STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When college football players boom nationally, three things usually happen:
1. They go to the NFL.
2. They return and bust.
3. They remain in the national spotlight
Then there's Dak Prescott. The Mississippi State quarterback has been a better player, both statistically and anecdotally, than he was in 2014, but he's barely noticed beyond Oktibbeha County. The Heisman Trophy debate in this region is Alabama's Derrick Henry vs. LSU's Leonard Fournette. Forgotten is the guy who finished eighth in Heisman voting last year, who this season has 18 touchdown passes and only one interception, who has completed 200 of 300 pass attempts, and who leads Mississippi State in rushing (418 yards) and rushing touchdowns (7).
When a team starts 3-2, the nation tunes out, no matter who's taking snaps. But here, they're all about Dak, now and forever.
"He's what Peyton Manning is to Tennessee, what [Steve] Spurrier and [Tim] Tebow were at Florida and Bo Jackson at Auburn, Herschel [Walker] at Georgia," said athletic director Scott Stricklin, a 1992 Mississippi State graduate. "Everybody has that guy that you think of when you think of their school. We've never really had that guy. I'm not saying Dak is at their level -- all those guys won Heisman Trophies -- but at our school, he's the guy that our fans will hold in that high esteem."
Mississippi State would love the No. 1 ranking, which it enjoyed for five weeks last season, and all that comes with it. But perhaps this season is the universe's way of giving a fan base without many iconic players a little longer to enjoy one all to itself.
Those who haven't been paying attention will likely themselves become familiar with Prescott on Saturday, as No. 17 Mississippi State hosts No. 2 Alabama. To assist in the process, here's a refresher on what the Bulldogs quarterback has been up to lately.
Dak Fact No. 1: He's a better player this season than last
Prescott broke 12 single-season team records in 2014, including marks for total offense (4,435), touchdowns responsible for (41) and 200-yard passing games (12). He had a Heisman moment at LSU -- his home state, no less -- when he sliced through the defense for a 56-yard touchdown run in Mississippi State's 34-29 win, its first at LSU since 1991. He had four games with at least 200 passing yards and at least 100 rushing yards, most in the nation.
But Prescott's 2014 performance doesn't match what he's doing this season.
"A much better player," quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said.
"A much better quarterback," added head coach Dan Mullen.
In 2014, Mullen needed Prescott to be a creator in an offense fueled by runs and play-action. This season, Prescott is tasked to produce in the pocket.
"He's always had a pretty good grasp, but this year, it's noticeable," wide receiver Fred Ross said. "He'll go from read one to read two to read three, and if that's not there, he'll go to a checkdown."
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Prescott is still a playmaker, but Mullen has pushed him to make "unspectacular" plays. There was the third-and-15 checkdown to running back Brandon Holloway against Louisiana Tech to set up a touchdown. Last Thursday at Missouri, Prescott found running back Ashton Shumpert for eight yards on third-and-7.
"It was versus deep concepts, and I pump-faked to get the deep route open," Prescott said. "The cornerback initially bit and then he turned his back and ran, and I had a guy in the flat where the cornerback was supposed to be. I knew if I got it to him quick, by the time the corner reacted or a linebacker got out there, he could go get that first down."
Mullen knows game manager doesn't sound sexy, but it's a quality he covets. Prescott is Mullen's play-calling actuary.
"He allows me to be riskier because he's not going to put us in bad situations," Mullen said. "Let's attack, attack, take a chance. He's going to get you out of problems, which is what you want."
Dak Fact No. 2: Football has become his master class
This fall, Prescott is working on a master's degree in workforce leadership (he completed his undergraduate work in educational psychology in December), and all his courses are online. But he's still doing graduate work in a classroom setting -- the offensive staff room.
When Mullen, Johnson and the other offensive coaches gather to game plan, Prescott almost always joins them. He watches film in the morning with the quarterbacks, and then returns after practice to study with the coaches. Prescott attended some game-planning meetings in 2014, but his flexible schedule this fall allows him to make many more.
"I knew the offense, but I wanted to completely master it," he said. "I want to feel like a coach. When they tell a receiver something, I can go tell him the same thing, and sometimes it means a little more coming from me."
Former Utah star Alex Smith was the last Mullen quarterback to attend so many meetings. Mullen thinks Tebow would have at Florida if Mullen had stayed for Tebow's final season. But just sitting in meetings means little without full understanding of the system.
The coaches lean on Prescott more than they did last season. The Bulldogs miss 1,200-yard rusher Josh Robinson, as none of their backs have more than 220 yards. The receiving corps is solid with De'Runnya Wilson and Ross, but Mississippi State has new starters at left tackle, center and right guard.
Johnson has never seen a player prepare like Prescott. His approach resonates even after mistakes, like his lone interception thrown Oct. 24 against Kentucky (Prescott still had a season-high 348 pass yards and three touchdowns in a 42-16 win).
"He's like, 'You saw what I saw,'" Mullen said. "I'm like, 'I saw it,' but check in that situation.' He's like, 'I'm not going to not take that opportunity to make a big play.' It's kind of like a graduate-level discussion. He comes on the sideline, and it's more discussion than lecture."
