Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. The "Settling for mediocrity!" stage
It happens to every successful coach at some point. Hell, it probably happened to Nick Saban when Alabama was only going 10-3 in 2010. You raise the bar for a given program higher than it has been for a while, but people get a little bit impatient when you fail to continue raising it. You could be a couple of 7-6 seasons away from full-fledged Glen Mason Territory.
Back in my blogger infancy, i coined a term called Glen Mason Territory to describe when a coach achieves at a higher-than-normal level at a given school (probably a second-tier BCS program that hadn't won in a while before he showed up) but cannot ever break through to the next level; he keeps making bowl games and winning, say, 6-8 games a year, but fans begin to get impatient. The crazies begin to start yelling things like "settling for mediocrity!" on talk radio and message boards, season ticket sales begin to fade, and even the rational fans in the base (the SB Nation readers, naturally) begin to start wondering if a change is needed.
Now, Dan Mullen is not there yet, not by any stretch of the imagination.
The fifth-year Mississippi State head coach inherited a hot mess of a program from Sylvester Croom (on offense, at least), surged to 9-4, finished 15th in the AP Poll in 2010 (30th in the F/+ rankings), and ended the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan with a 52-14 massacre of the Wolverines in the Gator Bowl. The Bulldogs began the next season ranked 20th and got as high as 16th in September but finished just 7-6 (thanks in part to a schedule that featured built-in wins over Memphis, UAB, UT-Martin, and Ole Miss) and fell to 49th in the F/+ rankings. In 2012, after a schedule-aided 7-0 start -- the wins: Jackson State, the worst Auburn team in decades, Troy (barely), South Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Middle Tennessee -- the Bulldogs rose to 13th in the polls despite not actually being very good. And then reality struck: MSU lost five of six and not only finished 8-5 but ranked just 62nd in F/+, 12th in the conference.
In terms of location (Starkville is lovely and fun, but it's small and in the middle of nowhere, even compared to other middle-of-nowhere SEC towns), history (MSU is the only program in its division to not own a national title), the size of the fanbase, etc., this proud program faces a lot of adversity in comparison to its SEC West rivals.
In the last 108 years, the Bulldogs have won eight games or more in a season just 17 times. So the fact that Mullen has pulled off that feat twice in three years means something. But don't tell me that local radio and old-school, local letters-to-the-editor haven't featured the phrase "settling for mediocrity" in recent months. Hell, I heard it in Oklahoma City in 1999 regarding Bob Stoops and Oklahoma, 12 months before he won a national title. You know State fans are probably getting a little bit impatient with the backslide in quality, whether they should or not. It doesn't take long.
In 2013, Mississippi State won't be done any favors by the schedule. There is still cake on the schedule (Alcorn State, Troy, Kentucky, and no, I'm not including Bowling Green, because I think the Falcons will actually be pretty damn good this year), but by the first week in October, the Bulldogs will have already faced two potential Top 10 teams in Oklahoma State and LSU.
Will this experienced squad be ready for the challenge?
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 62|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Jackson State||56-9||W||25.6 - 30.5||L|
|8-Sep||Auburn||28-10||W||31.0 - 16.5||W|
|15-Sep||at Troy||30-24||W||30.5 - 32.7||L|
|22-Sep||South Alabama||30-10||W||29.6 - 29.6||W|
|6-Oct||at Kentucky||27-14||W||28.2 - 19.1||W|
|13-Oct||Tennessee||41-31||W||27.4 - 27.5||L|
|20-Oct||Middle Tennessee||45-3||W||38.6 - 14.8||W|
|27-Oct||at Alabama||7-38||L||37.0 - 28.9||W|
|3-Nov||Texas A&M||13-38||L||32.9 - 31.8||W|
|10-Nov||at LSU||17-37||L||41.8 - 32.6||W|
|17-Nov||Arkansas||45-14||W||39.3 - 24.0||W|
|24-Nov||at Ole Miss||24-41||L||24.1 - 34.4||L|
|1-Jan||vs. Northwestern||20-34||L||24.2 - 21.2||W|
|Points Per Game||29.5||60||23.3||34|
|Adj. Points Per Game||31.6||41||26.4||49|
2. Getting better, but not better enough
A quick refresher: the goal of Adj. Score is to tell you how a team might have performed in a given week versus a perfectly average team with a perfectly average number of breaks and bounces. If you play well against a good team and lose, you'll probably get an "Adjusted Win." If you play poorly against a bad team and win, you'll probably get an "Adjusted Loss."
