SEC: Dan Mullen

With Dak Prescott entrenched as the starter and Damian Williams a decently experienced backup, Mississippi State's quarterback spot looked fine.

With Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De'Runnya Wilson, there were plenty of wideouts to draw from.

[+] EnlargeDillon Day
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesDillon Day and the rest of the Bulldogs' O-line will have to overcome adversity to win SEC games.
And with Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams all available, the running back position looked fine, too.

But if there was one area where Mississippi State needed to stay healthy, it was the offensive line. Depth, coach Dan Mullen pointed out late last week, was a major point of concern.

"That's the one position during the season that we can't afford any injuries," he said.

It turned out to be an auspicious statement. On Monday, we learned that projected starting right tackle Damien Robinson tore his ACL and will miss the season.

The Bulldogs were banged up enough as it was with starting guards Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith missing practice time during fall camp. Throw in the noticeable absence of Gabe Jackson, and it's hard to imagine what the Mississippi State offensive line looks like in Starkville today.

Now the second-string linemen Mullen was hoping he wouldn't have to call on until next season are suddenly being put to the test earlier than expected. "They're growing and they're growing quickly," Mullen said last Friday. But will they progress enough between now and the start of the season?

"They're going to be the huge group of inexperienced players that you'd love the opportunity to slowly build them in instead of having to throw them into the fire immediately," Mullen said.

Look for Justin Senior and Rufus Warren, two inexperienced reserves, to be the top candidates to replace Damien at right tackle. Mullen, when reached Tuesday morning, said there's also the possibility of moving a tackle to guard and working with different combinations on the interior of the line.

The good news is that there are 11 days until the opener and the first three weeks of the season don't look to be a huge challenge with non-conference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. That means there's plenty of time for whoever wins the job to get comfortable enough in the offense before SEC play begins Week 4 at LSU.

Dillon Day, a three-year starter and Rimington Trophy watch list center, said he's looking forward to the run up to the season. Before Damien Robinson went down, Day said he was feeling good about the numbers on the offensive line.

"I've seen good things already," Day said. "Guys have been rotating in that haven't played, like Devon [Desper]. That was a big thing to have not just five guys but eight guys that can play.

"We have a lot of depth that can play now. That's a big thing, getting new guys in there and letting them play with the ones. And so far everyone has done really well with that."

With Damien Robinson out, that depth will be tested. And like any inexperienced player, we won't know how they'll perform until the pressure is on during a game situation.

If Mississippi State is going to finally break through in the SEC West, the offensive line is going to have to drive the train. Without them, the depth at receiver and running back is meaningless. Without them, Prescott could get banged up and his dark horse Heisman Trophy campaign could fall off the tracks.

There's a lot to like about the Bulldogs this year. The only question was how the O-line would hold up, and so far it's not off to a good start.
One of the joys of coaching at the college level is seeing some of the less-talked-about guys succeed.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen got to experience that firsthand when he awarded walk-on sophomore linebacker DeAndre Ward a scholarship in front of the team Sunday. Click here to see the video.

Ward, who played against Alabama and in the bowl game against Rice last season, was obviously surprised when Mullen handed him an envelope to open in front of everyone. The team erupted when Ward realized what was in his hands.

That was true happiness for a guy people around the program say is one of the hardest workers out there and pushes everyone around him -- verbally and with his play in practice. It's no wonder he was named the camp's walk-on MVP.

When you get to the end of the video, check out the hug between Ward and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. That was really powerful. I don't care who you root for, moments like that have to touch your heart.
Now that the AP preaseason poll is out, we know exactly who will make up the College Football Playoff.

If only it were that easy.

History has shown that preseason polls really don't mean as much as we'd like to think they do. Still, they're fun and give us a nice easel to work with.

[+] EnlargeBo Wallace
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBo Wallace and Ole Miss could be a threat to sneak out of the West.
As we dive into this poll, you'll see that most of the team everyone is talking about to be in the playoff at season's end are right at the top of the poll -- Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Auburn. Only four teams can make it into the playoff, but most people have some sort of combination of these teams.

Good luck with that.

According to ESPN stats guru Brad Edwards and ESPN Stats & Information, "There has been only one year in the last seven (2011) in which more than two of the preseason top-10 teams finished the regular season ranked in the top four."

In short, that means that more often than not, the final four in the AP poll -- which we'll use as a means of determining the fictitious four-team playoff from the past -- started the season well outside of the early playoff sphere.

The same can be said about the final BCS standings of the regular season. Only once since 2006 have two teams ranked inside the top four of the AP preseason poll finished the regular season ranked inside the top four of the BCS standings. Yep, 2011 when Alabama and LSU ranked second and fourth, respectively, and finished the regular season as the top two teams in the country and played in the BCS national championship game.

Since 2006, five SEC teams have started the season ranked inside the top four of the AP poll and finished the regular season inside the top four of the BCS standings. Alabama has done it three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and LSU has done it twice (2007, 2011). Alabama won the BCS national championship twice in that span (2011, 2012), while LSU won it all in 2007.

So this all bodes well for Alabama, which is ranked second in the AP poll. This also bodes well for the SEC in general when it comes to the playoff, because at least one team has finished in the top four of the BCS standings each year since 2006 (remember the seven straight BCS titles for this conference?).

Want to take it even further? The SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the BCS standings in three straight seasons and five times total since 2006, so we can't rule out the SEC double-dipping in the playoff.

Now, the selection committee will make things a little different, as more the human element replaces the computers that were very nice to the SEC. Regardless of the humans and the preseason poll, history has taught us that an SEC outsider will make a strong playoff run this year.

