Mississippi State: Despite historic season, Bulldogs destined for last-place finish in SEC west


Somebody has to finish last in the SEC West in 2015. Despite the momentum of a historic season, most expect it to be Mississippi State – and for good reason.

Each SEC West head coach earns an annual salary of at least $4 million. For that kind of money, university decision makers expect ten-win seasons and to compete for conference titles and national championships. Under Dan Mullen, the division’s most recent member of the $4 million club, Mississippi State did just that in 2014.

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Unranked in the pre-season, Mississippi State quickly moved all the way up to the top of the polls – the very first No. 1 ranking in school history – following an impressive 6-0 start that included wins over No. 8 LSU, No. 6 Texas A&M and second ranked Auburn. The Bulldogs actually made the quickest ascension from unranked to the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 poll when they needed only five weeks to climb the ladder.

After pushing their record to 9-0, a 25-20 loss to Alabama ended the program’s historic run atop the polls and was the first of three losses in the team’s last four contests. Perhaps even more painful than losing the team’s No. 1 ranking, Mississippi State fell 31-17 to hated rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. State then finished the season with a 49-34 loss to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Still, the Bulldogs recorded the best season in school history. They made tremendous progress on the field, which raised the national profile of the program and built momentum for the future. However, once again, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are expected to finish dead last in the SEC West. And despite the great things the team accomplished in 2014, a seventh-place expectation is justified.

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Sure, there are reasons to be optimistic in Starkville. “We have the best quarterback in the SEC – maybe the nation!”  State fans scream. It’s true that Dak Prescott is a special player. In the first six games of 2014, Prescott compiled 2,089 total yards and 14 touchdown passes, which was a better start than Cam Newton had in 2010 and Tim Tebow in 2007, when both players won their respective Heisman Trophies.

Understandably, Prescott was the Heisman front-runner for much of the season, particularly when the Bulldogs were the nation’s highest ranked team. He finished with a school record 3,449 passing yards and 42 total touchdowns, including 14 scores on the ground, which tied him with Georgia’s Nick Chubb for the SEC lead. No player in Mississippi State history had accumulated more than 3,000 total yards in a single season until the 6-foot-2, 230-pound dual threat signal caller amassed 4,470 last year.

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Prescott is the biggest reason why the Bulldogs led the SEC with 513.8 yards of total offense last year and ranked in the nation’s top 25 in scoring (No. 16 with 36.9 points per game), rushing (No. 21 with 233.1 yards per game) and passing (No. 22 with 280.7 yards per game).

And yes, Prescott has a freak of nature in wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound former basketball player who led the Bulldogs with 47 receptions, 680 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches last season. Fred Ross, who had 30 catches for 489 yards and five scores, also returns – so the cupboard isn’t completely bare in terms of offensive weapons, and the Bulldogs will score plenty of points. However, there are problems lurking.

Nov 1, 2014; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen celebrates with defensive back Will Redmond (2) after Redmond intercepted a pass to seal the win against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Davis Wade Stadium. The Bulldogs defeat the Razorbacks 17-10. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, Prescott and Wilson are the only two starters that return among offensive skill position players from last year’s squad. That means the Bulldogs lost 29.1 percent of their total offensive yards from last season despite Prescott’s gaudy numbers.

The biggest loss is leading rusher Josh Robinson, who ranked third in the league in rushing with 1,203 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground. State will turn to talented backs like Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams as replacements, but neither is likely to be as productive as the “Bowling Ball” was in 2014, mainly because neither is likely to have as many gaping holes to run through as Robinson did.

The Bulldogs had a physical, gifted offensive line in 2014, but the 2015 will be without their three best performers, including All-SEC guard Ben Beckwith. Four-year starting center Dillon Day is also gone, and MSU doesn’t even have a player on the roster that has played one collegiate snap at center. Overall, the graduated trio took 112 career starts with them. The players that remain have started a total of 32 games, making the unit the second least experienced in the SEC.

As for the defense, Mississippi State lost their “quarterback” and most gifted player, middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons and left for the NFL Draft following his junior seasons.

All-SEC defensive end Preston Smith, the team’s leader with nine sacks and a three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Week in 2014, is also off to the NFL. In all, the Bulldogs must replace eight starters on defense – which combined with the four returners on offense makes Mississippi State the least experienced team in the SEC.

