back-to-back overtime wins, including a 17-10 Egg Bowl victory over intrastate rival Ole Miss, sent the Bulldogs to a bowl game for the fourth straight season.
All they did in that bowl game is dispatch Rice 44-7 in the Liberty Bowl.
With 16 starters returning, including quarterback Dak Prescott—who took the job over from Tyler Russell last season when Russell was injured—they could be set up for a breakout season in 2014.
What does head coach Dan Mullen think of his team as spring practice closes? Barrett Sallee caught up with the sixth-year head coach of the Bulldogs to get an update on the state of the program.
Bleacher Report: Your quarterback, junior Dak Prescott, is getting a little bit of Heisman Trophy love. How good can he be and how important is it for you to have a full offseason as the unquestioned starting quarterback?
Dan Mullen: It is important, but I don't know how important. He started a couple games for us because of injuries last year. I had a guy who won the Heisman in his first year as a starter when Tim Tebow won it [in 2007] at Florida. Dak is a guy who has a lot of work to do, and he is a great worker. He doesn't get too caught up in the hype or anything like that. He's competing as if he's trying to win the starting job, which is always good. You want to have quarterback competitions and guys pushing for playing time.
The biggest thing with him is work ethic. He's always trying to get himself better, whether it be how fast he's making his reads and his decision-making when things break down. It's easy to make the right reads, but how good are you when things get a little funky? He's good at those things.
B/R: You've got a lot of talented running backs coming in, most notably of which is Josh Robinson, who looked good in limited snaps last year. What do you expect from him and how important was some of the extended playing time last year for his development?
DM: We like to have a lot of tailbacks, and we always try to rotate guys. He got a lot of reps last year, and really the last couple of years, he's gotten more and more. He's going to be more the "A" position for us this year rather than the "B" back, and he's done a really great job. He has breakaway speed, which he's shown in games last year, as well as a physicality where he can drop his pads and run in between the tackles. You always want guys to stay healthy, and if he stays healthy, he has a chance to be a really good all-around back.
B/R: Jameon Lewis (64 rec., 923 yards, 5 TDs) being the leading returning receiver in the SEC might be a bit surprising to some folks. Is he the best receiver who not many people have heard of?
DM: Sure, I guess. I mean, we know a lot about him here. He set a lot of school records last year. He's an explosive guy. He's done a really good job at working at becoming an all-around player. You know, the techniques, the fundamentals and everything it takes to become that. Instead of being a great athlete—you know, being the great high school quarterback that he was—learning the receiver position and the ins and outs of that, I think he's done a great job developing year to year. He had his first time as a starter last year and really took advantage of that and had a great season.
B/R: Who else has impressed you this spring at wide receiver?
DM: We've had a bunch. Robert Johnson is coming into his senior season and he's had a really good spring. De'Runnya Wilson has really gotten to learn a little bit more about the game at the receiver position. I expect some things out of him. Fred Ross is a guy as a true freshman played for us last year a little bit. Now with another guy like De'Runnya who has the opportunity to learn what's going on rather than scrambling and getting caught up and all the adjustments those guys go through to really learn has had a really good spring.
B/R: Defensively, Mississippi State looked pretty solid in several games last season. A lot of those impact players on that side of the ball are coming back. How important is having that experience in your back pocket as you build that depth you need in the SEC West?
DM: Coming into last year, we had a very, very young defense. They got better every game as the year went on and were really peaking towards the end of the year. You look at that crew, 19 of the 22 on our two-deep are back; as well a guy like [defensive back] Jay Hughes, who missed the entire season with an injury—and he was a starter too. For us, the depth is really important because we want to rotate in and out. I love rotating guys. I love looking at the stats at the end of the game and the snaps played stat never hits 40 for any defensive player. If that happens, then those guys will be playing with the passion and the effort that we expect them to play with.
B/R: Four straight bowls for Mississippi State and you've still had to deal with doubters. And I'll be forthcoming, one of those was me and you proved me wrong. You've been on record saying that it's hard to take that next step in the SEC West because it's not just a regular step, it's a really big step. What do you have to do to make that step?
DM: Here's the thing, we're in position to do that. Last year, I give our staff a lot of credit, I think it was the best coaching job we've done since we've been here. We had almost 120 games missed by starters due to injuries last year. On top of that, I think we played, statistically speaking, one of the top three or five hardest schedules in the country. I think we were the only team in the top five hardest schedules in the country to make a bowl game—and we won the bowl game. For all of the injuries we had, to make it and win that bowl game and win four out of five Egg Bowls—which is huge here—is pretty special.
That next step, if you're going to compete for a title, you have to be a consistent program. We've created expectations. When I first got here, the expectation was to maybe go to a bowl game. That's not a good enough expectation for me. I don't like that expectation of "hey, let's just have a winning season" and call that good enough. We want to compete for championships.
Certainly within that program that expectation has been changed. Outside the program, doing something that's never been done in over 100 years of this program still puts you on the "hot seat," that's a good thing to me. Because that means that expectations have changed. People look at our program and expect us to win a championship.
