Mississippi State is hoping to become one of the elite teams in college football. On Wednesday, they realized that they still have some work to do to reach that status.
The Bulldogs entered the Orange Bowl wanting to cap off a magical season, which saw them hold the number-one ranking in both polls for five straight weeks. The match-up seemed to fit what they did well. Georgia Tech excelled at running the ball, and the Bulldogs excelled at stopping it.
It’s a game that the Bulldogs should have won easily on paper. Well, games aren’t played on paper. Georgia Tech dominated with the triple-option from the first to the fourth quarter. The Yellow Jackets know it’s their bread-and-butter. “That’s our game, no matter who we play,” said Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech’s starting quarterback who ran for 125 yards and a touchdown. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
The Bulldogs didn’t win the game. But it’s not like they didn’t do the right things to win the game–including following my keys to victory.
A quick recap.
1.Push the tempo: I was actually impressed that Dan Mullen, Mississippi State’s head coach, decided to start the game off pushing the tempo. He usually mixes it in throughout the course of the game. But he decided to push the tempo from the opening drive. When that drive came up short, he kept pushing the tempo. When the next drive came up short, he kept pushing the tempo. He had a game plan, and he was going to stick to it. Eventually, it did pay off. The Bulldogs had one of the best days in school history through the air. By the end of the game, Dak Prescott had the second-best passing day (453 yards) of any Bulldog quarterback in history.
The Bulldogs lost. But it wasn’t because the offense didn’t do what they needed to do.
2.Protect from the deep ball: Sadly, the Bulldogs failed in this area. Darren Waller, Georgia Tech’s star receiver, consistently got over the top and had 114 receiving yards. The Yellow Jackets would have had more yards through the air if Thomas could have connected on a few open throws. The Bulldogs lack of talent at the safety position showed up again. (More on them in the Final Take)
3. Handle the moment: For the most part, the Bulldogs handled the moment. As I watched the game, I never got the feeling that the team was in over its head. I think they just weren’t prepared for a triple-option that most of the players haven’t seen since high school. It should be noted that the Bulldogs defensive coordinator, Geoff Collins, had left for Florida during bowl practices. It’s hard for me to believe that the Bulldogs defense wouldn’t have played a little better if they had their leader.
While the Bulldog players seemed to handle the moment well, their head coach thought it was a confirmation of what he thought the program could become. “The last time was kind of one of the most surreal, weirdest experience you’d ever have in your life,” Mullen said. “I ran on the field, took a picture with the crystal ball trophy, and ran to get home to go to sleep and have a team meeting to try to build a program that could come back here. I think everybody doubted that. Everybody everywhere doubted that we could build a program that could actually come back here, and then here we are.”
As I wrote earlier in the season, I never thought I’d see the day where Mississippi State would be in the position it was in throughout the season. They were the premier team in college football for five weeks. Heck, I would have taken a top-25 ranking when I was in college. It was only a pipedream for Mississippi State to rule college football for even a minute. But they did rule college football. And that’s a memory no one can take away.
Mississippi State will forever be the answer to the trivia question: Which team was ranked number one in the inaugural “College Football Playoff” poll?
“We did a lot of things that this school has never done,” Prescott said. “The senior class led us to new standards, and that’s a success in itself of setting a standard for this university and this football team and I think we did that this year.”
If there’s anything the Bulldogs have eliminated, it’s the “But We Mississippi State Syndrome” that has infected the Mississippi State fan base throughout their history. Fans believe in what the Bulldogs are trying to do now. Higher student enrollment, more donations and increased revenue will be the byproduct of this season.
“It’s very disappointing to end the season on a loss,” Mullen said. “But we have a lot to build on, and we have to find a way to make the 2015 edition even better.”
- There’s uncertainty right now about whether Dak Prescott is returning to Mississippi State. Brent Musberger relayed during the Orange Bowl that Dak told him that he was returning. But after the game, Dak refuted the report. I will take Musberger’s side in this controversy. I don’t believe a man that respected in the industry would just go out and make a statement like that just for headlines. Dak probably had every intention of returning until he threw for 453 yards and three touchdowns. I would have changed my mind, too. But I don’t think it’s right to say that Musberger was lying. We’ll see what the real truth is after Dak talks with his family.
- Josh Robinson announced on Instagram before the game that he was turning pro. He didn’t have the perfect swansong—rushing for only 75 yards. Good luck J.Rob in the NFL. It was a pleasure to watch and write about you the past few years.
- De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross and Joe Morrow put on a show on Wednesday–combining for 21 catches, 319 yards and three touchdowns. Good news: They’re all returning next season. (More on them in the Final Take).
- A.J. Jefferson deserves some props for the way he played in the Orange Bowl(four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Yes, the team struggled on defense, but he was one of the lone bright spots.
- In what is probably his last game as a Bulldog, Benardrick McKinney came to play–with ten tackles on the night. He probably would have had more tackles if not for Mississippi State’s 1A/1B concept.
- DeShea Townsend is a good cornerback coach with pro experience. But let’s just say he’s a few years away from being a defensive coordinator at the college level.
Obviously, the question now is: Can the Bulldogs repeat their 2014 season in 2015? If Dak Prescott returns, they can. And I believe he will.
Why? Coach Mullen and his staff have done a good job of evaluating talent–building incredible depth.
Offensively, we got an early glimpse of what the 2015 version might look like in the Orange Bowl…an up-tempo offense that’s built around the passing game.
