Eight wins ring hollow for Mississippi State

Are eight wins enough at Mississippi State?

Obviously not, because it’s hard to find anyone in the Land of Cowbells who feels especially good right now about Mississippi State’s 8-5 finish this season.

That includes coach Dan Mullen, who despite what anybody says, has done a solid job with that program when you consider what had transpired in Starkville prior to his arrival. The Bulldogs, ravaged by NCAA sanctions, managed just one winning season from 2001-08.

Mullen, after taking over in 2009, has guided the Bulldogs to three straight winning seasons.

But that seems like a hollow accomplishment given the way it all unraveled at the end of this season. After starting out 7-0 and climbing to No. 11 in the BCS standings, Mississippi State lost five of its last six games, a collapse that was punctuated by a 34-20 loss to Northwestern on Tuesday in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Mullen didn’t hold back when asked how disappointing it was to lose five of the last six games.

“Excuse my language, but it sucks,” Mullen said. “Nobody likes to lose. Our kids put in … everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It sucks to lose late, to be honest with you.”

Trying to find a silver lining, Mullen pointed out that eight-win seasons were starting to become disappointing at Mississippi State, and he added, “That is the direction you want the program headed in.”

He’s right in theory, but a closer look at who the Bulldogs have beaten and who they haven’t beaten during Mullen’s tenure paints a very different picture.

Mullen is now 7-21 at Mississippi State against teams that finished the season with a winning record. It will be 7-22 if Ole Miss wins its bowl game.

The Bulldogs haven’t beaten an SEC team that finished the season with a winning record since their 10-7 win at Florida in 2010. They’ve now lost 11 straight games to nationally ranked opponents and are just 2-17 against ranked foes under Mullen.

In their four losses to ranked teams this season, they were outscored 147-57 and gave up 34 or more points in all four games.

It’s probably telling that Mullen switched it up and had co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins call the plays in the bowl game. Changes are almost certainly coming. The Bulldogs were already looking for a cornerbacks coach after losing Melvin Smith to Auburn.

It’s also hard to feel good about what the offense did in the final part of the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell threw four interceptions against the Wildcats. One was returned 29 yards for a touchdown to open the game. Another set up the clinching touchdown after Nick VanHoose returned Russell's final pick 39 yards to the Mississippi State 5.

In the end, this will be a season that’s remembered more for how soft the Bulldogs’ schedule was to start the season than how well they performed on the field.

That doesn’t diminish the gains the program has made under Mullen, and it doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is finished climbing.

What it does mean is that eight wins aren’t enough, particularly when the seven wins against FBS competition come against teams that finished the season with a combined 29-56 record.