There are eight SEC teams ranked inside the AP preseason poll, and there's a chance that each one will have a big hand in the playoff. But which outsiders have a chance to make a real playoff run? Here are four teams that could make a magical run from outside the top 10:

  • Ole Miss: The immediate talent is very impressive in Oxford, but for the first time in a while, Ole Miss has a very talented two-deep on defense. Quarterback Bo Wallace has to be more consistent, and he'll be working with a healthy throwing shoulder for the first time in two years. Having Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State at home will help. If the Rebels stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat in the Western Division.
  • Georgia: The defense has a lot of question marks, but that offense has the potential to score for days. Quarterback Hutson Mason should have no problem replacing Aaron Murray with the experience and quality talent coming back at receiver and running back. The tests come early with a visit from No. 16 Clemson before a trip to No. 9 South Carolina.
  • Mississippi State: For some reason, these Bulldogs will enter the season unranked (only 22 votes received?). All they do is return 18 starters and the deepest, most talented team coach Dan Mullen has had during his time in Starkville. This could be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump and push for the West title.
  • LSU: There will be a new quarterback, new receivers and there are still some unknowns on defense. A strong running game and offensive line should help a program that has never really needed a huge passing game under Les Miles. That linebacking corps and the secondary have scary athleticism. Watch for a late run by the Tigers.

Flying under the radar?

Florida and Missouri: If Florida figures things out with Kurt Roper's new spread offense, the Gators might take the East with the defense they have. The Tigers lost a ton of leadership and need answers at receiver, but they love the underdog role, and their defensive line and running game are filthy.

Mississippi State season preview

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
10:30
AM ET
video

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:

2013 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC). Beat Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Final grade for 2013 season: The Bulldogs had a very subpar start to the season and looked out of bowl contention after beginning November 0-3, getting outscored 105-64 in the process. But after finishing the regular season 2-0, including an overtime win over archrival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs trounced Rice in their bowl game, giving them a C for the season.

Key losses: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OL Gabe Jackson, OL Charles Siddoway, DT Denico Autry, LB Deontae Skinner, S Nickoe Whitley, P Baker Swedenburg

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDak Prescott ended 2013 with a bang and could emerge as one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.
Key returnees: QB Dak Prescott, RB Josh Robinson, WR Jameon Lewis, WR Robert Johnson, TE Malcolm Johnson, OL Blaine Clausell, C Dillon Day, DT Chris Jones, DT Kaleb Eulls, DE Preston Smith, LB Benardrick McKinney, CB Jamerson Love, CB Taveze Calhoun

Instant impact newcomers: LB Gerri Green, DT Cory Thomas

Breakout player: Receiver De'Runnya Wilson has a chance to really make a name for himself this fall, but I'm going to go with Robinson. The compact, 5-foot-9, 215-pound wrecking ball of a player could be very, very fun to watch this fall. He's spent two years learning from Vick Ballard and Perkins and is primed to have a big year for the Bulldogs. He can grind out yards between the tackles and has excellent speed to get to the outside and make plays in space.

Key position battle: The Bulldogs will have quite the fight on their hands at right tackle. Senior Damien Robinson arrived as a highly-billed recruit, but has yet to live up to that label. It's now or never for him, but he'll have to compete with sophomore Justin Senior, who the coaches are pretty excited about. However, if neither works out veteran Justin Malone, who is coming back from a season-ending foot injury, could move from right guard to right tackle. That wouldn't be ideal for the Bulldogs.

Most important game: If Mississippi State is really going to turn the corner and actually compete for the SEC Western Division title, the Bulldogs have to get a win in Baton Rouge against LSU on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs return 18 starters, have better depth than coach Dan Mullen knows what to do with, and won't be afraid of a trip to Tiger Stadium. With that said, this is a must-win if this team is going to have a chance at making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Tigers are an enigma this season, but could be dangerous down the stretch. Getting them early is huge, and the Bulldogs have to take full advantage of that.

Biggest question mark: While right tackle is a concern for the Bulldogs, finding some consistency in field-goal kicking would be nice. Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk combined to go an unflattering 9-for-20 on field-goal attempts last season. They were a combined 1-for-6 from 40-plus yards out and each had a kicked blocked in 2013. Transfer J.J. McGrath will compete for the starting job, but he's a ways behind Sobiesk at this point. Still, Sobiesk still has a long way to go in the consistency department.

Upset special: Again, in order for Mississippi State to take the next step as a program, the Bulldogs need to beat one of the league's best. After Texas A&M comes to town on Oct. 4, the Bulldogs host reigning SEC champion Auburn. And the Tigers could be pretty fatigued after a game against LSU. Talk about the perfect time to take one from Auburn. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to Auburn last season after Nick Marshall orchestrated a late, game-winning touchdown drive. You better believe revenge will be on the Bulldogs' minds.

Key stat: What Mullen has done in five seasons at Mississippi State has been impressive, but he has struggled against ranked opponents. In the last three seasons, the Bulldogs have gone 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls.

They said it: “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency. I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.” -- Mullen

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.45 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: This is the deepest team Mullen has had at Mississippi State. The offense can run and pass for days with the weapons and experience coming back, while the defense is loaded with underrated talent. The schedule isn't too daunting with an incredibly easy nonconference slate and Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Having to go to Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss isn't ideal, but if the Bulldogs can take two from that road trio, they'll be in contention for the West title. The Bulldogs will challenge for the division and finish the regular season 9-3.

SEC lunchtime links

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
12:00
PM ET
With training camps in full swing now across the conference, there are plenty of interesting stories around the SEC. From talk about quarterbacks to injuries and more, here's a sampling via Wednesday's lunch links:
HOOVER, Ala. -- Last year's season-opener should have been a moment of triumph for Jay Hughes. His unranked Mississippi State Bulldogs went into Reliant Stadium in Houston against the No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys with something to prove. Down three starters in the secondary, including two NFL-caliber cornerbacks, it was thought that the game would devolve into a shootout that favored the air-it-out Cowboys offense, which had averaged 547 yards and 45.7 points per game the season prior.

[+] EnlargeJay Hughes
Marvin Gentry/USA Today SportsJay Hughes, who has recovered from last year's season-ending injury, says the Bulldogs have the talent to make some noise in the SEC this season.
Hughes heard "all the negative things about the secondary," he said toward the end of fall camp. He also heard one Cowboys player say that, "Sometimes those SEC defenses lose their breath" against up-tempo offenses like theirs. He heard it all, and showed up anyways, ready for his first full season as a starter at safety. And for two series, it looked like Hughes and his defense would have the last laugh.

