USA TODAY Sports
The Mississippi State head coach has made some progress during his four seasons in Starkville. But can he make enough?
You can't really say that no one saw Mississippi State's fall from the Top 15 coming. If anything, more people likely saw the last-season slide coming than missed it. Sure, the Western Division Bulldogs were 7-0, but the wins came against Jackson State, one of the worst Auburn teams of all time, at Troy, against transitioning FBS school South Alabama, at a dreadful Kentucky team, against the already-sinking H.M.S. Dooley and Middle Tennessee.
But the speed and thoroughness of the beatdowns that followed was impressive. Mississippi State lost its next three games -- at Alabama, against Texas A&M and at LSU -- by a combined 113-37 score. The only win in the final six games of the season came against hapless Arkansas. For the fourth consecutive year, Mississippi State finished fourth or worse in the SEC West. MSU beat not just one but two non-Ole Miss SEC West teams for the first time in Dan Mullen's tenure -- but it also lost to Ole Miss for the first time since Mullen took over.
So if it feels a bit like Mullen's program is running in place right now -- well, it is. Over the last three seasons, Mullen has averaged eight wins a year, with the Gator Bowl being the highest bowl berth the Bulldogs have managed to grab over that time frame. That doesn't make Mississippi State a bad team by any means; more than half of the college football teams in a given season would take eight wins without a second thought. But eight wins isn't going to win the SEC West any time soon, and even a nine-win division title seems unlikely as long as Nick Saban, Kevin Sumlin and Les Miles remain at their respective posts.
The question might be what Dan Mullen can do next year. The conventional wisdom, at least, is that a college coach is likely going to do as well as he's done by the fifth season, when his first class of redshirted players and second class of non-redshirted players are in their senior years, and a good batch of recruits are juniors or seniors.
In this case, at least, the CW is generally right. Nick Saban won his first SEC title at LSU in his second season and a national title in his fourth; Saban's first SEC and national titles at Alabama came during his third campaign in Tuscaloosa. Urban Meyer won his first national championship in his second season at Florida, after busting the BCS at Utah in his second year there. Les Miles did it in his third year at LSU. Gene Chizik won his title in his second season, though perhaps he's not the best example to use. Mark Richt has never won the crystal football, but part of that was bad timing on his 13-1 season -- which came during his second year in Athens.
An intriguing counterpoint to that is Steve Spurrier. Not so much at Florida; while it took until his seventh season to claim a national title, Spurrier would have won the SEC in his inaugural season if the Gators weren't on probation and did win it in his second. But during his first five seasons as a Gamecock, Spurrier averaged seven wins a season, finished higher than third in the SEC East just once and went 1-3 in bowl games. Since then, Spurrier has gone 31-9, won the school's first division title and come close in the two other years.
In a way, Mullen might need more time. One reason to wonder about the Bulldogs in 2013 is that Mississippi State is losing a good bit of talent next year. Perhaps not a lethal amount, but a good deal. The team's top four receivers -- wideouts Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark and tight end Marcus Green -- are all seniors. Tyler Russell, LaDarius Perkins and most of the offensive line will return, but the passing attack will need new targets to emerge.
The defense will lose three quarters of its backfield, including Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks, who accounted for nine of State's 19 interceptions. Linebacker Cameron Lawrence, the team's leading tackler, is graduating.
Of course a good deal of talent will also leave before 2014, including Russell and Perkins. To an extent, that's life in the SEC and college football. This year might not be Dan Mullen's last chance to make a run at the SEC West, but one has to wonder how many seasons he can fall short before we have to ask if he can ever do it at all.