HOOVER, Ala. — At the outset of a new season, every team believes it might be “its year.”
Mississippi State is no different. And its coach and players had no problem stating it at SEC media days on Tuesday. The Bulldogs’ representatives found positive reinforcement everywhere. Coach Dan Mullen pointed to the “30 guys that started games last year” that return this fall.
He mentioned ending 2013 with three straight victories, which Mullen was glad to note was the “first time that's happened in a long time at Mississippi State” — 1974, to be exact.
But perhaps the biggest thing working in the Bulldogs’ favor is the sense that the Southeastern Conference is wide-open. Auburn and Missouri weren’t expected to make it to the conference title game last season.
That left the Bulldogs asking, why not us?
“I think there's seven coaches in the SEC West that expect to find a way to get to Atlanta and win our side of the league. I really do,” Mullen said. “That's not coach talk. I think that just shows within each program the confidence the kids have that anybody on our side of the league can find a way to win and get themselves in that SEC championship game.”
If Mississippi State wins its first Western Division title since 1998, it’s likely it will be in large part due to Dak Prescott. A rising junior, Prescott threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns and was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher with 829 yards and 13 scores. What’s more, he’s receiving buzz as a dark-horse for the Heisman Trophy.
Through it all, Prescott said the increased exposure he’s been getting since the end of last season hasn't changed him.
“I know the guy I am and I’m going to stick to that,” he said. “I’m the same guy when I wasn’t starting or whatever people are saying about me now. I’m about putting in hard work every day.”
It wouldn’t surprise teammate Benardrick McKinney if Prescott somehow lives up to the immense expectations being heaped upon him.
“He’s a great player, a great runner, a great thrower and a great leader," the junior linebacker said. "He’s a great person on and off the field. He likes to make everyone around him better.”
Prescott is well-aware he’s far from a finished product, though. He’s heard critics refer to him as a “running quarterback.” He’s heard those who aren’t convinced he can show touch on deep passes.
That’s why his offseason has been spent proving those doubters wrong.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better on my deeper passes,” he said. “I guess people underestimate it or underrated me, but we’ve gotten a lot better with perfecting the passing game. The timing is getting better and those deep routes will come with time.”
As for the Heisman talk? To Prescott, the individual recognition means nothing. The team’s goals always come first.
“There are expectations outside of the room, but we have expectations within the facility,” he said. “Those expectations, I believe, are a lot higher than anybody else’s.”
Mullen couldn’t agree more.
“We've talked to them about it — embrace all those expectations. Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta and compete for that SEC championship this year. That's what we can control,” he said. “When you embrace that expectation early on as a program, when you embrace that for this year's team, all those guys, that's what they're working for from day one. I don't think they shy away from it.”
Not that Mullen’s under the impression it will be easy to capture the SEC West crown. Doing so means the Bulldogs came out on top of one of the toughest, most competitive divisions in college football. But Mississippi State's SEC championship game drought has to end at some point.
Why not now?
“We're going to have to have a pretty special year,” he said. “But I think we have some special guys that can make that happen.”