But with a second straight three-and-out in sight, Hughes stepped in front of a pass from Clint Chelf, knocked down the ball and immediately fell to one knee. He could have been stepped on or fallen awkwardly; you couldn't tell from the television replay. Writhing on the turf, he grabbed his right heel, and after a minute or so, tried to get to the sideline under his own power but couldn't. With the support of two trainers, he limped out of the frame. He had a torn ACL. His season was over.

It was hard for everyone on the team to see Hughes go down like that. Veteran linebacker Bernardrick McKinney described it as a "very emotional time for Jay." He had a decision to make: Either ask "Why me?" or "What can I do?" He chose the latter.

"I knew the moment I got hurt I still had to be there for my teammates," Hughes said. "I was still going to meetings, still going to special teams meetings, all while I was doing my rehab."

After a couple of road trips spent recuperating at home in Starkville, Mississippi, he decided enough was enough. He was going to the Texas A&M game to be a part of his team no matter what.

"I said, 'I'm going to pack my bags. I'm going to go with my boys this week,'" he said. "I'm on the sideline with crutches and a boot. I'm there saying, 'I don't need no crutches.'"

As the lone member of the Juice Boys in College Station that day -- the group whose "role is to keep the crowd going" is made of primarily scout team players who don't usually travel to away games -- he wrapped two towels together in order to better stand out. And he did, especially to his teammates.

"That means a lot," McKinney said. "He has a lot of heart. He pushes us even when he's hurt. He was at every game trying to push us up, even in the bad times telling us, 'We got it.'"

Despite losing the opener to Oklahoma State, 21-3, and dropping five of the next nine games, Mississippi State rallied to win three straight and finish 7-6 overall.

Instead of entering this season with a bleak outlook and a lack of experience on defense, there's hope and optimism and depth on both sides of the ball. The secondary alone returns three starters -- not including Hughes, who wasn't able to fully participate in spring practice but will be 100 percent in time for fall camp, which begins Thursday.

"I'm back, so let's go," Hughes said. "It's time. Let's do it.

"I'm hungry. I'm ready to eat. It's really good to be back on the field."

"Him coming back made his life complete again," McKinney said. "He's a hard worker. He's getting the safeties right. He's back running full-speed."

Coach Dan Mullen called Hughes a "great young man, worker and leader" on defense.

"It is a huge lift for all of our guys to have him back," he said.

Even quarterback Dak Prescott has noticed.

"They're all following Jay's lead," he said. "When you have a guy like that to look up to, it's fantastic."

If Hughes is setting the tone, it might be best described as "Championship or bust."

After so many years of running in the middle of the pack of the SEC West, Mississippi State feels this season is its best chance to reach Atlanta. Alabama and LSU have new quarterbacks, and Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the conference. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have a promising offense with Prescott under center, a defense loaded with depth and young talent such as rising star Chris Jones, and a schedule that sets up favorably with no real challenges out of conference and an SEC East rotation that includes Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

"It's almost like we know, man," Hughes said of the team's hunger to win a championship. "It's almost like we know. We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers and the experience we have on the field. And with that, it's all up to us.

"We have the talent, we have the numbers, now what are we going to do?"

Expectations have risen among coaches, fans, family and "even ourselves," Hughes said. After the way last season went down and the promise that lies ahead, Hughes isn't ready to waste the opportunity.

"It's really serious right now," he said. "I tell my guys as soon as you step in this building, nothing else matters. You get that look in your eyes, and let's go, let's work."
HOOVER, Ala. -- In between debating the worst dressers on the team and picking out potential lunch options for later that afternoon, Dan Mullen turned to his quarterback to ask how he was feeling. “Are you nervous?” he said to Dak Prescott as the two flew from Starkville, Mississippi, to Hoover for SEC media days. He was about to face hundreds of reporters, so the pressure would be on. But Prescott told his coach, “I think I should be, but I’m not.”

Mullen had to smile. That kind of poise was a good sign for his Mississippi State Bulldogs. It was exactly what he wanted to hear from a guy who has gone from an unknown second-stringer to the most recognizable name and face of a program in less than a year. His leader seemed ready to handle his first major responsibility of 2014.

And handle it he did.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDak Prescott sounds comfortable and confident after finishing last season with a flourish.
Prescott didn’t act like a quarterback who a year earlier wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Instead he showed the confidence of a veteran handling the media: chin up, strong eye contact, ever sincere. He welcomed expectations and was even glad to critique his own play.

“I was kind of wanting to run sometimes,” he said. “I would step back and throw and my feet wouldn’t be where they need to be. But I believe when I have my feet underneath me I can make all the throws.”

Prescott got a taste of the spotlight late last season when he led State to wins over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and against Rice in the Liberty Bowl, accounting for six touchdowns and no turnovers in the process. Now he’s being hailed as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate -- which would be an accurate term only if you ignore the notion that one must be unknown to be a dark horse.

You’d have to ignore the horde of reporters trying to speak with him at media days, too.

“I know who I am deep down,” Prescott said. “It hasn’t changed no matter what I’m doing, if it’s media days or back at the facilities. Nothing has really changed.”

Mullen credits that confidence to the way last season unfolded. Because he got to dip his toe in the water as a backup-turned-starter, Prescott is more comfortable handling the role of incumbent.

“Because of injuries last year, he got to step into the top role without any of the pressure,” Mullen said of his redshirt junior. “He just went out there and started playing. I think the fact that he got that part done first before the buildup made everything a lot easier for him.

“He’s played on the road in tough environments. He’s had to come in and win critical games. He’s had good games and bad games already. Now as he comes in with the pressure of, ‘Hey, you’re the starting quarterback this season,’ he’s been in a lot of pressure situations already.”

Seeing their quarterback handle so much by this point has been a good sign for teammates, too.

“He inspires me to be a better leader,” veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. “We compete every day. Sometimes I feel down and don’t feel like going, and I see Dak leading the offense, inspiring me to push the defense harder.

“He’s a very, very humble guy. He doesn’t really go for the hype. He’s going to keep fighting and not worry about what people say.”

