Mississippi State’s progress report midway through the season might not have been impressive, but a furious comeback turned things around into a final grade the Bulldogs can be proud to bring home.
If effort was the only part of the equation, Mississippi State would have scored much higher. Dan Mullen had never dealt with a more manic quarterback situation in his career: fifth-year senior Tyler Russell was supposed to be his rock under center, but he was injured early; Dak Prescott, an athletic sophomore, looked capable of taking over the offense, but a shoulder stinger cost him time; true freshman Damian Williams played in five games, but he wasn’t really ready for the job. Throw in a lack of experienced playmakers at wide receiver and it’s a wonder the Bulldogs mustered a respectable 27.7 points and 434.4 yards per game. But, as you might have guessed, consistency was the biggest problem for Mullen’s bunch as Mississippi State scored 21 or fewer points six times.
The talk of the preseason was how Mississippi State would struggle replacing NFL cornerbacks Jonathan Banks and Darius Slay. If there was a weak spot on defense, it was thought to be the secondary. And with high-flying Oklahoma State’s offense on tap in Week 1, it looked like it would be a tough ride for the Bulldogs. But it turned out that defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was up to the challenge, starting with an impressive performance against the Cowboys in which his defense gave up only 21 points. By the time the season was over, Mississippi State had the fifth-ranked scoring defense in the SEC. Even without senior safety Jay Hughes, the Bulldogs ranked fifth in the league in passing defense, thanks in no small part to pressure up front from defensive linemen such as Denico Autry and freshman Chris Jones.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Having Jameon Lewis to return punts and kicks was a nice threat, but Mississippi State ultimately never took advantage. In nearly every special-teams category, the Bulldogs were middle of the road or worse. Mississippi State didn’t return a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown all season and only one such punt return gained 20 or more yards. All told, the Bulldogs ranked 60th nationally in yards per kick return. Mississippi State also connected on just 10 of 21 field goal attempts.
There were few schedules more difficult than Mississippi State’s in 2013. All of the Bulldogs’ five losses came against ranked opponents: Oklahoma State, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. Talk about an impressive strength of schedule. But that did little to quell the talk of Mullen being on the hot seat when Mississippi State lost to Alabama at home to drop to 4-6 and in need of two straight wins to become bowl eligible. They came in gritty fashion, but overtime victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss ultimately turned the narrative of the season, casting the Bulldogs as the comeback kids and Mullen as a coach securely headed into his fifth season in Starkville.