It is important to mention this because it's quite possible that Mississippi State was a much better team while losing games down the stretch than it was while starting undefeated.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): MSU 28.7, Opponent 26.0 (plus-2.7)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 7 games): MSU 34.0, Opponent 26.8 (plus-7.2)
Mississippi State improved a bit, but not enough to account for a backloaded schedule that featured teams with double-digit wins in the last six games.
Despite the aesthetic value (or lack thereof), the fact that MSU did improve late is a good sign heading into 2013; the Bulldogs were inexperienced in basically every unit other than the receiving corps and secondary. Those two units took some hits, but MSU will put a pretty experienced, veteran squad on the field this fall.
|Q1 Rk||70||1st Down Rk||28|
|Q2 Rk||36||2nd Down Rk||32|
|Q3 Rk||67||3rd Down Rk||93|
3. For an offensive guy…
...Mullen has been slow to get MSU up to speed on the offensive end. He inherited a unit that ranked 105th in Off. F/+ in 2008 and has improved things, but only so much. MSU improved 61st in 2009 but has ranked only 68th, 80th, and 72nd in the last three years.
Mullen clearly established his tactical bona fides through the years under Urban Meyer, but he hasn't quite been able to put the right pieces in place in Starkville. He needs a mobile quarterback, and while Tyler Russell isn't immobile, he gains his rushing yards (on about two carries per game) via the element of surprise. Mullen needs an explosive running back who can scare the defense into over-compensating and open up the quarterback keeper on the zone read; and while LaDarius Perkins is steady and durable, he's not very explosive. Mullen needs a dynamic receiving corps of players who can operate well in space and turn every short pass into a game-breaking-punt-return type of situation; and while he had a game breaker in Chad Bumphis last year, Bumphis is gone now. Russell's top four targets are all gone, actually.
With a well-seasoned line (five players with starting experience, 95 career starts from a line that was Top 30 in both run blocking and pass protection) and a solid backfield -- one that might be deeper in 2013 if youngsters like Josh Robinson, Derrick Milton, or even fresh man Ashton Shumpert take enough of a leap to steal some of Perkins' carries -- the MSU run game should be stellar. But some young receivers will need to quickly establish a strong rapport with Russell to make sure that progression in the run game isn't met with equal regression in the passing game.
Tyler Russell. Butch Dill, Getty.
4. Better game plans?
You often see offenses or defenses that are much stronger in Q1 and Q3 than in Q2 and Q4, or vice versa. I tend to think of the good Q1/Q3 teams as having great game plans but lacking either in depth or the ability to adjust to opponent adjustments. Meanwhile, I think of Q2/Q4 teams as the opposite -- iffy game plans, solid adjustments or depth.
Now, this is admittedly a shaky, porous theory; but it's immediately what came to mind when I saw that State was below average in Q1 and Q3, good in Q2, and great in Q4. The Bulldogs dug themselves some holes on offense and weren't able to overcome them with later-half adjustments.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Tyler Russell||6'4, 220||Sr.||**** (5.8)||231||394||2,897||58.6%||24||10||18||4.4%||6.7|
|Dak Prescott||6'2, 230||So.||*** (5.6)||18||29||194||62.1%||4||0||1||3.3%||6.3|
|Cord Sandberg||6'3, 205||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
5. A little bit of passing downs magic
Despite poor starts and mediocre standard downs execution, State was able to bail itself out at times with some quality on passing downs. Russell leaned on Bumphis and Perkins on second- or third-and-long, and it paid off. The run game should improve in 2013, which could, in theory, lead to fewer passing downs to begin with.