The difference in the SEC West is that, in the last five seasons, six SEC West teams have competed for the national championship. A lot of times, the next step is "hey, we've built a program as a consistent winner; now let's go win a conference championship." In the SEC West, you skip that step. A conference championship is also a national championship here. And that's just in the West, never mind the Florida run before that. Our next step is to play for a national championship, because that's where it's been if you win the SEC West.
Obviously, with the new College Football Playoff, that can change. But those are our sights. Those are expectations for guys within this program to play for the SEC title and I guess at that point the national championship.
B/R: What did you think of the BCS and do you like the idea of a four-team playoff?
DM: I don't know. Hard to say because we have to see it play out first. Besides the 2004 season, I think the BCS got it right. I was on the bad end of it that year with the University of Utah. I thought we could have beat anybody in the country with that team, and I'm sure Auburn has a lot of claims to it as well that year and they didn't get an opportunity.
If you wanted to do it perfect, I guess that year you should have had a four-team playoff. Other years, you may not have needed it. Maybe one year one team gets a berth and two others do a one-game playoff while one team waits for the winner.
It seems to me [the BCS] kind of got it right most years. I like the old way. I love going to your pre-slotted bowl games and hey, if there are two national champions, then there are two national champions. I don't know if there's an exact way to do it.
Look at basketball. There's a No. 7 and a No. 8 seed in the Final Four. Essentially, then, the regular season meant nothing to those teams. All that matters is that you get in the tournament.
The last time there were co-national champions in 2003, do both sets of kids consider themselves national champions? That's an unbelievable experience, isn't it? That's educational. That's motivational for young people. What a great opportunity for student-athletes. Instead of just 85, 170 got to call themselves national champions. What a great educational experience for those young people.
B/R: Last year's ending to the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss was riveting, with Dak coming off the bench, sending it to overtime and then you guys winning after recovering a fumble on the game's final play. How big was that for your program, and how much does that come up when you're out on the road in Mississippi?
DM: In this state, it's 24/7/365. That's the game that matters. Winning that game is everything. It sounds maybe crazy, but here in the state of Mississippi, that's what people talk about. Year-round, that game will be talked about nonstop. I haven't heard many people talk about our bowl win, but they all talk about the Egg Bowl because it's a neighbor against neighbor game. Everywhere you turn, you're either one school or the other. That lasts the whole year.
B/R: Do you have any thoughts on the effort by Northwestern's players to unionize, and what are your general thoughts on player compensation?
DM: I love player compensation. I don't consider myself a super smart person, but I do understand that most people don't pay attention to the tax implications. I can tell you this, the IRS is not going to not get their share—especially with April 15 coming up on us. Maybe I'm off on this, but if our players are going to have to pay tax on the value of their scholarship, which could be the case if you're an employee, I don't think a lot of people would be into that.
How many wins will Mississippi State have in 2014?
But I do think that, however way possible, players should get a little bit more spending money to put in their pocket. There are methods out there. If you want to give them minimum wage like any other job, that's fine. I'm not sure how you do it. I think the cost of attendance is the one that people come up with who are smarter than me, and they understand the intricacies of the tax code.
I mean, you can't pay the players for playing because they have to then file income tax in every state in which a game is played like the NFL does. You're looking at an IRS nightmare for these players; now they're going to have to go hire accountants and they'll end up losing money.
These guys do have a lot of value built in in addition to the scholarship. You know, there's tutoring, they get exposure not just as a football player, but when they go on a job interview they have job recognition that "Johnny Averageman" doesn't.
I am great for players having a voice and a say, and I'd love to compensate them for the work they put in. However we can do it, allow them to do it. I'm into all of that. There are a lot of smart people working on it, and I hope they come up with some good answers that better improve the lives of these young men. But I don't know if some of the things we've seen are the best ways to do it.
B/R: Are you relieved that we don't have to talk about the 10-second rule for the next 10 or 11 months?
DM: The injuries and all that, I don't know about all that. Everyone's looking to get an advantage. The thing I liked about the 10-second rule was consistency. In the SEC, we have great officials in this league. Not that they don't make mistakes, but as a coach, you want consistency. If they say they're going to call it tight, then they're going to call it tight the whole game. If they're going to call it loose, they're going to call it loose the whole game. As long as it's consistent, I'm great.
The one thing that a 10-second rule would have done would be to give you a consistent snap point for the ball. When you go to another league's officials, all of the sudden they spot things differently. I never had a substitution issue with tempo offenses that we played last year. I never thought it was an injury or health issue, to be honest with you. There are much bigger health issues in the game than snapping the ball within 10 seconds.
I do think it was going in the right direction. Let's look at all the snaps that took place within 10 seconds, and let's review those. Were there any deception issues? Was the umpire out of the way? I'm an offensive coach and I think [tempo] is a neat deal sometimes, but as a head coach, here's the umpire putting the ball down and turning his back to the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped and he's actually in the way blocking either your "Mike" linebacker or your 3-technique [defensive lineman] while the ball is being snapped. I never saw that happen with us in the SEC, but I do think [the 10-second rule] would lead to consistency from league to league. That part of it, to me, was interesting.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand and all stats were courtesy of CFBStats.com.