But what people were saying of Prescott on Tuesday was all positive. If he wanted to show he could handle the pressure, he did. Delivering quotes like the SEC West is “second only to the NFC and AFC” earned him credit with everyone in the room.

He should have been anxious, but Prescott didn’t look it. He should have been worried about living up to the hype, but he seemed totally at ease.

Where some might see being the voice of a team as a burden, he got his feet underneath him and delivered.

“It makes it easier when the voice of the team is the quarterback, the guy who has to take all the snaps and has the ball in his hands every play," Prescott said. "So I’m embracing that role and accepting it.”
HOOVER, Ala. -- So what will Day 2 in Hoover hold? Let’s take a look and see, in order of appearance.

South Carolina (10 a.m. ET): This is Steve Spurrier’s element, so sit back and enjoy. Expect the Head Ball Coach to hold court in his 13th SEC media days appearance. And he won’t even have to discuss Jadeveon Clowney this go around. So what shall we talk about? At the risk of answering a rhetorical question: plenty. How is Dylan Thompson settling in at quarterback now that Connor Shaw is gone? Is Mike Davis a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender? Where does the defense go without Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton up front? And how do you navigate a schedule that starts with Texas A&M and rounds out with Auburn, Florida and Clemson? You better believe Spurrier will have something to say about scheduling and more, so make sure you’re tuned in.

Mississippi State (11:30 a.m. ET): Welcome to the Era of Expectations, Bulldogs fans. This isn’t your father’s Mississippi State. After five seasons building the program in his image, Dan Mullen is on the clock. He’s got a potential star at quarterback, a burgeoning group of playmakers at receiver and running back, and a defense that’s as talented and deep as any in the SEC. All of that must translate into wins. But how? That’s the overarching question for a program that has only recently become accustomed to going to bowl games. How will Dak Prescott respond to being the man at quarterback? How will Benardrick McKinney wrap his head around no longer being an underdog? What about the ever-present threat of Ole Miss? Mississippi State has plenty of reasons to hope for a great 2014. Now it’s time to really start talking about it.

Texas A&M (1 p.m. ET): We hope Kevin Sumlin is ready to hear about two dozen variations of the question "What’s life without Johnny Manziel going to be like?" because that’s probably what’s on the minds of most. Sumlin is likely to reply poignantly, citing something about how he has worked with successful quarterbacks his entire career. And who is the quarterback going to be anyway -- Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill? (Don't hold your breath for a clear answer to that one.) Aside from that, questions abound about the defense, which was mostly awful last season, and what about the off-the-field incidents? The Aggies had nine arrests this offseason and dismissed three players. How will the rash of off-the-field incidents impact the Aggies this fall?

Tennessee (2:30 p.m. ET): How quickly can the Volunteers turn their recent recruiting success into on-field results? Butch Jones brought in the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class in the 2014 cycle, impressive for a team that hasn't been as successful on the field as it has historically been accustomed to. Are the Vols ready to take the next step, and perhaps go bowling? Also, questions about who the starting quarterback will be will certainly be directed at Jones. One other topic of discussion is likely to center on the status of leading receiver Pig Howard, who took a leave of absence from the team during spring practice for personal reasons and who Jones said in May would be part of summer strength and conditioning but has "certain stipulations and requirements that must be met for him."
We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Mississippi State.

Most important game: Sept. 20 at LSU

Key players: In a way, highlighting the "key players" is a part of why this game is so important for Mississippi State. Because, given all that LSU lost from last season, we can't have any way of knowing who will make an impact on this game. The Tigers won't have an established starter at quarterback, running back or wide receiver. The defense, while promising, won't be on its feet yet.

In other words, it's the perfect time for Mississippi State to get LSU. You don't want to face a team that talented when it's had time to realize its potential.

Mississippi State, on the other hand, is loaded with experience. Dak Prescott is the unquestioned starting quarterback, and he has all the tools to make coach Dan Mullen's offense go. The running backs, led by Josh Robinson, are deep, as is the wide receiver corps, which features a couple of playmakers in Jameon Lewis and De'Runnya Wilson. But the real question will be how the offensive line, minus former great Gabe Jackson, will hold up against a defense in LSU's that routinely dominates the line of scrimmage.

Why it matters: This will be a "prove it" type of game for Mullen and Mississippi State. There's so much reason for optimism around Starkville -- a talented quarterback, an emerging group of playmakers, a defense that is truly two-deep at every position -- but until we see results, it's hard to believe that this year will be any different. By beating a team like LSU on the road, it would send a message that this year's Bulldogs are for real.

The second reason -- and maybe the most compelling -- for this being a pivotal game is the way the schedule sets up, which is about as well as any coach could ask for. Mississippi State feasts on cupcakes the first three weeks of the season (Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama) before going on the road to LSU (again, you want the Tigers early). If the Bulldogs survive Baton Rouge, then they get a well-timed bye week before hosting Texas A&M and Auburn (you want both at home). Survive that and there's another bye week before a nice run of winnable games against Kentucky, Arkansas and UT Martin.

Think its unreasonable that Mississippi State goes 8-1 in that time? Think again.

If Mississippi State beats LSU early and gains the accompanying confidence of such a win, the outlook of its season and the SEC West as a whole changes considerably. Lose that game and you start to question whether this really is the year for the Bulldogs to contend for the division title.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Brian Johnson wants his quarterbacks prepared for anything. It’s not enough to be tall and fast and strong, or to have a powerful and accurate arm. As the old boxing adage goes, everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face. Or something unexpected happens. So Johnson asks his players to be instinctive and make what he calls, “superior spontaneous decisions.”

Bad snap? No problem.

Can’t find the laces? Make due.

[+] EnlargeBrian Johnson
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMIBrian Johnson is only seven years older than his starting QB at Mississippi State.
Wrestling the ball away from a 300-pound defensive lineman? Remember the drill.

"You may think it was easy," Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott explained, "but when you fall and someone is trying to take the ball you don’t want to go against them, you want to go with them.”

