Mississippi State rising: SI goes behind the scenes with Dan Mullen, Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs.
A half hour after bed check the night before the biggest game in modern Mississippi State football history, Dakota Prescott repairs to the bathroom in the Hilton Garden Inn in Starkville to be alone with his thoughts. He turns on his iPhone and taps out a note to his mother, Peggy, who died of colon cancer 11 months ago. Dak was the ultimate mama’s boy, even sharing a bedroom with Peggy from third grade through high school. She questioned her baby’s decision to travel 330 miles from the family’s home near Shreveport, La., to Starkville. But Dak, whose mother’s illness had not yet been diagnosed, preferred to honor a commitment and blaze a new trail. In December 2010 he finally persuaded his mom to let him pass up an offer from LSU. “Thank you for allowing me to make this decision as a young 17-year-old to come to Mississippi State,” the junior quarterback wrote to her last Friday night. “Everything is falling in place, it’s exactly what I wanted.”
When Prescott says everything is falling into place, he means everything. The Bulldogs have not won the SEC in more than 70 years and have never produced a serious Heisman Trophy candidate. Last Saturday they lifted their record to 5-0 after thumping No. 6 Texas A&M 48-31 at Davis Wade Stadium -- a week after dumping No. 8 LSU 34-29 on the road. At No. 3, MSU holds the highest ranking in school history and is in contention not only for the SEC West title but also for a bid to the first national playoff. All of which has made a Heisman candidate out of Prescott, who in the last two wins has accounted for eight touchdowns, completed 70.0% of his passes for a total of 536 yards and rushed for 182 more. “I’ve been a part of Mississippi State for five decades, and we’re seeing something that’s never happened here before,” says Rockey Felker, a former quarterback and coach and now a support-staff member. “There’s a confidence about this team, that it’s going to go somewhere.”
An agricultural school often ridiculed for the cowbells that the fans ceaselessly clang in the stands during games, Mississippi State is now the bell cow for Moneyball-style innovation -- thriving in the SEC on a relative shoestring. After decades of doing less with less, the Bulldogs are doing more than anyone could have imagined, fulfilling the vision of sixth-year coach Dan Mullen. In the windowless coaches’ locker room on Saturday, 18 minutes before the kickoff, he started plotting the broadcast of ESPN’s College GameDay from Starkville the following week, assuming his team’s showdown with Auburn would merit the school’s first-ever visit. (He was right.) Mullen told athletic director Scott Stricklin that he wanted Pascagoula native Jimmy Buffett to be the celebrity guest game picker. “Imagine Will Ferrell jumping up on the set with his belly hanging out and screaming, More cowbell!” Mullen said, referencing a 2000 Saturday Night Live skit.
As Mississippi State plows through this already astonishing college football season, expect much more cowbell.
Monday, Sept. 29
The doughnuts from Krispy Kreme, courtesy of an Indianapolis Colts scout, show up around 8:30, long after the Bulldogs’ staff had arrived to start a morning of intense film study. “There goes my diet,” says Mullen, 42, grabbing a doughnut. “I’m going to have a Diet Coke with this.”
“Oh, blueberry,” says line coach John Hevesy. “That’s healthy. Antioxidants.”
When Mullen left his job as the offensive coordinator at Florida for Starkville in December 2008, he heard the same thing over and over from his former co-workers: You can’t win there. Historically speaking, they were right. MSU hasn’t won the SEC since 1941, and when Mullen arrived, the Bulldogs’ SEC record over the previous 10 seasons was 23-57.
Early on, Mullen called a meeting for everyone involved with football -- faculty, secretaries, staff -- and delivered words that made then athletic director Greg Byrne cringe: “You are part of the problem.” Mullen insisted that the way things had always been done hadn’t worked. “We have to change everything,” he said.
Mullen and the administration set out to become the Oakland A’s of the SEC, starting with recruiting. Even though four of the best players at their positions in NFL history -- quarterback Brett Favre, offensive tackle Jackie Slater, running back Walter Payton and wide receiver Jerry Rice -- grew up in Mississippi, the Bulldogs had never produced an NFL Hall of Famer; their last first-round pick was wide receiver Eric Moulds (24th) in 1996. So Mullen embraced Starkville’s rural vibe by focusing on local kids who hunt, fish and would embrace the program’s culture and location. In Mullen’s first class he signed lineman Gabe Jackson of Liberty, who lives 23 miles from the nearest McDonald’s. Star corner Johnthan Banks came from East Webster High, which had a graduating class of 30 and didn’t show up on a GPS. Banks developed into an All-America and Jim Thorpe Award recipient, the school’s first national award winner and a second-round pick in 2013. “There’s a lot of talent in this state,” Mullen says. “You just have to go find it.”
