Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC PREVIEW MISSISSIPPI STATE:
Bulldogs, All-SEC QB snarl at last-place pick
The return of all-conference quarterback Dak Prescott (15) and the experience of other returnees should be enough to overcome having only eight returning starters, Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen said.
The ninth in a series of articles previewing SEC football programs
HOOVER, Ala. -- Mississippi State, the team ranked No. 1 for three weeks late last season in the new College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings, was projected to finish last in its own division this fall at SEC media days.
Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen has led the Bulldogs to bowl games the past five seasons after going 5-7 in 2009, his first season in Starkville, and said he's not too put off by the media's selections.
Sept. 5;at Southern Miss;9 p.m. (FS1)
*Sept. 12;LSU;8:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 19;NW (La.) State;3 p.m. (SECN)
*Sept 26;at Auburn;TBA
*Oct. 3;at Texas A&M;TBA
Oct. 17;Louisiana Tech;TBA
*Nov. 5;at Missouri;8 P.M. (ESPN)
*Nov. 21;at Arkansas;TBA
*Nov. 28;Ole Miss;TBA
Mississippi State glance
LAST SEASON 10-3, 6-2 (2nd) in SEC West
COACH Dan Mullen (46-31 in 7th year at Mississippi State, overall)
RETURNING STARTERS (8): Offense 4, Defense 4, Specialty 2
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS QB Dak Prescott, LB Beniquez Brown, CB Taveze Calhoun, DL Chris Jones, CB Will Redmond, WR De’Runnya Wilson
SEC TITLE SCENARIO Dak Prescott would need to play even better and shoulder an even greater load, as the Bulldogs must replace most of their offensive line and tailback Josh Robinson. The defense also must overcome a load of key personnel losses, including end Preston Smith and linebacker Bernardrick McKinney to match last year’s results.
"When we get rolling again, I think people will realize we'll be a better football team than they're predicting," Mullen said on The Jim Rome radio show after the media projections came out. "I don't mind it. ... We play better with a chip on our shoulder. By being picked last, it allows us to keep that chip on our shoulder, and I think it will really motivate guys."
Defensive end Ryan Brown vouched for the motivational aspect of being picked low.
"I like it that way, because I feel as if I'd rather be underrated than overrated," Brown said. "I like being a Bulldog, and better than that, an underdog to prove ourselves and have that motivation."
Mullen can attest that fortunes can change fast in the SEC West.
The Bulldogs had not finished better than 4-4 in SEC play since 1999 before opening 9-0, with a 5-0 start in the SEC, last season. Mississippi State was the first No. 1 in the CFP rankings late last October and held the spot until a 25-20 loss at eventual SEC champion Alabama on Nov. 15.
"We had a historic year, really, for Mississippi State last year," Mullen said, pointing out there should be fewer snickers around the country now when he talks about winning championships in Starkville, Miss..
Senior quarterback Dak Prescott said the Bulldogs learned from their 1-3 finish to their season. Mississippi State beat Vanderbilt 51-0 after the loss to Alabama, but then lost their regular-season finale 31-17 at Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and fell 49-34 to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
"It gets harder at the end of the year," Prescott said. "I was asked was it harder to get to No. 1 or stay at No. 1 ... and it's definitely to stay. You go from hunting to being the hunted. So we we're just getting everybody's best shot."
Prescott, the SEC's most accomplished returning quarterback, passed for 3,449 yards, rushed for 986 yards and accounted for 41 touchdowns. But Prescott, a senior, is one of eight returning starters for Mississippi State, the lowest total in the conference, which played into the media's last-place pick for the Bulldogs.
"I don't know what goes into the rankings," cornerback Taveze Calhoun said. "We're just going to control the things we can control. We're used to winning now."
The Bulldogs had personnel losses all over the field, but most significantly at tailback, where Ashton Shumpert will try to duplicate Josh Robinson's success, and on the offensive front, which lost Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Clausell.
"We lost three guys, but I wouldn't hesitate to say the guys we've got this year are more talented," Prescott said of the offensive line. "They're more talented, they've got the right attitude and they know what needs to be done for us to get back where we were."
Mullen said the returning starters statistic for his team is slightly misleading.
"We have 14 players returning that have started a game in their career," he said. "We have 52 guys on our roster that we've charted as having significant experience, game experience at critical moments in games.
"So even though I know a lot of people think we're going to be a young football team ... the fact we rotate and guys have been on the stage, they've been in the moments, they're going to be ready for this season."
Prescott, who finished eighth in Heisman Trophy balloting, gives Mississippi State a commodity as a veteran returning quarterback, that few SEC teams can match this season.
"It's huge," Calhoun said. "Dak is a proven leader and everybody on the team trusts him and everybody follows him."
Said Mullen, "It certainly helps having a fifth-year senior quarterback to lead the way."
Mullen also welcomed back Manny Diaz for his second stint at defensive coordinator. Diaz led the Bulldogs to No. 21 in scoring defense in 2010 before spending the past four years at Texas and Louisiana Tech.
"I think we've both grown a lot over the last couple years that we've been apart," Mullen said. "Manny knows what my expectations are going to be of him and of our defense, and he knows what type of defense I want to see."
Mullen has been mentioned as a possible candidate at bigger schools in recent seasons, but he's remained firm in Starkville.
"When you look at what we have here at Mississippi State, I'm not anxious to go jump to what a lot of people would think the grass is greener," Mullen said on Rome's CBS radio program. "There's a great sense of community. People have accepted me with open arms. Hopefully I can return that and give people a championship."
Mullen spoke confidently before media days when he was a guest on the Paul Finebaum Show, which airs on the SEC Network.
"Since I've been here, I've talked about we're going to build a championship program. We're going to win a championship here at Mississippi State," he said. "I don't know when, but we will. It might be this year for us."
Sports on 07/22/2015
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