Johnson taught him that. He also taught him how to dig an errant snap out of the dirt and how to catch the ball with one hand. In as much as this past spring was about fundamentals and repetitions, the preamble to Prescott’s would-be breakout season was also about learning new things from a new position coach, one who loves to challenge him with awkward situations.

“If you looked [at practice], you’d think it was basketball,” Prescott said. “It’s the ball between the legs, dropping the ball and trying to catch it before it hits the ground.”

Johnson, who left Utah in February to coach quarterbacks at Mississippi State, handles his players a little differently than his predecessor, Les Koenning. Some of that is the way he runs practice. A big part of it is perspective. Koenning has been a football coach for the better part of four decades, a career that began in 1981. Johnson, meanwhile, was born in 1987 and is only six years removed from a storied playing career at Utah that saw him become the school’s all-time leader in wins.

It’s not that Koenning wasn’t a good coach. But Johnson is more relatable to today’s athlete.

Prescott will better understand going up against Alabama because Johnson threw for 336 yards and beat Nick Saban’s defense in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. He’ll better understand his newfound fame and his role as a Heisman Trophy contender because Johnson was Alex Smith’s backup in 2004 when he finished fourth in the Heisman balloting, and Johnson was once on the cover of the EA Sports NCAA Football video game.

And if that’s not enough, Johnson too has played for Dan Mullen. After all, it was Mullen who recruited Johnson to Utah when Urban Meyer was head coach there. It was that preexisting relationship that drew the two together when Koenning went to Texas.

“The guy has played in a lot of big games, has been in their shoes and in their shoes recently," Mullen said. "The fact that he was recruited by me and played a year for me, he knows my expectations, which are pretty high.”

Mullen didn’t hire Johnson simply because he’s young and relatable. It helped, but ultimately he was brought to Starkville to produce. The SEC West is wide open this year. The old excuses of a lack of playmakers and an underwhelming quarterback no longer exist. The parts are all there for Mississippi State to make a run. If Prescott doesn’t develop into an All-SEC quarterback, it would come as a disappointment.

“Obviously there are huge expectations coming in,” Johnson said.

“By no means are we a finished product in what we want to be. We want to continually get better, continually find ways to improve.”

That statement might be a well-worn coaching cliché, but it’s also what Johnson believes. He might be only 27 years old, but setbacks as both a player and coach have left him well-seasoned to the game. Mississippi State represents a fresh start, one he isn’t taking for granted.

“Already at a young age he’s had some ups and downs in his career, and in talking to him, he’s not fazed by any of that,” Mullen said. “To me, that’s something that’s really important. He knows what his job is going to be. As a young guy he’s been in several different roles already, and I think he’s handled all those really well.”

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDak Prescott is looking to improve after accounting for 23 total TDs last season but also seven interceptions and a 58 percent completion percentage.
As Johnson sat behind his new desk this spring talking about the move from Utah and the moving truck he still needed to return, he wasn’t trying to sell his youth or his recent playing experience. In fact, he said, “The whole age deal really doesn’t affect me. ... I’ve been young in everything I’ve done in life.”

He could have easily went on and on about what a marvelous talent Prescott is, noting how he finished last season with an epic come-from-behind win over rival Ole Miss before putting on a five-touchdown show in the bowl game against Rice. But the most Johnson will say is, “I like where he’s at” and “he’s super experienced in the system.”

“He’s everything that you look for when you go out and try to recruit a quarterback and an ambassador of your program,” Johnson said of his junior QB. “He’s an extremely hard worker, intelligent and he really raises the level of play.”

And that’s the point. We know about Prescott’s talents and his understanding of Mullen’s offense. Those building blocks are established.

It’s the unknown that we haven’t seen. How will he handle pressure situations? How will he react when something goes wrong? If there’s a loose ball and he’s near it, will he come up with the possession? Will he make the “superior spontaneous decisions” that take quarterbacks from good to great?

If Johnson and his drills have anything to do with it, he will.

“Nobody touches the ball more than [the quarterback],” Johnson said. “You have to be able to handle the ball at awkward angles. What we try to accomplish is creating game-like situations and stuff that’s really going to happen and they can go back and see it on film and say, ‘Hey, that’s our individual drill right there’ when they had to bend at an awkward angle to catch a bad snap or catch a one-handed snap. Stuff like that shows up over the course of playing the position.

“We make it hard for them so when they get in the game it’s not as hard.”

DESTIN, Fla. -- If the college football recruiting landscape does change, the SEC made sure this week that it will be ready.

A couple of weeks after watching the ACC propose an early signing period to begin on Aug. 1, the SEC on Wednesday offered its own recommendation to have a signing day on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said he hopes there won't be an early signing period, but if there is, he wants his league to be prepared.

The league wasn’t happy about the ACC’s proposal for an earlier signing period because of how it would change the recruiting calendar, something the SEC absolutely doesn't want. The league also decided that in its model, it would ban official visits for recruits who want to sign early, therefore lessening the pressure and clutter of having overstocked official visits during the season and on game weekends.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisMississippi State's Dan Mullen believes a late November early signing day would protect both the prospects and the schools.
SEC coaches believe that a signing period that comes after the college and high school regular seasons allows recruits to play out their senior seasons while studying the teams they’re interested in and figuring out coaching staff stability. By banning official visits for recruits who want to sign early, coaches wouldn't have to cram important recruiting visits in during the season and could focus on coaching their teams.

An early signing period would also save money as coaches wouldn't have to invest in recruiting trips to re-recruit already committed prospects.

“I’ve been a proponent of that for years,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “It’s long overdue.

“It clears the picture up.”

To Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, it clearly makes sense for the league.

“It’s one that keeps our calendar pretty consistent. It allows the guys that have been committed to their school to sign with that school,” Mullen said. “It also protects the student-athlete as best as possible.”

When Mullen says “protects,” he means that players who don’t want to bother with the recruiting process won’t have to hear from opposing coaches still trying to get their signature before national signing day on the first Wednesday of February. The recruit also would guarantee his spot in the class by signing early.

Mullen also said that the SEC's proposal would protect the schools that don’t want to lose those recruits with months remaining before they sign their national letters of intent.

