Mississippi State awaits the next step

A little less than five minutes remained against Auburn, and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen stared down at a folded play-call chart and frantically fired off a directive.

Surely the scene left some Bulldogs fans questioning his sanity.

It was fourth-and-1. Mississippi State led 20-17. And it was at its 29-yard line.

So punt, right? Trust a defense that clamped down on the Tigers’ recently reinstalled hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Or at least that’s what Pete Roussel, founder of the influential CoachingSearch.com, mused when quarterback Dak Prescott lined up in the shotgun.

Fail, and ridicule was all but assured. Succeed? Well, a gamble that cashes in rarely draws the same scrutiny as going bust.

On this night, Prescott made Mullen a savant. The sophomore dashed through a fast-closing hole on the right side to pick up 2 yards in what became a 24-20 loss — one when the Bulldogs had numerous chances to lock up a victory.

It’s a microcosm of Mullen’s fifth season.

“Dan’s going to be very, very aggressive,” Roussel said. “He’s going to try and win games.”

In December 2008, Mullen was hired in Starkville as a whiz-kid coordinator fresh off tutoring Tim Tebow at Florida, taking a job no coach has left with a winning record and with modest resources compared to gilded Southeastern Conference peers in Tuscaloosa, Athens, Gainesville and Baton Rouge.

There’s little doubt Mullen, 41, has lifted Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1) out of relative doldrums, guiding the Bulldogs to a winning record in his tenure and three consecutive bowl games. Yet the question looms about whether there’s any potential remaining to maximize as No. 10 LSU (4-1, 1-1) arrives at 6 p.m. Saturday in Davis Wade Stadium.

“Around here, we’ve raised expectations outside of the program,” Mullen said Wednesday. “Our expectations have been high since the day we got here. But as we live up to it, we see that.”

By now, there’s the oft-cited stat underscoring the discussion, which is Mullen’s 2-18 record in games against Top-25 foes. Last season, State bolted to a 7-0 start and wheezed to a 1-5 finish, punctuated by a sloppy 34-20 loss to Northwestern on New Year’s Day in the Gator Bowl.

Out the door went 12 starters, and skeptical scribes tabbed the Bulldogs to finish sixth in the ever-tough Western Division. Notching an upset of LSU certainly would qualify as a rebuke of any criticism that Mullen’s turnaround efforts have ebbed.

“At some point, you’ve got to take the next step and win those types of games,” Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said. “You want to beat ranked teams and top-10 teams, but that’s hard for everybody.”

Still, a skeptic is left to wonder whether State’s march toward relevance turns into a slog — a task given additional urgency by the quick rebuild going on at rival Ole Miss, now ranked No. 24 in the country.

“You may see the gap continue to widen between the Rebels and the Bulldogs, unless coach Mullen can string together a pretty good year,” said Kynon Codrington, a Southeast region recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

No doubt, though, Mississippi State is better armed than when it hired Mullen, who signed a four-year contract extension in December that will pay him $2.65 million annually.

Since 2006, its athletic budget roughly doubled to $51.6 million in fiscal 2011 and is now between $60 million and $65 million. Stricklin likens his school’s approach to a small-market baseball franchise like the Oakland A’s. He said State can’t afford to throw money at a problem and must “make sure wins and losses aren’t about dollar signs.”

“If the determining factor is how much money you spend, it’s not good for us,” he said. “The conversation changes a little bit. We try to generate as much revenue as we can, but we’ve got to be smart in other ways.”

Yet State has been willing to sink dollars into infrastructure, such as a $75 million expansion of Davis Wade Stadium, which includes 60 field-level and 22 other suites (opening a new revenue stream) and will push capacity to 61,667.

“When I got here four years ago, we talked to our fans about selling out the stadium,” Mullen said, pointing out that State is aiming to run its sellout streak to 26 games. “On top of that, we needed facilities that were competitive within the league. One, in recruiting, we do have a facility where (players) can improve.”

January yielded the roughly $25 million Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex, gleaming and pristine at 80,000 square feet. It was another project underwritten by boosters, whose ranks in the school’s athletic club have grown to roughly 9,000 members.

“I’ve been in it twice, and it’s fantastic,” Roussel said.

That might be essential to keep pace with the Rebels, whose haul in February — a 27-man class ranked No. 8 nationally by Rivals, headed by No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche — was stunning and has the makings of another top-10 class for 2014.

“Trying to land an in-state target, they’re comparing their visit to Starkville with Oxford,” Codrington said. “They have to try to make it apples and apples instead of apples and oranges.”

Perhaps that has been the linchpin for Mullen — luring enough talent to a rural college town.

Over four years, his recruiting classes have averaged No. 32 nationally, based on Rivals rankings, and 10th in the SEC. The average signee entered with a three-star rating, meaning Mullen largely has been laden with “solid developmental prospects,” Codrington said.

Mullen has taken those prospects and put 12 players in the NFL — a figure it took eight years for State to produce before he took the job.

Sure, Mullen has some landed elite talent — such as five-star defensive end Chris Jones, a freshman — but an average of two top-150 recruits isn’t enough, Codrington said. Then there is the glaring omission: a high-profile quarterback in the vein of Tebow.

“We can talk all we want about recruiting a bunch of three-star guys and getting them to play at their best,” Roussel said. “But the fastest way is to recruit a big-time quarterback and keep doing what they’re doing.”

The state of Mississippi produced an average of roughly 32 prospects rated three stars or better by Rivals in the past five years. On a per-capita basis, the state ranks fifth in the SEC for producing recruits, with one three-star player for every 95,000 residents.

But is there enough to sustain both State and Ole Miss?

“It’s really not enough,” Codrington said. “They really have to spot-recruit elsewhere, and that’s pretty tough to do in the SEC.”

It’s a task made harder when the Bulldogs lose games like they did to Auburn — “That was a game they absolutely needed,” Roussel said — and struggles linger against the upper echelon of the nation’s preeminent conference.

Perhaps knocking off LSU would offer a new talking point for Mullen.

“All of a sudden,” Roussel said, “the momentum is swinging back.”