At the quarterback position, Dak Prescott is the number one. But the back-up spot will be up for grabs. Damian Williams, Elijah Staley and Nick Fitzgerald will vie for the spot in the spring.
With the departure of Josh Robinson, the running back position is up for grabs. Ashton Shumpert is the natural replacement as the bell cow. But Aeris Williams, Mississippi’s 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year, might have something to say about that. Brandon Holloway will find a way to get the mix as the change-of-pace back. Dontavian Lee and incoming freshmen–Malik Dear and Nick Gibson could vie for carries, too.
Receiver is Mississippi State’s most experienced and talented position headed into next season. De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross, Joe Morrow and Fred Brown are not only the Bulldogs best receivers but also might be the focal point of the entire offense next season. And for good reason, they accumulated 1,812 yards and eighteen touchdowns (66 percent of Prescott’s passing touchdowns in 2014).
The aforementioned receivers are outside guys. Mississippi State has three inside guys: Donald Gray, Jamoral Graham and Gabe Myles who are explosive in their own right. They could reap the rewards of a talented outside group.
Adding in Gus Walley and B.J. Hammond at the tight end position into consideration, I’d be surprised if the Bulldogs don’t finish in the top-10 nationally in passing yards per game next season.
Mississippi State loses Ben Beckwith, Dillon Day and Blaine Clausell to graduation. So, the offensive line has to replace some key parts. But I don’t think there will be much of a talent drop off. Devon Desper will slide in to center. Jamaal Clayborn, who rotated with Beckwith as a freshman in 2013, should take over for Beckwith at right guard. Clausell’s replacement is the real question mark. Juco transfer Martinas Rankin will get the first shot. But the question remains if he’s tall enough to protect the quarterback’s blind side. And I think there are serious questions if Justin Senior can move from the right to left side or if Cole Carter is capable of playing left in the SEC.
Kent Flowers, Elgton Jenkins and Jake Thomas are three names to remember on the offensive line, as well.
The 2015 offense might have a drop off in a few areas. I don’t think that will be the case for the 2015 defense.
All-SEC players Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney (Likely entering the NFL Draft) are huge losses. But with the talent on that side of the ball, I think Mississippi State is capable of absorbing their departures.
On the defensive line, A.J. Jefferson will take Preston Smith’s spot. He will form a pretty good duo with Ryan Brown, who could evolve the way Smith did in 2014. After those two guys, Will Coleman, a Juco transfer who was forced to redshirt in 2014, likely is the third defensive end. Torrey Dale, Johnathon Calvin and Grant Harris will battle it out for the last slot at defensive end.
While the defensive end position has question marks, defensive tackle does not. Chris Jones, Nick James and Nelson Adams will be relied upon to fill the void left by P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls. I think they will. Braxton Hoyett, Corey Thomas and incoming freshman Fletcher Adams will battle it out for the remaining reps. I got my money on Adams. He could be an All-SEC freshman. He’s that good.
Receiver is the most talented position on offense. Linebacker is the most talented position on the defensive side of the football. Beniquez Brown could be pre-season All-SEC. Richie Brown, who had a solid season backing up McKinney, will start at one of the linebacker spots, whether it’s the Sam, Mike or Will. He played the Mike this season. But I don’t if he’s suited to play in the middle. He’s just not enough of a thumper. Gerri Green, who redshirted in 2014, will start at one of the linebacker positions in 2015, in my opinion. He’s too good of player to keep off the field. I called him a “program changer” on Signing Day. I still believe that he is. The rest of the nation will find out next season.
The Bulldogs have some talent behind those three guys. Traver Jung, a Juco transfer, is talented enough to start for most SEC teams. I expect him to be the fourth linebacker next year. Dezmond Harris, Zach Jackson and Quadry Antoine will battle it out for the remaining two slots. If Darrien McNair, an incoming freshman, is ready to contribute, he could figure into the mix, too.
Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun return to give the Bulldogs a terrific tandem at cornerback. Cedric Jiles returns from injury. Tolando Cleveland, a rising junior, should provide depth. The sleeper at cornerback is incoming freshman Chris Stamps. The kid has the size, speed and the ball skills to compete for a spot in the two-deep as a true freshman.
Oh the safety position. Kivon Coman and J.T. Gray and Brandon Bryant are SEC-level players. But they’re the only ones at the safety position. Jamal Peters, a four-star recruit, can’t get on campus fast enough. He’s an immediate two-deep player and probable starter. He’ll be a definite talent upgrade and give the Bulldogs something they’ve lacked at the position: a presence.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention special teams. Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk give the Bulldogs rare stability at kicker and punter.
I would like to see more from the Bulldogs return game in 2015, though. Fred Ross looked solid returning punts after replacing the struggling Jamoral Graham this past season. But I still want to see more. Donald Gray should help with that. He was an explosive punt returner this past season in junior college. He’ll be expected to do the same for Mississippi State next season.
At kick returner, Brandon Holloway has to finally break out. Aeris Williams, Nick Gibson and possibly Jamoral Graham are three names to keep an eye on for the other spot.
The “Dawgs” are expected to have a drop off in 2015. But If they stay hungry, I think they’ll build upon the successful 2014 campaign.
Jeremiah Short, Peach State College Sports Contributor
Catch me on the “SportsKrib” on Wednesday’s 8-9 Central and Thursday’s 8-10 Central. Follow me on social media @DaRealJShort or check out my facebook page JShortJournalist or my Google Plus page J.Short- Journalist.