January 1, 2014 9:29:03 PM
Matthew Stevens - email@example.com
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Following a blowout win in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen wasn't interested in talking about the team he'll have in 2014.
"A college football team has a shelf life of one year, so that team will not be born until Jan. 10 when we get together for our first team meeting," Mullen said after a 44-7 victory against Rice. "You just never know what kind of chemistry you'll develop or what your identity will be until you get in the midst of it."
Mullen's comment isn't going to stop fans from imagining the possibilities next season for a team that could return as many as 16 starters from a victory against the Conference USA champions that helped it finish 7-6 and win its final three games for the first time since 1974.
Beyond those 16 starters, the Bulldogs could have three one-time starters who missed the game due to injury back next season, too.
"You guys should know by now our expectations are to find a way to win the SEC West and represent Mississippi State and the whole state in Atlanta," Mullen said. "I think we embrace those high expectations as a program. I know our players do. We're gonna make sure we work to meet them."
Mullen, who has repeatedly said MSU "has a young team" in each of his five years as head coach at the school, acknowledged Tuesday that his 2014 roster will have a lot of experience.
"Will we have an old team? Geez, well no, but I think we're excited about the possibilities of our senior leadership and veterans," Mullen said. "I suppose that's fair to say."
MSU figures to lean heavily on quarterback Dak Prescott for production and leadership next season.
Prescott, who has two years of eligibility remaining, was named AutoZone Liberty Bowl MVP after he accounted for 361 yards of total offense, the fifth most in the history of the game.
ESPN college football analyst Jesse Palmer even pegged Prescott as a "dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy" next season.
"It really was all about the game plan and my teammates," Prescott said after his record-setting five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing). "On the rushing touchdowns, I basically walked in the end zone, and on my passing scores, my offensive line gave me all the time in the world."
Prescott, who dealt with the passing of his mother, Peggy, and a serious nerve injury to his throwing arm, will need to improve on his throwing and his running, but his skills appear to be a perfect fit to Mullen's spread-option offense.
"The guys on this team gravitate to him and know he's the leader on and off the field," MSU offensive coordinator Les Koenning said in a phone interview Wednesday morning.
"He's gotten to the point that when we bring in younger kids like an (early enrollee quarterback) Nick Fitzgerald, he's teaching that player. I gave Dak the marker in our meeting room and said, 'OK Dak, go through day one install with him' and the creativity in our meeting room allowed him to do it."
As he prepares to begin non-stop recruiting trips until signing day next month, Koenning's major concern is to build depth to close the talent gap between MSU and the elite programs in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division. Injuries cost MSU more than 120 starts throughout the year.
Those injuries left MSU with inexperienced replacements and prevented the Bulldogs from putting those younger players through "a developmental program.
"I've been around this game and a lot of programs in this business over the years, but I don't remember winning football games with three different quarterbacks," Koenning said. "That's really hard to do. It sounds so obvious, but in this league you have to stay healthy to compete at the level you want."
Koenning said his staff will continue to make sure Prescott's running attempts are done in a smart, efficient pattern to limit the physical punishment to his body. The physical pounding Prescott took this season could be one reason why he hasn't been fully healthy for an entire season since joining the program.
"I worry about everything with Dak," Koenning said with a laugh. "I know exactly what you're saying and yes, they need to be calculated risks. There's a fine line between playing safe and playing scared, which he never does."
Koenning remembered a telephone conversation he had to the coaching box during the season-opening loss vs. Oklahoma State where the decision to have Prescott run needs to be re-evaluated.
"He told me after a third-and-short play when I asked him why he didn't hand it off that, 'Coach I'm going to truck him', and I kept thinking, 'Well, we need to make sure we don't have him truck people all the time,' " Koenning said.
On defense, MSU likely will lose only senior starters defensive end Kaleb Eulls (defensive end) and Deonte Skinner (linebacker). It also should have the leadership coordinator Geoff Collins needs to play his aggressive scheme.
Despite reports Wednesday that redshirt sophomore Benardrick McKinney would declare for the 2014 NFL draft, Mullen said via text message he had serious doubts about the veracity of the news.
McKinney, who told reporters Sunday he felt he needed to improve significantly before considering the next level, easily became the signature player in Collins' attacking defense and a leader who could get the other 10 players lined up properly.
"As much as I love guys like Benardrick McKinney, Deonte Skinner, and seniors like Denico Autry, what I love about being here is I could now name eight to 10 other guys I feel the exact same about," Collins said Sunday.
The second half of the Liberty Bowl was the first game this season Collins' front seven could blitz the quarterback without worrying about negative consequences. "I thought the point of the game was our defense, just a dominating defensive effort, just a great smothering effort by our defense," Mullen said after his third bowl win at MSU.
"We gave up an early drive off a turnover but that was about it." Mullen was reluctant to talk too much about the optimism surrounding 2014 because he remembers MSU followed a 52-14 victory against Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl with a 6-6 season.
However, Mullen was more than willing to look back at what the Bulldogs accomplished to build momentum and to keep excitement about the program high.
"Before the season, people kept telling me, they're not gonna make a bowl game, they're not gonna have a winning record, they're not gonna do this," Mullen said. "And with a very young, impressionable group, they didn't listen to any of that. They grouped together, they battled, they fought through unbelievable injuries and adversity throughout the year. We played the third-hardest schedule in the country. To do that and finish with our fourth-straight winning season is very, very special."
Next season, MSU's schedule won't be as difficult as it was this season. It will open the season Aug. 30 against Southern Mississippi in a renovated Davis Wade Stadium. MSU's administration also feels that with Mullen entering his sixth season the program will have continuity and consistency it hasn't had very often in its history.
MSU enters next season having won seven or more games in four consecutive campaigns for the first time since 1997-2000. It is just the third time in program history it has earned seven or more victories in four-straight years. The other time was 1939-42.
"When you look at this season, I'm reminded by something Dan always tell me when we always talk throughout the season," MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin said. "It's never as bad as when we were 4-6 and looking to be headed home for the postseason, but it's never as good as the winning looks like right now. In this league, how you're perceived can change based on the next 60 minutes of a game."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.