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VOL. 131 | NO. 169 | Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It’s Life After Dak for Mississippi State

By Don Wade

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In seven seasons at Mississippi State, head coach Dan Mullen has won 55 games and reeled off six straight bowl appearances. So, when Mullen addresses the state of the program there is much motivation to look at the big picture.

Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is shooting for a seventh straight bowl trip, but the Bulldogs will be without star quarterback Dak Prescott, who graduated to the NFL.

(Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

“We’re coming off consecutive nine-win seasons, which never happened before,” Mullen said. “We had three nine-win seasons in the last six years. So when you look at that, the changing of expectations … we’ve been able to do that. Our players have bought in, building a culture of winning.”

A notable achievement in any Power 5 conference, but especially so in the SEC West Division. But even after a 9-4 season, 4-4 in the SEC, and that ended with a romp over North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl, expectations outside the program have fallen dramatically.

The reason: Dak Prescott, probably the best player in school history, is now busy making a good impression as Tony Romo’s backup quarterback in Dallas.

Prescott passed for 3,793 yards as a senior and rushed for 588 yards, which means the Bulldogs not only lost their leading passer but their leading rusher. He also was responsible for 39 touchdowns.

As Mississippi State started looking toward the season, wide receiver Fred Ross (88 catches for 1,077 yards) spoke about the loss as diplomatically as he could: “It has definitely been different without Dak.”

In a word, worse.

That’s not to pile on any of his potential successors. There may be a fine quarterback in the group. But that’s what it is right now, a group of unknowns. Nick Fitzgerald, Nick Tiano and Damian Williams have been splitting first-team reps. Wyatt Roberts, of East Mississippi Community College, also has joined the fray.

“They all saw how Dak used to work and they all got the blueprint of how to do it,” Ross said.

A hopeful thought, that, but the Bulldogs will have to be very good on defense and develop more of a running game no matter who wins the QB job. Senior Brandon Holloway is the leading returning rusher with 413 yards last season.

On defense, Mullen will have his third coordinator in as many years: Former USC assistant and NFL linebacker Peter Sirmon. He replaces Manny Diaz, who left Starkville to become defensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes.

“Playing defense doesn’t change,” said senior defensive end A.J. Jefferson (13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks). “Every defensive coordinator we’ve had come here might dress it up a different way, but it’s all the same thing. They want us to be juiced and have energy and just go out there and play – to love what we’re doing and have fun doing it.”

Among other key players on the defense: 6-foot-5, 325-pound tackle Nick James, who is a tough draw for any offensive lineman; linebacker Richie Brown (109 tackles); and safety Brandon Bryant, who shined as a freshman and has the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.24 seconds) on the team.

The Bulldogs open with a Sept. 3 home game vs. South Alabama and then South Carolina comes to Starkville on Sept. 10. That gives Mullen a little time to find his quarterback. But the Bulldogs play at No. 5 LSU on Sept. 17.

“Hopefully, at the end of the year,” Mullen said, “we’re one of those teams that can say we thought quarterback play might not be great ,but it was a lot better than everybody thought it was (going to be).”

If it is, Mullen & Co. can get that seventh straight winning season. Also worth noting: Several prognosticators have the Bulldogs penciled in for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

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