But who fills Bumphis' role as the big-play, bailout guy? Of the five returning players with any receiving experience whatsoever, only one averaged better than even 11 yards per catch (tight end Malcolm Johnson). Newcomers will play a vital role in this regard, and that's probably not a good thing on passing downs.
|LaDarius Perkins||RB||5'10, 195||Sr.||*** (5.6)||205||1,025||5.0||4.3||8||+4.7|
|Josh Robinson||RB||5'9, 225||So.||*** (5.6)||55||335||6.1||4.9||1||+5.7|
|Derrick Milton||RB||6'0, 210||So.||*** (5.5)||34||165||4.9||4.4||2||+0.1|
|Nick Griffin||RB||6'0, 225||Jr.||*** (5.7)||32||223||7.0||9.7||1||+7.0|
|Dak Prescott||QB||6'2, 230||So.||*** (5.6)||31||123||4.0||2.3||4||-0.2|
|Tyler Russell||QB||6'4, 220||Sr.||**** (5.8)||25||114||4.6||4.2||2||-0.5|
|Jameon Lewis||WR||5'9, 195||Jr.||*** (5.5)||5||21||4.2||3.6||0||-0.6|
|Kasey Akins||RB||5'6, 185||Sr.||NR||5||6||1.2||N/A||0||-2.3|
|Ashton Shumpert||RB||6'2, 205||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Robert Johnson||WR||6'1, 225||Jr.||**** (5.8)||28||17||164||60.7%||5.9||6.9%||64.3%||5.8||22.4|
|LaDarius Perkins||RB||5'10, 195||Sr.||*** (5.6)||24||19||160||79.2%||6.7||5.9%||37.5%||5.9||21.8|
|Jameon Lewis||WR||5'9, 195||Jr.||*** (5.5)||20||10||108||50.0%||5.4||4.9%||70.0%||5.9||14.7|
|Malcolm Johnson||TE||6'2, 235||Jr.||*** (5.6)||16||9||154||56.3%||9.6||4.0%||50.0%||10.7||21.0|
|Joe Morrow||WR||6'4, 210||So.||*** (5.7)||12||5||53||41.7%||4.4||3.0%||41.7%||4.0||7.2|
|Brandon Holloway||WR||5'8, 165||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Fred Brown||WR||6'1, 180||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jeremy Chappelle||WR||6'3, 210||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Fred Ross||WR||6'1, 200||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Artimus Samuel||TE||6'2, 260||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Donald Gray, Jr.||WR||5'9, 160||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Gabe Jackson||LG||6'4, 335||Sr.||*** (5.5)||39 career starts; 2012 2nd All-SEC|
|Dillon Day||C||6'4, 300||Jr.||** (5.4)||22 career starts|
|Blaine Clausell||LT||6'7, 310||Jr.||** (5.4)||17 career starts|
|Tobias Smith||RG||13 career starts|
|Charles Siddoway||RT||6'7, 305||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13 career starts|
|Justin Malone||RG||6'7, 320||So.||*** (5.6)||4 career starts|
|Archie Muniz||RG||6'5, 300||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Ben Beckwith||LG||6'3, 305||Jr.||NR|
|Dylan Holley||C||6'3, 290||Sr.||*** (5.5)|
|Damien Robinson||RT||6'8, 335||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Justin Senior||LT||6'5, 300||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jake Thomas||OL||6'6, 305||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
6. Building around the line
LaDarius Perkins is basically a take-what's-given back, and a line that featured a quality left side gave him quite a bit. Mississippi State's line was boom-or-bust in a sense: It was not great in short-yardage situations and allowed quite a few negative plays on the ground, but it created a lot of downfield opportunities for Perkins, too. Experience could even out the flaws. I like this line quite a bit. It's big and has a track record.
