The hype and anticipation which greeted Dan Mullen’s arrival as the head coach at Mississippi State carried the desperation of a fan base that longed for a larger moment of significance.
Mullen, upon leaving Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow at Florida, was intent on making a name for himself and establishing that he could build his own empire, his own soaring success story, his own enduring example of excellence… not with Urban’s or Tebow’s help, but through his own sweat and know-how.
For the past few years, that dream of turning Mississippi State into a next-level program fell flat.
Mullen could beat a roster of cream puffs and get seven wins plus a third-tier bowl invite, but he couldn’t go far beyond that. Recall the 2012 season, when his Bulldogs went 7-0 against a bunch of softies and entered the top 25, but then encountered the rough and rugged back end of the schedule and finished 8-5 with a bowl loss. Mississippi State hasn’t come close to the Sugar Bowl, but even the Capital One and Cotton Bowls have gone begging for a program that has had to settle for the Gator Bowl, well down the postseason food chain, in its best seasons under Mullen.
Last year’s team needed the turnover-bearing generosity of erratic Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace just to sneak into a bowl-eligible position at 6-6. Quarterback Dak Prescott showed flashes of quality, but he wasn’t seeing the game fluidly. The Bulldogs had some raw material to work with, but Mullen — entering his sixth season in Starkville — had more than enough time to try to author a culture change in previous years. Why would anyone have trusted him to finally get over the hump this time?
Prescott was lavishly hyped over the offseason in pieces such as this one. There’s nothing wrong with saying that a player could be a breakout star in a given season, and part of the excitement of the summer is found in the quest to identify the fresh faces that will emerge in full color once the delicious tumult of Saturdays returns to our lives. Yet, Mississippi State had been kept down by the best teams in the SEC West. Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, and LSU had all served as formidable obstacles to the Bulldogs over time. Even if Mississippi State was just moderately better, it was hard to imagine anything beyond 9-3 as the team’s ceiling this season.
This was, after all, Mississippi State. This was the stalled coaching career of Dan Mullen. Was Dak Prescott truly ready to emerge from the shadows and take command of the moment, undressing LSU’s defense on a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, where most opponents go to die under the lights? Was one of the more impoverished programs in the SEC ready to feast inside the stadium whose parking lots provide the very best tailgating food in the United States of America?
It all seemed so improbable, even with LSU’s youth and the turnover on its roster.
It all seemed so remote, partly because Les Miles has enjoyed a long-term contract with the proprietors of the black arts, and partly because LSU endured a growing-pains experience in its win over Wisconsin on Aug. 30.
It all seemed to defy the laws of SEC physics, not only because of LSU’s reputation, but due to Mississippi State’s longstanding penchant for crumbling whenever a higher level of stature lay within its grasp.
The Bulldogs and Dan Mullen weren’t ready for their transformative moment in one of college football’s most intimidating road venues, were they?
Here’s the answer to that question raised above:
Mississippi State's 588 yards is the most total yards allowed by a Les Miles LSU team. Previous high was 533 to WVU in 2011. #MSSTvsLSU
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) September 21, 2014
Forget LSU’s late scramble, with 13 points inside the final two minutes and a Hail Mary that was intercepted on the MSU 1. This was a beatdown, a lopsided game in which Mississippi State had outgained LSU by roughly 300 yards before the Bayou Bengals collected over 200 yards in the final quarter. Mississippi State amassed a 34-10 lead in this game, and while it did so by occasionally running around the Tigers, the Bulldogs and Mr. Prescott frequently moved the ball by running through the teeth of LSU’s defense.
Indeed, the most striking aspect of this game is that Mississippi State and Prescott won it without much of any subtlety. This was old-fashioned power overwhelming an inferior opponent, plain speed outpacing a slower foe. The win itself carried its own substantial degree of significance, but MSU’s ability to win with such authoritative simplicity is what could very well resonate beyond the clamor of this isolated week in a long college football season.
It wasn’t just about Prescott, either, as magnificent as he turned out to be. While Prescott offered shades of Cam Newton at times (a poor man’s version, yes, but a smaller-scale version of Newton’s power and speed did come to mind), Josh Robinson (pictured below) was also a steamroller against LSU’s defense, to the tune of 197 rushing yards.
Had Mississippi State backed into an ugly 16-13 win pockmarked with Keystone Cops moments, this win wouldn’t feel like an event which could turn the future upside-down… in Starkville, and in the rest of the SEC West.
However, since the Bulldogs were able to punch LSU in the mouth and cause a Red Stick crowd to file out of its grand stadium well before the final gun, the magnitude of the occasion feels so much larger.
Mississippi State should face stiffer tests from Texas A&M and Auburn not too long from now. Yet, whacking LSU in Death Valley at night? That’s no small feat, and the Bulldogs attained it in no small way. Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott might have been tiny figures in college football before this contest, but now they stand very tall, and will participate in a few more spotlight games in the coming weeks.
If you were skeptical of Mississippi State and its head coach heading into this game, you have to admit that the Bulldogs have bought themselves several weeks, giving themselves a chance to become the top-tier program they always hoped they could be… but which never seemed to be likely to materialize.
Tonight offers the possibility that such a metamorphosis could happen — soon — in a college town where the difference between a 2013 team and a 2014 team is… well… stark.