The 13 Bulldogs in the NFL since Mullen arrived -- including two first-round choices -- had an average star ranking on Scout.com of 2.9 out of five. That’s the embodiment of Mullen’s plan: Take three-star recruits and turn them into five-star players through effort. The staff does that through early identification, relying on its own film evaluations over recruiting rankings and emphasizing to kids on official visits how hard they’ll work instead of telling them how great they are.
Star wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson won Mr. Basketball in Alabama but didn’t play football as a sophomore or junior at Birmingham’s Wenonah High. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins found out about him from a newspaper story, and the 6'5", 220-pound sophomore is now a Kelvin Benjamin clone who may be a three-and-done NFL prospect after next season. Taveze Calhoun, a junior from Morton (Miss.) High, picked MSU over Jackson State and has become an All-SEC-caliber cornerback. Then there’s Benardrick McKinney, who came to Starkville in 2011 as a three-star quarterback from Rosa Fort High in Tunica, switched to linebacker and was a freshman All-America. A common thread weaves through all the recruiting tales. “These kids are desperate to be great and came here wanting to develop,” Mullen says. “If you are a prima donna, you wouldn’t be real interested in us.”
How well has it worked? In the past five seasons Mullen is 36-21 at Mississippi State. Florida? It’s 33-22 over the same stretch.
At nine, Collins cracks his second Diet Mountain Dew and sets the over-under for the day at six. Facing a Texas A&M offense that averages 51.2 points (second in the nation) and 401.2 yards (fifth), Collins needs the caffeine. Besides the Mountain Dew, he will down a 5-Hour Energy before practice and a mango shake in a black plastic cup known as the Swag Chalice after practice. Texas A&M beat Mississippi State 51-41 last year, and the footage of Johnny Manziel’s improvisational genius brings back the memories. “That Jonathan Football was pretty good,” he says. “The longer the down-and-distance, the better he got.”
Manziel is gone, but Collins’s problems are not. Mississippi State’s front seven manhandled LSU on Sept. 20, but A&M’s pass-heavy, up-tempo spread offense poses a different challenge. Aggies sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill ranks third in the country in total passing yards, while the Bulldogs rank 121st out of 125 FBS teams in pass defense. But Collins is undaunted. His scheme -- which the team calls the Psycho Defense -- relies on press corners and dizzying snap-to-snap coverage changes. The most important advice Collins imparts all week is the most simple: “The No. 1 thing that has to work to play this offense is your brain. Once fatigue steps in and your brain stops working, we have no chance.”
Mullen’s offensive-staff film sessions double as episodes of Name That Tune. Music from the 1980s plays in the background, and Prescott, born in ’93, watches so much film with the coaches that he’s become an aficionado of the era. Mullen rolls through Texas A&M zone looks as coaches rush to identify each new song that comes on; the conversation flows among topics including Roxette’s popularity at Mullen’s junior prom and whether Mark Wahlberg was one of the New Kids on the Block.
Mullen, who grew up in New Hampshire, played tight end at Division III Ursinus in Collegeville, Pa., and started his coaching career at Wagner. He worked for Urban Meyer at Utah before following his boss to Florida. Mississippi State’s offense is a kaleidoscope of creativity -- zone reads, swing passes and receiver runs -- that’s evolved from the Alex Smith-led offense at Utah in 2004 and the Tim Tebow-led attack at Florida in ’07 and ’08. “They were literally inventing the spread offense while we were there,” says Smith, “and Dan was the driving force.” The 6'2", 230-pound Prescott is Mullen’s latest protégé, thick enough to take hits from SEC linebackers yet polished enough as a passer that an NFL scout told SI he’s already further along than Tebow. Mullen’s offense thrives on taking what’s available and isolating its athletes in space. If Texas A&M played soft, the game plan was to swing the ball to speedy slot receiver Jameon Lewis. When A&M played tight, Prescott would take a crack at a big play to 6'5" vertical threat Wilson. Tebow says the biggest mistake people make regarding Mullen’s offense is forgetting it’s based on power running, which starts with Prescott and Josh (Bowling Ball) Robinson, a 5'9", 215-pound tailback whose robust derriere sets new standards for low centers of gravity.
Upon arriving in Starkville, Mullen hired Smart. He brought in a strength coach (Matt Balis of Virginia and later Rick Court of Ohio State), a director of operations (Florida’s Jon Clark) and an ace local recruiter (Tony Hughes from Southern Miss). But this wasn’t Florida in terms of prestige or budget, and Mullen soon learned that to keep his staff, he needed to be less of a dictator. “I probably wasn’t that great to work for early on,” he says. Now, his coaches work reasonable hours and have Halloween night off.
