A sort of sameness has set in when we start to do the posts about Mississippi State football that we do for all the other SEC teams -- previews, post-season reports, etc. Dan Mullen's team was solid, but not great. The Bulldogs aren't at the bottom of the SEC West, but still aren't near the top. And yet, Mullen can still make a plausible claim of being the most consistently successful Mississippi State coach in 60 years.
After all, Mullen is 36-28 in his five seasons in Starkville, which isn't the most impressive record in the era of one FCS game a year. And 2013 was just about the definition of a predictable season: With the possible exception of the Egg Bowl victory against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs pretty much won the games you would expect them to win and lost the games you would expect them to lose. Sometimes they got those wins by incredibly narrow margins -- one point against Bowling Green, six points against Kentucky -- but they still ended up on the right side of the scoreboard.
Another season of treading water for Mississippi State, and another season that raised the same question about Mullen that we've all been asking, though not in these words, about the Bulldogs' head coach for two or three years now: Is he Mississippi State's answer to Lou Holtz or Steve Spurrier?
Consider the parallels between South Carolina in the late 1990s and early 2000s and Mississippi State before Mullen came aboard. A mediocre program with the occasional flash of brilliance that had fallen on particularly hard times. After an 0-11 start to his tenure, Holtz guided South Carolina to a 33-26 record over the next five years -- just a few points off Mullen's winning percentage in his five seasons. But fans grew disillusioned with Holtz's seeming inability to get the Gamecocks past the "respectable" point, and he retired.
Then, of course, Spurrier came to Columbia. He went 35-28 over his first five seasons -- precisely one fewer win than Mullen has put together so far. Spurrier didn't have the breakout 9-4 year that Mullen has on his resume, but the Gamecocks also didn't have a losing record in the Head Ball Coach's first season. Even some South Carolina fans felt Spurrier's program had hit a rut -- before it won the SEC East in 2010, seemingly out of nowhere, and reeled off a 42-11 mark over the next four years.
Some of the "perfect storm" that helped South Carolina win the East in 2010 -- specifically, the simultaneous collapses of Florida and Georgia -- might not be replicable for Mississippi State. For MSU to win the West, not only would Alabama and LSU need to collapse, Texas A&M's rebuilding job would have to be much harder than anyone expects.
But even if 2013 didn't set the stage for a run at Atlanta, it still saw the emergence of some potentially encouraging signs for Bulldog fans hoping for improvement. Jameon Lewis comes back for his senior season after catching 64 passes for 923 yards -- the fourth-most yards in a single season in Mississippi State history and the most since 1982. Dak Prescott's passing efficiency numbers weren't great, but they weren't terrible either, and he led the team in rushing for 829 yards and 13 touchdowns on 134 carries. If his passing game matures in the offseason, Prescott could be one of the conference's stars at a position that has been decimated by attrition and the draft.
Caveat caveat, but performances even close to the show Mississippi State put on during the Liberty Bowl would lead to a better showing in 2014. If so, 2013 could become for Mississippi State what 2008 was for South Carolina: the end of an era of futility, and the beginning of a second act for the coach. If not, then the Bulldogs will not have made much progress in six years under Dan Mullen, and it will be time to start asking some difficult questions.