Dan Mullen is entering his sixth season at Mississippi State. It's somewhat hard to believe it's been that long. When he took the job, just about no one expected him to stay in Starkville this long. Either he would flame out quickly as his predecessor did, or he'd find success early and be out of town to a bigger job.
Instead he's found a solid, if unspectacular, groove with his program. He'll get you seven or eight wins a year, three or four of them being SEC wins, and a bowl somewhere between the Liberty and Gator. It's not elevating the program to national prominence, but it's also at the higher end of what the program has done historically over a period this long.
Settling in around here is not what Mullen wants for his program, though. He's talked since the moment he arrived about wanting to win the SEC, and that includes this offseason. To hear him tell it, he is not here to gut out bowl eligibility.
A lot of the hopes for the program this year rest on Dak Prescott. He appears to be the best quarterback Mullen has yet had in Starkville, and you can get odds (albeit long ones) on him winning the Heisman if you so choose. A lot of the hope comes from his sterling Liberty Bowl performance, but that was just the latest in a long pattern from Mullen's teams of torching bad opponents.
Prescott lit up MSU's mid-major opponents last year. He completed 62% of his passes with six TDs and only one interception for a passing efficiency of 165.9. Against major conference competition, he completed 57% of his passes with four TDs and six INTs for a passing efficiency of 110.1. Against those power league teams, he only broke 120 in passing efficiency against Kentucky.
Prescott is a capable runner, of course, with his 103 yards on 12 carries (8.6 YPC) against LSU being his best work there all things considered. He will damage teams on the ground, but his passing against teams with a pulse must improve. Mullen has raved about Prescott's progress as a passer this offseason, but he's often overly optimistic. We'll have to see how much of that improvement is real.
The good news is that Prescott doesn't have to win the Heisman for the team to have a good year. Mississippi State had one of the best defenses in the SEC a year ago, at least when it wasn't giving up 28 in the fourth quarter to LSU or facing Johnny Manziel. Four opponents scored their lowest and three more scored their second-lowest point totals of the year against MSU. The Bulldogs return almost the entire two-deep from that unit, so there will experience to go with the quality.
Alabama and LSU are replacing quarterbacks, Auburn's defense will again be iffy, and Mullen seems to have Ole Miss's number. If there's been a better time for Mullen to make a move, I haven't seen it. If Prescott really has improved, and if that defense plays to its capability, and if a few breaks fall their way, it could be a special season in Starkville.