In the current recruiting culture, you just can’t take every recruit at his word. This way, you take him at his signature before Christmas rolls around.

The SEC’s model would make the Monday after Thanksgiving a one-day signing day and a dead day for communication between coaches and recruits. The Sunday before would become a quiet day, and Tuesday would begin the next recruiting period.

Richt One of the other leagues proposed Aug. 1. We think that would be crazy.

-- Georgia coach Mark Richt, on an ACC proposal for an early signing day
The goal would be to not make this the new national signing day. This is just for the handful of prospects whose minds are made up.

“Obviously, if you’ve got guys that have signed and are with you no matter what, you don’t have to continue to worry, ‘Is this guy going to change his mind; is he going to flip at the last second?” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Everyone would like some sanity in that regard.”

What Richt does find insane is the ACC’s proposal to have an early signing period before the regular season even starts, which would essentially destroy the current recruiting calendar and rush spring and summer evaluations.

“One of the other leagues proposed Aug. 1. We think that would be crazy,” he said. “We think there would be no summer for anybody, no sanity for anybody.”

The SEC and ACC have plans, but whether this happens is unknown. To Florida coach Will Muschamp, getting enough people to agree on a date could be a mountain of an obstacle because of varying agendas for different schools.

“A lot of coaches, including myself, don't want an inordinate amount of visits during the season because it takes away from your football team and your preparation, your preparation for the next week, so I really think we're going to have a hard time agreeing on something that's good for everybody just because of the regions of the country,” Muschamp said. “A lot of the northern schools don't want kids visiting in January because it's freezing cold and they lie to them and tell them it's really warm year-round. I think that's something you've got to deal with, so I don't know if we're ever going to come to a common ground in my opinion, based on the information I have.”

Judging by what many conference members have said, it appears the sport is creeping closer and closer to an early signing day, with the interest mounting from coaches. What’s a little more change in college football, anyway?
There’s still the not-so-small matter of taking on the SEC West, but otherwise Mississippi State couldn’t ask for an easier path to Atlanta for the league championship game.

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)
Aug. 30: Southern Miss (1-11)
Sept. 6: UAB (2-10)
Sept. 13: South Alabama (6-6)
Nov. 8: Tennessee-Martin (7-5)

SEC home games
Oct. 4: Texas A&M
Oct. 11: Auburn
Nov. 1: Arkansas
Nov. 22: Vanderbilt

SEC road games
Sept. 20: LSU
Oct. 25: Kentucky
Nov. 15: Alabama
Nov. 29: Ole Miss

Gut-check time: Let’s face it -- we won’t learn much of anything about Mississippi State in the first three weeks of the season. We’ll get to the competition in the “Snoozers” section below because the Bulldogs really should be able to sleepwalk through it. Dak Prescott should post big numbers and the defense should be dominant, especially at the line of scrimmage, where it's as stout as any team in the SEC. Chris Jones, for example, isn’t even technically a starter and he was one of the most promising defensive linemen in the league last season. But Week 4 reality hits State hard in the form of a trip to Death Valley. We’ll learn as much about the mental makeup of this team as its talent. LSU’s defense will challenge Prescott’s arm and legs (ask Johnny Manziel), and the Tigers’ running game should give the Bulldogs' defensive line all it can handle.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesUntil Mississippi State visits Les Miles and LSU on Sept. 20, we won't know too much about the Bulldogs.
Trap game: As tempting as it is to pick South Alabama -- a game before a huge matchup with LSU and a game in Mobile, Ala., which feels crazy -- it’s just too impossible to imagine an upset of that epic of proportions. Instead, circle Vanderbilt on the calendar. Yes, those same Commodores who are rebuilding under new coach Derek Mason. But Vanderbilt should have worked out the kinks by Week 13 of the season, and coming between games at Alabama and at Ole Miss, there’s a chance the Bulldogs won't give the Commodores their full attention. With the all-important Egg Bowl looming and the potential to shore up its postseason chances on the horizon, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see the Bulldogs sleep on a Vanderbilt team that is likely to fly under the radar this season.

Snoozers: Southern Miss. UAB. South Alabama. Oh, you want more? Can you handle the FCS squad UT-Martin? The 2016 season can’t get here soon enough if you’re a fan of quality nonconference games. Mississippi State is adding a bunch of seats to its stadium this year, but it might be a dicey proposition to fill them all against the Golden Eagles, Dragons and Skyhawks. (See, chances are you can’t match the mascot with the team. It’s that bad.) A year after traveling to Houston to open the season against ranked Oklahoma State, Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule comes as a major letdown. Sleep in on those Saturdays because you’re not likely to miss anything.

Telltale stretch: Thankfully for Mississippi State, there’s a bye week that falls during its most challenging four-week stretch of the season. We’ll find out whether Mississippi State is a contender or a pretender based on how it survives LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Getting LSU and Texas A&M early on is a plus, as both teams are much younger this season, but they’re also loaded with talent and led by two pretty darn good coaches in Les Miles and Kevin Sumlin. Then there’s the matter of Auburn, which brings back both experience and talent. But if Mississippi State plays well, watch out. Running the table would make the Bulldogs front-runners to win the West and taking two out of three would ensure that they stay in the race. Lose two or all three and there might not be any surviving that.

Final analysis: Dan Mullen is staring down something of a double-edged sword this season. On the one hand, his schedule sets up perfectly with a cakewalk of a nonconference slate and the least threatening crossover games any team could hope for with Kentucky and Vanderbilt. And with Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama to start the season, he’ll have plenty of time to work out the kinks before going on the road to LSU -- a young team that you’d rather get early than late. Then it’s a bye week before Texas A&M and Auburn come to Starkville on consecutive Saturdays -- and if you’re going to get those two, get them at home. Realistically, the over/under on wins could be around 8.5, and that might be conservative, as Mississippi State should be heavily favored in at least seven games and Ole Miss looks like a toss-up. But that points to the perilous edge to the schedule Mullen must consider: strength of competition. Can you go from Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama to LSU? Can you get up for Alabama when you’ve gone bye-Kentucky-Arkansas-UT Martin in the previous four weeks? On the one hand, Mississippi State is eyeing prime conditions, but on the other hand you wonder what its conditioning will be like when the challenges come.
This year, the SEC has a few schools that will be relying heavily on their quarterbacks to help them get out of a bit of a rut. These guys have the responsibility of taking their programs either up, or down. It's the price for wanting to be a star in this league.