|Q1 Rk||43||1st Down Rk||27|
|Q2 Rk||36||2nd Down Rk||67|
|Q3 Rk||41||3rd Down Rk||40|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Denico Autry||DE||6'6, 265||Sr.||**** (6.0)||13||34.0||4.5%||9.5||4||1||1||2||0|
|Preston Smith||DE||6'6, 255||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||26.5||3.5%||5.5||4.5||0||0||1||1|
|Kaleb Eulls||DT||6'4, 290||Jr.||**** (5.8)||13||17.5||2.3%||1||0||0||1||0||1|
|P.J. Jones||DT||6'3, 295||Jr.||**** (5.8)||9||10.5||1.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ryan Brown||DE||6'6, 260||So.||*** (5.6)||7||9.0||1.2%||1||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|Curtis Virges||DT||6'3, 315||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||7.5||1.0%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Quay Evans||DT||6'3, 310||So.||**** (5.8)||10||5.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||1||1|
|Nick James||DT||6'5, 345||So.||*** (5.7)||8||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Corvell Harrison-Gay||DL||6'3, 265||Sr.||*** (5.5)||3||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|A.J. Jefferson||DE||6'3, 260||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Chris Jones||DE||6'5, 250||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
7. Living up to the recruiting rankings
The MSU defense slipped quite a bit in 2012. The Bulldogs surged from 50th to 20th in Def. F/+ in 2010 and maintained form relatively well in 2011 (30th). But last fall, an ineffective front four struggled to generate a consistent pass rush and failed to do its linebackers many favors on the ground.
This was particularly frustrating considering MSU has had more success recruiting for the defensive line than for any other unit. Of the top seven returnees, four were four-star recruits once upon a time; those four players combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, almost all of which came from Denico Autry. Three of the former four-stars will be counted on to not only replace outgoing Josh Boyd and Dwayne Cherrington, but improve on them.
If nothing else, a recruiting ranking tells you something about a player's ceiling; if that's true, then MSU tackles collectively have a pretty high one, as do the ends, with the addition of all-world freshman Chris Jones to the mix. If the line lives up to the rankings, this should be a potentially dominant unit. But it hasn't thus far. Maybe Jones changes that, but "Maybe [blue-chip freshman] changes everything" is a sentence that doesn't bear true as often as we hope.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Benardrick McKinney||MLB||6'5, 235||So.||*** (5.5)||13||73.5||9.8%||4.5||1||0||4||0||1|
|Deontae Skinner||OLB||6'2, 250||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||42.0||5.6%||5||0||0||3||1||0|
|Matthew Wells||OLB||6'2, 215||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||24.5||3.3%||2.5||1||1||2||1||0|
|Chris Hughes||OLB||6'1, 225||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||20.0||2.7%||1||0||0||0||0||2|
|Ferlando Bohanna||MLB||6'0, 225||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||16.5||2.2%||0||0||0||1||0||2|
|Zach Jackson||OLB||6'2, 215||So.||*** (5.7)||13||12.0||1.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Richie Brown||LB||6'2, 235||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Beniquez Brown||LB||6'1, 225||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Nickoe Whitley||FS||6'1, 205||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||69.0||9.2%||3.5||0||3||0||1||0|
|Jay Hughes||SS||5'11, 195||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||27.5||3.7%||3||0||0||2||0||0|
|Taveze Calhoun||CB||6'1, 180||So.||*** (5.7)||13||19.5||2.6%||0.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jamerson Love||CB||5'10, 175||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||19.0||2.5%||1||0||1||2||0||0|
|Dee Arrington||FS||6'1, 220||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||13.5||1.8%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Kendrick Market||SS||5'10, 190||So.||*** (5.7)||12||10.0||1.3%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Cedric Jiles||CB||5'10, 180||So.||*** (5.7)||3||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Will Redmond||CB||6'0, 190||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Justin Cox||CB||6'3, 195||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jahmere Irvin-Sills||DB||5'10, 173||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. Wanted: new playmakers
In part because of the awful pass rush, MSU's pass defense graded out in rather mediocre fashion in 2012 despite the presence of two stellar cornerbacks. Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks were both picked in the second round of the NFL Draft, but MSU ranked just 52nd in Passing S&P+ (and 105th in Adj. Sack Rate).
