Preview 2017: Can Mississippi State Get Out Of Comfort Zone?
After years of going bowling and finding a nice niche, can Mississippi State do more?
Mississippi State has settled into a comfortable spot under head coach Dan Mullen. Considering the turmoil in the rest of the SEC West during Alabama’s reign of dominance, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – to a point.
Comfort can’t lead to complacency, and while that doesn’t appear to be happening, this is the year when Mullen could use a big campaign to show that it really might be possible to bust out.
Helped by a four-year contract extension and a little bit of stability, Mullen and MSU now have a window here the rest of the SEC West – other than Alabama – doesn’t.
LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M are expected to win SEC titles and be in the mix for national championships. They haven’t done much of either in the College Football Playoff era, meaning the end of the Les Miles run and keeping Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin on permanent hot seats.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss has a whole slew of issues, and Arkansas just can’t seem to get going under Bret Bielema.
And then there’s Mississippi State’s place in the world.
Of course there are expectations – you don’t hire four new assistants to go along with the two others who came aboard last year unless the pressure is always on – but it’s not the same as it is at the other schools in the division.
The Bulldogs are getting to a bowl game every year under Mullen – even if it was on a technicality last season – going 4-2 in the post-season with a 61-42 record overall under his watch.
He’s not doing it with the same talent most of the other SEC Westers have, but he’s got his formulas, and he’s had enough success to get the vote-of-confidence extension coming off a losing season, partially because other schools would love to have him.
By comparison, you think Sumlin, Bielema and/or Malzahn will be around next year if they don’t finish with a winning season? How about Ed Oregon? At the very least, they sure as shoot won’t get a contract boost.
But with the extra security needs to come more production. No one’s going to think MSU can take the West, but going into the ninth year of the Mullen regime, isn’t it time to come close again, like it did in 2014?
Unreasonable expectations are the norm for the conference, but this year, it’s not asking a lot for a shot at an if-everything-breaks-right run at a No. 2 spot in the division for the second time in four years.
15 starters are back, starting with the best all-around returning college – not pro prospect – quarterback in the SEC, Nick Fitzgerald. He needs more weapons to throw to, the deep group of running backs have to be more involved, and the line needs some tinkering, but after averaging 440 yards per game on the year, and scoring 35 points or more in four of the last five regular season games, the attack should be fantastic.
New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has a ton of work to do on a D that got ripped up way too often, but the Bulldogs have more depth and talent now than they’ve had in a while. The woeful secondary should be far, far better, the linebacking corps has playmakers, and the D line should be terrific around Jeffery Simmons.
LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss have to come to Starkville, the non-conference schedule isn’t that bad – Charleston Southern, at Louisiana Tech, BYU, UMass – and missing Florida and Tennessee from the East is a plus.
A bowl game – with a winning season this time – has to be a given, and actually winning some of those games against the SEC West big boys is a must for a program that’s due to go from having decent success to becoming a real, live player.
This year, with this team, go ahead and demand that Mississippi State make things more uncomfortable for everyone else.