“But Dan Mullen and the MSU coaching staff played the backups a ton last year, so they’ve got plenty of experience!” cry many State supporters. True, and talent trumps experience nine times out of 10 – which is also a problem.

Even with highly recruited stud defensive tackle Chris Jones back, compared to the 2014 unit and the rest of the SEC West, Mississippi State isn’t as talented or as deep as they were in 2014 on either side of the football. Over the last four years, only Arkansas has arguably recruited worse than Mississippi State among members of the SEC West. According to 247Sports, the Bulldogs have averaged the No. 10 ranked SEC recruiting class since 2012, and the Hogs are No. 11.

Really, the rankings are so close between Arkansas and Mississippi State, it’s a virtual push in terms of raw talent. However, because the Razorbacks are the third most experienced team in the SEC this season and return 89.1 percent of their offensive production from 2014, including two 1,100-yard rushers and the most physical offensive line in the league, it’s safe to say the Hogs are more talented than MSU this year.

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As good as Mississippi State has been at unearthing diamonds in the rough like the little-recruited Prescott, McKinney and Wilson, and the coaching staff has done a terrific job developing under the radar high schoolers into above average performers, it’s incredibly difficult to sustain such a system of overachievement. Simply put, even $4 Million Man Mullen can’t consistently beat teams that are more talented than his week after week.

Plus, as good as they were on defense last season (the unit allowed just 21.7 points per game, which ranked No. 23 nationally), one of the Bulldogs’ dirty little secrets from 2014 is the fact the defense had major issues, particularly in the secondary. MSU ranked dead last in the SEC and No. 114 in the nation last year in pass defense having allowed 272.8 yards per game through the air. That poor performance dragged the Bulldogs down to No. 12 in the SEC and No. 84 in the country in total defense as they allowed an average of 424.4 yards per contest.

Returning seniors Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond may be one of the best cornerback duos in the SEC, but they both struggled at times and rest of the secondary is very inexperienced and less talented than the group that was gashed at times last year.

And for fans that complain those numbers were inflated by the second-teamers that allowed big yards late in blowout wins – who do you think will be asked to fill the void left by the graduated McKinney, Smith, Kaleb Eulls, Jamerson Love, Justin Cox, Matthew Wells and Christian Holmes? Mullen and company must rely on last year’s backups as well as freshmen that will take time to develop into SEC-level defenders.

Simply, each and every SEC West team is more experienced and more talented than Mississippi State, and the schedule is not nearly as forgiving as it was a year ago.

Finally, the unit lost respected defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to Florida. New DC Manny Diaz, in his second tour of duty in Starkville, will be asked to do more with less in hopes of staying out of the SEC West cellar.

But perhaps even more important than the players Mississippi State will or won’t have at their disposal in 2015 is the competition they will face on the field. The Bulldogs were able to catch rebuilding programs LSU and Texas A&M early in the season and exposed an Auburn defense that had more holes than Swiss cheese – plus they drew the Aggies and Auburn at home. MSU survived Arkansas before the Razorbacks finally got over the SEC win hump and played Vanderbilt in the cross-divisional rotation. In other words, the schedule set up very nicely in 2014.

In 2015, LSU and Texas A&M should both be improved and Auburn’s defense is likely to rebound under new coordinator Will Muschamp – not to mention the Bulldogs must travel to both College Station and the Plains. Also, two-time defending SEC East champions Missouri replace Vandy on the cross-division rotation (on a Thursday night in Columbia, no less).

Furthermore, the Bulldogs must travel to Fayetteville in November to face a resurgent Arkansas squad, in a game that is sandwiched between home dates with Alabama and Ole Miss – both of whom dominated the line of scrimmage against the Bulldogs in 2014 and are likely to do so again this year.

Simply, each and every SEC West team is more experienced and more talented than Mississippi State, and the schedule is not nearly as forgiving as it was a year ago.

Mississippi State had an historic season in 2014 and the 2015 Bulldogs are going to be good too. State will race through an easy non-conference slate and should beat Kentucky, but MSU may be an underdog in the seven games that remain on the schedule.

The Bulldogs are sure to score an upset or two, and a school record sixth consecutive bowl game is likely – but so is a last place finish in the SEC West.

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