Jobs are on the line. Fan bases are hungry. These quarterbacks will have to deliver for their respective programs to get on track in 2014.

So who are the potential program-saving quarterbacks in the SEC? We have three:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel must bounce back from injury for the sake of the Gators and the future of Will Muschamp.
1. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: He didn't get to show off the growth his teammates and coaches saw last year after an early leg injury cut his 2013 season short, but the pressure is on Driskel to perform -- and win -- in 2014. He's running a more Driskel-friendly spread under new OC Kurt Roper and looked a lot more comfortable in the shotgun this spring. After a disastrous 4-8 season, the direction of the program -- and coach Will Muschamp's job -- could rest heavily on Driskel and how he evolves under his third offensive coordinator in four years.

2. Brandon Allen, Jr., Arkansas: Allen trudged through last season by averaging less than 150 yards per game and completing less than 50 percent of his passes. The Hogs weren't a passing threat, and if this program is going to see any sort of improvement, Allen has to make the passing game respectable again. The pressure increases without a proven star receiver to throw to, but it sounds like Allen improved this summer and separated himself in the quarterback battle. Coach Bret Bielema would love to pound opponents with his running game, but if teams don't respect the pass, they'll gobble up the running game.

3. Drew Barker, Fr., Kentucky: While he will still be in the thick of a heated competition with redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles this fall, there's no question that Barker is being viewed by most as the future of Kentucky's program. The future could be sooner than later if he continues develop through fall camp. Barker being the guy doesn't mean the Wildcats will make it back to a bowl game this season, but it could start the wheels in motion for this program to rebound. That's a lot for a true freshman to take in, but he signed up for this.

Honorable mention: Johnny McCrary, RFr., Vanderbilt: The quarterback competition at Vandy is far from over, but McCrary might be the most talented quarterback on the Commodores' roster. He brings a little bit more to the table athletically and could be a real difference-maker if he's the guy this year and could be the quarterback of the future to help continue Vandy's momentum.

What about guys who could help bring in top talent at the position with a solid year? We have a few more:

1. Dylan Thompson, Sr., South Carolina: We all know that Connor Mitch is waiting in the wings, but a solid season by Thompson could make throwing the pigskin at South Carolina look that much more desirable to high school prospects. Connor Shaw might have started that trend, and Thompson could ramp up excitement.

2. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Mauk really impressed when he took over from James Franklin for a month last season. Now, he has a chance to be a terror for SEC defenses on a regular basis. Seeing another quarterback put up monster numbers in Mizzou's offense will have younger QBs drooling.

3. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: Everyone knows that Auburn loves to run the ball, but the Tigers want to evolve into more of a passing team. Marshall has been working more on his throwing, and if he can make this team more dangerous through the air, Auburn should start hearing from more elite young passers.

4. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: There's about an 80-percent chance that Worley will be the starter to begin the season. We've seen only flashes from him, but if he can direct the Vols to a winning season or a bowl berth, this job will be more attractive to top recruits.

5. Dak Prescott, Jr., Mississippi State: He's revamping parts of his game this year in order to be a more complete player. Getting wins and making Dan Mullen's offense look really fun to play in will make more quarterbacks take notice of the Bulldogs.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi State strength coach Rick Court had a very important message for quarterback Dak Prescott this spring: Durability is more important than ability.

it’s valuable advice for someone who dealt with injury last year, is designed to make plays with both his arm and legs, and is looking to make his game more technically sound,.

“I’m going to keep that in my mind and use that for the rest of my life,” Prescott told ESPN.com in March.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDak Prescott has been a skilled runner but is now learning to be more patient in the pocket.
That attitude starts this fall, his first year as the Bulldogs’ unquestioned starter. Prescott said he doesn’t need to “overexert” himself and do “stupid things” on the field that could put him at a higher risk for injury.

The rising junior grew up playing defense, so he craves contact. He loves throwing his body around and delivering bone-rattling blocks when the moment arises. But Prescott’s mindset is now about staying healthy in a year in which expectations are lofty in Starkville and he’s being looked at as more than just an All-SEC player.

For all the good that Prescott did late last season for Mississippi State, he still has a ways to go if he’s going to help the Bulldogs challenge for the SEC Western Division crown in 2014.

“The guys around me -- my teammates -- everybody in this building and this university just make it easy [to improve],” he said. “They make it exciting to get to come up here every day and get better, practice with these guys and get better at what I love to do.”

Prescott’s story is an inspiring one, but his success really was very short term. He passed for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns and led the Bulldogs with 829 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, but his best ball came late in that ugly win over Ole Miss in the regular-season finale and during the Bulldogs’ blowout win over Rice in the bowl game.

He showed his resiliency and character when he came back after the passing of his mother last November, and his bowl performance (361 yards of offense and five touchdowns) was impressive, but Prescott must build on his late-season heroics. He can’t afford to be a flash-in-the-pan player.

Prescott is looking to rebuild his on-field image. He wants his feet to be faster, his decision-making quicker, and he wants to process more than just one play before, during and after the ball is snapped.

If Prescott is going to be a more complete player, he has to learn how to adjust when plays break down. He needs to recognize defenses, especially when they show exotic looks. He wants to manage things when they go outside of the norm, and he wants to keep his feet steady after the first, second and third progressions.

Prescott is almost starting over, but he showed tremendous progress with his evolution this spring.

“The great thing about him is that he’s a hard worker. He wants to be good at that stuff, and that’s where you see the improvement come,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “Despite the fact that he thinks, ‘I’m the starting quarterback now,’ he’s going to be one of the hardest workers every day out there on the field.”

And that’s exactly what Prescott needs to do. He’s going to hear his name mentioned more in the coming months so he has to focus on the field.