Autry, Jones, etc., better improve the pass rush, because the secondary's going to need some help. Banks, Slay, and Corey Broomfield are gone, leaving behind some sophomores and juniors who didn't do much last year, along with a four-star redshirt freshman (Will Redmond) and an incoming JUCO transfer (Justin Cox). Jay Hughes is intriguing, and it's a good sign that Jamerson Love managed to defense three passes in minimal playing time, but this will be a green unit, one in need of a lot more help up front.
|Baker Swedenburg||6'0, 205||Sr.||57||41.1||3||33||18||89.5%|
|Devon Bell||6'2, 195||So.||64||60.3||13||20.3%|
|Brian Egan||5'11, 210||Sr.||9||59.7||3||33.3%|
|Devon Bell||6'2, 195||So.||43-44||10-14||71.4%||4-7||57.1%|
|Jameon Lewis||KR||5'9, 195||Jr.||20||25.9||1|
|LaDarius Perkins||KR||5'10, 195||Sr.||16||20.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||32|
|Field Goal Pct||94|
|Kick Returns Avg||46|
|Punt Returns Avg||81|
9. Lots of good punters in the SEC
Mississippi State is the third SEC team I've previewed thus far. It is also the third SEC team I'm previewing with a pretty damn good punter. Kentucky has Landon Foster and ranked 19th in Net Punting last year, Auburn has Steven Clark and ranked 32nd (kicker Cody Parkey was the Tigers' primary field position weapon), and Mississippi State has wonderfully-named Baker Swedenburg and ranked 15th.
The SEC stereotype is one of depth and speed, and those traits often trickle down into great special teams coverage units. But the punters themselves are pretty damn good.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|31-Aug||vs. Oklahoma State||6|
|2-Nov||at South Carolina||19|
|9-Nov||at Texas A&M||13|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||56|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||27|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+16 / +8.4|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. Things get tough a little quicker in 2013
Again, there are plenty of winnable games on MSU's 2013 slate. The Bulldogs will be favored against Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green, and Kentucky at home, and trips to Auburn and Arkansas (along with a visit from Ole Miss) are not incredibly intimidating. But for MSU to rack up another eight-win (or better) season this time around, the Bulldogs will have to start at a higher level than what they attained for much of last season. They start the season by facing Oklahoma State, a likely a Top 10 team on paper (and perhaps Top 15 in the polls), in Houston. Following the perhaps vital visit to Auburn in mid-September, they welcome LSU to Starkvegas on October 5. If MSU is 4-3 heading into November, finding a fifth and sixth win will be difficult. The Bulldogs will need to either pull an upset or win at Auburn to keep the bowl streak alive at three years. And it probably goes without saying that the naysayers will get quite a bit louder if MSU falters to 5-7 or worse.
Dan Mullen has done a solid job at Mississippi State. He inherited a program that had been to just one bowl in eight years (and had won more than even four games just twice in that span) and has been to a bowl and found his team ranked in the Top 25 for at least part of three straight seasons. But while a five- (or even six-) win season would have represented remarkable progress in years past, it would now be a further sign of regression from Mullen's 2010 peak. With potential young stars in players like Chris Jones, linebacker Richie Brown, corner Will Redmond, receiver Fred Ross, future quarterback Cord Sandberg, etc., MSU will continue to have a reasonably high ceiling (especially for MSU) in the years to come. But everybody in the SEC West has a pretty high ceiling, and Mullen has failed to distinguish his team from others in the last couple of years. A hard job seems to be getting harder.