Mullen feels "freer" as a play-caller because Prescott understands why the play is being called and, more important, why he should change it if the defensive look isn't favorable. Prescott said Mullen often tells him, "I'm damn glad you're in these meetings."
"He's not on this level, but it's probably like [Drew] Brees down with the Saints, or Peyton Manning and Tom Moore for all those years," Mullen said. "Very rarely do you have the same combination of coach-quarterback working together for five years at any level. When you do, you see a lot of continuity, and that's the best thing."
Dak Fact No. 3: He's still the big man on campus
Prescott doesn't know every Mississippi State fan he encounters. But they know him.
"You get used to hearing the weirdest stories," he said. "They're comfortable telling you anything."
Celebrity can grow tiresome, especially in a small town where it's tough to hide. The constant demands became annoying last year ("I didn't want to put myself out there," Prescott said). He enjoys it more now, as his time dwindles. He doesn't rush fan interactions. He signs autographs and takes pictures and listens to weird stories.
"That's their quarterback," said Prescott's older brother, Tad. "They see him every Saturday, they see him on campus, at Walmart. They feel like they know him. We've all grown to love Starkville and the way they treat him."
Dak has long been a regular at Mississippi State athletic events. Stricklin has told his staff not to put Prescott on the video board at Humphrey Coliseum, but it happened last Friday while he attended a women's basketball exhibition. The swarm descended.
"I noticed he wasn't there much longer after that," Stricklin said. "He does as much as he can, given his notoriety."
After Prescott came off the bench to rally Mississippi State to an Egg Bowl win against Ole Miss in 2013, Stricklin called the quarterback into his office. His message: You're about to go to a place where we've never really had anybody go. Let me know what you need.
Since then, Prescott had reached out a few times, most notably after he and two teammates were assaulted while attending a concert on spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida.
"The first thing out of his mouth was, 'I know, I know, I can't do that,'" Stricklin said.
The spring break incident has made Prescott more cautious. The athletic complex is a haven. So is his apartment, where he'll play Call of Duty or FIFA 16 (Prescott is partial to FC Bayern Munich) with friends like Ross. "He doesn't go anywhere in Starkville without me on his hip," said Tad, who attends almost every game. But most fans are respectful, and most interactions positive.
Tad remembers Dak's first few seasons, when he could leave Davis Wade Stadium and walk to his car without being mobbed. Starting last year, Mississippi State has security escort Prescott through the crowd and drive him to his car. But Tad has an idea.
"After the Egg Bowl, with it being his senior year," Tad said, "he needs to walk through the campus so they can enjoy him one last time."
Dak Fact 4: He's savoring the moment and crafting a legacy
Dak Prescott is starting to feel it. Three regular-season games left, just two at Davis Wade -- Alabama and the Egg Bowl on Nov. 28, the perfect bookend to a career that truly took off in the same game two years earlier.
He arrived on campus in the spring of 2011, a lifetime ago. He grew up here. He became a star here. He was here when his mother, Peggy, was diagnosed with cancer. He was here when she passed away on Nov. 3, 2013.
At a recent practice, Prescott told the quarterbacks to remember that they're living a dream. We all wanted to play college football, and we're getting that opportunity. After practices, Mississippi State players usually remove their pads, pound a Gatorade and head to the locker room. Prescott is often the last one out there.
"He lingers," Stricklin said, "like he's appreciating what he's going through for the last time."
The appreciation is mutual. Prescott has the best winning percentage for a Mississippi State quarterback in team history (.724) and needs four wins to tie Wayne Madkin's record. He holds 36 team records, including every passing mark.
Mississippi State has had superstar quarterbacks, although it's been a while. Tom "Shorty" McWilliams was a four-time All-SEC selection in the 1940s. Jackie Parker, a 1953 All-America selection, is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
"He'll be the best football player Mississippi State has ever had," said Roy Ruby, Mississippi State's vice president of student affairs emeritus, who earned two degrees from the school in the 1960s. "He's also the greatest sports icon that Mississippi State has ever had in terms of public acceptance. He comes across to the public as such a genuine person."
Stricklin sees Prescott as a transcendent figure for Mississippi State.
"The number 15 will never be looked at the same way again," Stricklin said. "I imagine in 18 years, we'll be enrolling a bunch of freshmen named Dak, or Dakota."
Early this season, Tad jokingly asked Dak if he thought Mississippi State would one day build a statue of him. Tad loves the thought of kids taking their picture with his brother's statue for decades to come.
"He gave a Dak answer," Tad said. "'Not until I win something: a Heisman, an SEC title or a national title.'"
A win Saturday changes things. Mississippi State's poor finish to 2014 pushed Prescott to return to school, and the backslide started at Alabama, where he threw three interceptions. But Mississippi State only lost by five.
"Bama should be scared of this game," Tad said. "This is the one team [Dak] hasn't beaten. This is his time."
If Tad is right, national attention will spike. Heisman talk will heat up. But the significance of this season, mostly outside the spotlight, isn't lost on Dak Prescott.
He belongs to Mississippi State. Mississippi State belongs to him.
"All the way through the season, I've felt it," he said. "This is a family environment. I don't play just for myself, I don't play just for my mom. I play for everybody in this university."