SEC: Gator Bowl 2012

Are eight wins enough at Mississippi State?

Obviously not, because it’s hard to find anyone in the Land of Cowbells who feels especially good right now about Mississippi State’s 8-5 finish this season.

That includes coach Dan Mullen, who despite what anybody says, has done a solid job with that program when you consider what had transpired in Starkville prior to his arrival. The Bulldogs, ravaged by NCAA sanctions, managed just one winning season from 2001-08.

Mullen, after taking over in 2009, has guided the Bulldogs to three straight winning seasons.

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AP Photo/Stephen MortonMississippi State's disappointing season was capped with a loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
But that seems like a hollow accomplishment given the way it all unraveled at the end of this season. After starting out 7-0 and climbing to No. 11 in the BCS standings, Mississippi State lost five of its last six games, a collapse that was punctuated by a 34-20 loss to Northwestern on Tuesday in the Gator Bowl.

Mullen didn’t hold back when asked how disappointing it was to lose five of the last six games.

“Excuse my language, but it sucks,” Mullen said. “Nobody likes to lose. Our kids put in … everybody puts in a lot of work to win football games. It was great to win a lot early. It sucks to lose late, to be honest with you.”

Trying to find a silver lining, Mullen pointed out that eight-win seasons were starting to become disappointing at Mississippi State, and he added, “That is the direction you want the program headed in.”

He’s right in theory, but a closer look at who the Bulldogs have beaten and who they haven’t beaten during Mullen’s tenure paints a very different picture.

Mullen is now 7-21 at Mississippi State against teams that finished the season with a winning record. It will be 7-22 if Ole Miss wins its bowl game.

The Bulldogs haven’t beaten an SEC team that finished the season with a winning record since their 10-7 win at Florida in 2010. They’ve now lost 11 straight games to nationally ranked opponents and are just 2-17 against ranked foes under Mullen.

In their four losses to ranked teams this season, they were outscored 147-57 and gave up 34 or more points in all four games.

It’s probably telling that Mullen switched it up and had co-defensive coordinator Geoff Collins call the plays in the bowl game. Changes are almost certainly coming. The Bulldogs were already looking for a cornerbacks coach after losing Melvin Smith to Auburn.

It’s also hard to feel good about what the offense did in the final part of the season. Quarterback Tyler Russell threw four interceptions against the Wildcats. One was returned 29 yards for a touchdown to open the game. Another set up the clinching touchdown after Nick VanHoose returned Russell's final pick 39 yards to the Mississippi State 5.

In the end, this will be a season that’s remembered more for how soft the Bulldogs’ schedule was to start the season than how well they performed on the field.

That doesn’t diminish the gains the program has made under Mullen, and it doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is finished climbing.

What it does mean is that eight wins aren’t enough, particularly when the seven wins against FBS competition come against teams that finished the season with a combined 29-56 record.

Mississippi State keys for Gator Bowl

December, 31, 2012
Here’s a look at three keys for Mississippi State in Tuesday’s matchup with Northwestern in the Gator Bowl:

1. Setting the tone early: It’s been a while since Mississippi State last won a football game. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas 45-14 back on Nov. 17 and lost four of their last five games to end the regular season. They need to have some success early in this game and regain their edge. That means moving the ball on offense and establishing themselves on defense. In three of their four losses, they trailed by 10 points or more at halftime and don’t want to have to play from behind against a Northwestern team that likes to play up-tempo on offense and is very good at keeping the chains moving with its zone-option game. Moreover, the Bulldogs have proven to be money when they have the lead late. They’re 28-0 under Dan Mullen when leading after three quarters.

2. Finding some balance on offense: Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell was one of the more improved quarterbacks in the country this season and put up excellent numbers. Senior receiver Chad Bumphis also had his best season, with an SEC-leading 12 touchdown catches. But when things went bad for the Bulldogs toward the end of the season, their running game went into the tank. Against SEC competition, they were 13th in the league in rushing offense with an average of 111.2 yards per game and were held under 50 yards rushing in three of their four losses. They need to get running back LaDarius Perkins going in this game. He needs just 60 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and being able to generate a running game will keep the Wildcats from loading up and coming after Russell.

3. Secondary revival: At one point this season, Mississippi State would have rated right up there as one of the top defensive backfields in the country, and the Bulldogs are still plenty talented back there. Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks won the Thorpe Award as college football’s top defensive back. The problem was that the Bulldogs didn’t play like one of the top defensive backfields to close the season. They had several communication breakdowns and gave up an average of 273.4 passing yards and 12 touchdowns in their last five games. They were burned for five touchdown passes in the 41-24 loss to Ole Miss to end the regular season. Establishing a stronger pass rush will help, but Mississippi State also needs to get back to playing to its talent level in the secondary and not allow Northwestern any big plays in the passing game. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC this season with 30 interceptions, but only picked off four passes in their last five games.