Prescott said he’s never received this sort of attention, but it hasn’t gotten to him. This spring, Prescott kept his head in his playbook and quietly went about his business, throwing for 131 yards and registering two total touchdowns in Mississippi State’s spring game. There were flashes of maturity that Prescott hopes to take into the fall to combat any sort of hype.

“We’re a team and no one person on this team is going to be better or bigger than the team,” Prescott said. “That doesn’t mean much, but it feels good, I guess you’d say.”

His teammates have no problem following him. After watching Prescott share time with Tyler Russell and freshman Damian Williams, players realized that Prescott never took time off from working as a starter. He was always up, always positive, and always motivating guys, even when he wasn’t on the field or practicing.

“He’s the top dog of the team, and not just because he’s the quarterback,” center Dillon Day said. “In our offseason workouts, the way he works, the way he attacks [working out], the way he tries to motivate other people to get on his level because he’s way up here and he’s trying to bring everybody right up with him.”

Last season, we saw signs of greatness, if only for a small amount of time. Now, with his top five receiving targets back and more knowledge filling his brain, Prescott said he has only scratched the surface.

So what's next?

“I don’t know how to answer that, but there’s a lot more to come, I’d say,” Prescott said.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It’s been nearly three months since the Super Bowl, and Dan Mullen is still gloating.

Before the big game in early February, he told his assistant coaches at Mississippi State to pay attention to Percy Harvin. He didn’t care that Harvin was more statue than standout for Seattle during the season. He took one look at Harvin's underwhelming production due to injuries -- three games played, four receptions, no touchdowns -- and knew not to be fooled.

Mullen understood the cold hard truth about playmakers like Harvin, whom he coached as offensive coordinator at Florida: In the biggest moments, they always show up.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisDan Mullen is looking for guys who can score, and the Mississippi State offense looks to have some options this fall.
“They said Percy wasn’t going to play much,” Mullen recalled. “I said, ‘It’s the Super Bowl. He’s playing. And not only is he playing, if they kick it to him he will score. As soon as he touches the ball on a kickoff in the open field, he will score.’ [Defensive coordinator] Geoff Collins texted me and said, ‘C’mon man!’”

On his first touch, Harvin took an end around 30 yards. After a short reception, he carried another end around 15 yards for a first down. And then, on the opening kickoff of the second half, he ran the ball back 87 yards for a touchdown.

Voilà!

Now if only Mullen could make another Percy Harvin magically appear.

When Mullen arrived at State in 2008, he was greeted with the usual sort of optimism. And in terms of wins, he has delivered, taking the Bulldogs to a bowl game in each of the last four seasons. But in terms of hype, he’s fallen short of creating the kind of dynamic offense he became known for at Florida, featuring multitalented weapons like Harvin, Tim Tebow and Chris Rainey. Instead, his quarterbacks have been inconsistent, his receivers underwhelming and his running backs, while productive, have never been home-run hitters.

This year Mullen hopes to change that. He sees playmakers emerging. Dak Prescott, who is being billed as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, won’t have to do it all on his own.

“We ask, Who can score?” Mullen said. “Dak can’t score. He can score inside the 5, but that means we have to get the ball all the way down inside the 5. But in the SEC, who can score? … Who in the field can make you miss, take a 5-yard play and turn it into a 50-yard play? That’s important to us.”

Because of his height (5-foot-9) and role as receiver/return specialist, Jameon Lewis fits the Harvin mold the best of any player on State’s roster. He may not have his top-end speed, but he has a version of it. And even a poor man’s Harvin can score plenty, as Lewis did with five receiving and three rushing touchdowns last season. His 118.2 all-purpose yards per game ranked sixth in the SEC.

Consistency, though, will be key. Of Lewis’ eight touchdowns, six were against sub-.500 or non-BCS opponents.

“We have to consistently get the ball in his hands,” Mullen said, whether that's motioning him in the backfield or having him take direct snaps. “He’s certainly helped himself as a wide receiver learning to be a route-runner. Instead of saying, ‘Hey coach, put the ball in my hands and I can run around like I did in high school and make stuff happen,’ I said, ‘Hey, you have to get open. You have to run routes so we can get the ball in your hands first.’”

Helping Lewis will be De'Runnya Wilson, who present his own set of challenges at 6-5 with the ability to jump out of the gym. The part-time basketball player came into his own late during his freshman season, catching 16 passes and two touchdowns over his final five games. As Mullen said, “He might not run away from you, but one-on-one he can go over you.”

Wilson’s size and Lewis’ escapability play well off one another, making for a tough assignment on defense, Collins explained.

“De’Runnya is a big, physical receiver out on the edge,” he said. “Jameon is a mismatch for linebackers or even some nickel backs. And then you have Dak, who can throw it with the best of them and then is a threat to run, which makes it difficult for a play-caller to make sure you’re hitting all the right bases.”

LaDarius Perkins and Vick Ballard were solid running backs, but this season's group has the chance to be special.

“We’re better at running back this year than we were last year,” Mullen said. “Now that’s hard to say with Perkins being gone, who was a great player for us. But Josh Robinson is really now to the point where he’s developed into a legit back. He knows what he’s doing out there on the field. Ashton Shumpert is back, now with experience. Nick Griffin is as healthy as he’s been in three years. And I finally smartened up and put Brandon Holloway -- he was a high school tailback at 165 pounds that we tried to make into a slot receiver, he’s the fastest kid on the team -- back at running back.

“I hate comparing him to anyone up north,” Mullen added of Holloway, “but he’s a Dexter McCluster type player who isn’t a big guy, but plays off of contact a lot bigger than he is. … He’s electric in the perimeter and is physical enough of a player.”

Prescott, for his part, couldn’t help but smile. Running the read-option with those backs could be lethal. And as good as Lewis and Wilson could be, there’s also Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson to consider.

Prescott pointed to the come-from-behind victory over Ole Miss and the 44-point, 533-yard win against Rice as only the start of where the offense is headed.

“We have experience coming back at every position,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of talented receivers, big and small. They can do all do different things. We’ve got a great group of running backs that performed well this offseason.

“We can be as good as we want to.”

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