Nov 16, 2013; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs running back Nick Griffin (7) celebrates during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Davis Wade Stadium. Alabama Crimson Tide defeat the Mississippi State Bulldogs with a score of 20-7. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Managing Expectations for 2014

Nov 28, 2013; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott (15) advances the ball during the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Davis Wade Stadium. Mississippi State Bulldogs defeat the Mississippi Rebels with a score of 17-10 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 regular season has come to a close, so what should we do while we wait for a bowl game?

Look towards next year, obviously!

One of the things that is often said about the football program at Mississippi State is that we have to seize every moment when the window of opportunity is open for us to compete in the SEC West. I would completely agree with that. There aren’t a whole lot of times when a program like Mississippi State, a program that faces numerous hurdles for success, gets a chance to actually compete for the divisional crown. In 1998, State took full advantage of it and went on to make our only appearance in the SEC Championship game. In 1999, we didn’t capitalize on the chance to repeat despite starting off 5-0 in the SEC. Since then, that window has been shut without any true signs of cracking.

Throughout this roller coaster ride of a season, there has been a small undercurrent of optimism from both analysts and fans alike about the prospects of that window cracking in 2014. They may have a point. The landscape of the SEC has changed drastically since 1998 and 1999, so the challenge will be a lot steeper. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible though.

Obviously, the first part of this optimism has to come from the schedule, and here it is:

Aug. 30 – Southern Miss

Sept. 6 – UAB

Sept. 13 – at South Alabama

Sept. 20 – at LSU

Oct. 4 – Texas A&M

Oct. 11 – Auburn

Oct. 25 – at Kentucky

Nov. 1 – Arkansas

Nov. 8 – UT-Martin

Nov. 15 – at Alabama

Nov. 22 – Vanderbilt

Nov. 29 – at Ole Miss

The first thing that jumps out to me is that the first SEC game of the year doesn’t happen until week 4. When the Southern Miss game was scheduled, they were having one of the best seasons ever at that school, and the hope was for a very competitive game between two in state schools. That probably won’t happen, so State should have a really good opportunity to work out any kinks leading up to the LSU game.

The second thing to notice is that South Carolina is being replaced with a home game against Vanderbilt. Vandy has made a lot of great strides, but I am pretty certain we will be favored in that game. That’s a great scheduling perk from the past two seasons.

Third, both LSU and Alabama will lose key components to their team, specifically their starting quarterbacks. LSU’s first SEC game of the year is against us. They have a big game in the season opener against Wisconsin, but the new QB won’t have a ton of time to cut his teeth before he gets to us. Alabama will still be good, but it’s not always easy to replace a quarterback, especially one as consistent as McCarron has been running the offense.

Fourth, the resurgence of Auburn throws a wrinkle into this. One thing to remember about the season the Tigers have had is that they could almost as easily be 8-4 as they are 11-1. If we don’t collapse in the final two minutes, and if they aren’t the beneficiary of not one, but TWO miracle plays, their miraculous turnaround might be considered more of a significant step forward for that program. I’m not saying that Auburn will take a step back, but it isn’t completely insane to suggest that they might.

Fifth, who knows what to expect from Texas A&M? They theoretically could get both Manziel and Evans back, but they are both redshirt sophomores, so they are eligible for the draft. I can’t imagine either passing it up.

Sixth, we have a lot of people returning. More importantly, the people that are returning are starting to resemble the type of players that Mullen wants to run his offense. Dak Prescott is perfect for his version of the spread offense, Josh Robinson and Ashton Shumpert are the big bruising tailbacks that Mullen likes, and Prescott has a tall, athletic receiver in De’Runnya Wilson to throw to. The defense is loaded with linemen and linebackers that get after the quarterback and running backs creeping out of the backfield. The secondary made some of the biggest strides of the season on the entire team.

Last, there still isn’t any consensus on what the overall impact Hugh Freeze is going to have at Ole Miss. The recruiting is obviously better, but there is no question that the Rebels’ season is being viewed as a disappointment. They were expected to make a bigger step forward with their returning players, and when they added in any contribution from that stellar recruiting class, many thought they were a dark horse contender that could possibly get nine wins this year. They may turn out to be a great threat to the division next year, but we just don’t know at this point.

Speaking of the Rebels, the importance of Thanksgiving night can’t be overstated. That win completely changed the conversation leading into the offseason for Mississippi State. If the Bulldogs don’t win that game, much of the conversation around the program is about whether or not Mullen will be able to take the next step. Mississippi State would be viewed as the clear second tier program to Ole Miss and Hugh Freeze if Ole Miss wins that game. The Egg Bowl has a way of doing that.

A lot of people have often asked when would simply getting to a bowl game not be enough for Mississippi State? The fact that this conversation is taking place across the state, and that I am writing this piece, tells me that next year is that time. Mullen has raised the expectations of the program and finishing just good enough to get to a bowl probably will not cut it.

Despite all this, do not be surprised when the media casts their ballots about how they think the SEC West will stack up, and Mississippi State is listed closer to the bottom than they are the top. Best case scenario, we will get picked to finish fourth ahead of Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Arkansas. I think we get picked to finish either fifth or sixth. They will put Mississippi State and Ole Miss ahead of Arkansas, but I’m not sure who they will pick to finish higher. There will probably be a lot of dark horse talk surrounding the program, but I think most will expect the status quo to remain largely the same.

It won’t be easy. Everything has to go exactly as planned for State to capitalize on any perceived opportunity that they might have next year. Alabama and LSU will have to have seasons that are viewed as disappointments. And somewhere along the way, Mississippi State is going to have to pull off an upset. With all of the optimism, the one thing that can’t be overlooked is there is a pretty good chance that we will be underdogs in the first three SEC games of the year. We start off 0-3 in SEC play, and all sense of optimism is gone and Dan Mullen’s seat goes from warm to nuclear. I don’t know how it will unfold, but I can’t wait to watch it happen.

Tags: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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