As Mullen built the program, Byrne and Stricklin, who was then associate athletic director, began developing something sorely lacking in Starkville -- belief. They started Maroon Fridays, when alumni and fans would wear Mississippi State colors to show support. Stricklin, who took over in 2010 when Byrne left for Arizona, bet big on Twitter and won, becoming the first school to paint a hashtag -- #hailstate—in the end zone, in 2011. “Growing up in Mississippi and going to school here, I think we were always afraid of trying things, like a lot of places are,” Stricklin says. “We don’t want to be different. But we realized if we’re like everyone else, that’s not good. We have to be different.”
They’ve had to be smart too. The Bulldogs aren’t needy -- they’ve built $100 million worth of facilities over the past three years -- but at least one SEC coordinator made more than Mullen’s initial $1.2 million salary. Mullen makes $3 million now, though the athletic department budget of $57.3 million is about half of Alabama’s ($116.6 million), Florida’s ($106.9 million) and LSU’s ($105.3 million). MSU’s $2.6 million annual budget for its nine assistant coaches is roughly equal to what LSU pays its two coordinators. “In the real world, having a successful organization that keeps costs in check would be praised,” Stricklin says. “In the SEC, doing that gets you ridiculed.”
Winning doesn’t. Mississippi State went 9-4 in Mullen’s second season and went to the Gator Bowl, handing Michigan its worst bowl loss, 52-14. That began a run of four straight bowl games, a first for the school. There was joy in Starkville, except one problem persisted: Mullen was 2-21 against Top 25 teams.
Prescott walks onto the field at Davis Wade Stadium for an interview and sees Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, now an SEC Network analyst. When they greet each other, Tebow compliments Prescott for representing his old number, 15, which, Prescott reveals, is an homage. So is the name of Prescott’s white Lab, Tibeaux, albeit with a Cajun twist.
Before this season, Prescott’s biggest moment came last Thanksgiving, when he stepped off the bench with a nerve injury in his left, non-throwing shoulder to lead a come-from-behind, overtime victory against Ole Miss, 17-10. While that performance will live forever in Starkville, Prescott is aiming higher -- he’s attempting to surpass former Bills center Kent Hull as the school’s greatest player. At this rate he will at least end up with a Dak Drive on campus and a run of babies around the state named Dakota. “To really have a special team,” Tebow says, “you need someone that has a will to lead, will to win and will to run over people. Dak has that.”
Prescott grew up in a three-bedroom trailer. Peggy ran a truck stop on I-220, where Dak snagged free Icees and ate dinner at the Huddle House twice a week. Peggy made sure her three sons had what they needed, even if she checked the family into a motel occasionally when the electric bill went unpaid. Tad, 27, and Jace, 26, were three-time all-district performers at Haughton High, and they foresaw a higher trajectory for Dak early on. At a Pee Wee game in the home of the Independence Bowl, Dak made so many plays that the P.A. announcer started saying, “With the tackle, guess who? That’s Dak.”
Dak’s name comes from Dakota Duke, a character in the old Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa cartoon. What stood out to the Mississippi State coaches was his character. Prescott came to two summer camps at Starkville and blew away then strength coach Balis by flying around to pump up the other campers during their lifts. “Everyone’s jaws were hitting the ground,” Mullen says. “Not as much what he did, but the demeanor and attitude.”
As Dak and Haughton coach Rodney Guin drove home from camp, Mullen called with a scholarship offer. Prescott loved Mullen’s history of developing QBs, so he accepted the offer in July 2010. But after he accounted for 56 touchdowns while leading Haughton to an undefeated regular season as a senior, competition emerged. LSU, which had asked him to play tight end at its camp the previous summer, swooped in with an offer to play quarterback. When Tigers coach Les Miles visited Haughton, the yearbook photographer showed up, teachers flocked for cellphone pictures and Miles delivered a locker room speech to the team. When Mullen stopped by, hardly anyone noticed.
LSU recruited Peggy hard, knowing the sway she had. Only Guin and Jace nudged Dak to stick with his commitment. Prescott ended up visiting LSU during a 24-21 win over Alabama in 2010. But in the end, even with his mom lobbying, he stuck to his word and went to Starkville. “Bourbon Street is 50 minutes down the road, so I don’t know what that could’ve done to me,” Prescott says of LSU. “Starkville is hours away from anything that’s crazy or tempting or anything to do. I knew I could stay focused.”
On its opening drive, Texas A&M marches 69 yards in 1:41. Mississippi State responds with a 75-yard touchdown drive of its own. On A&M’s next possession, Collins steadies his unit and the defense holds. The Aggies have to punt, but Jamoral Graham fumbles the kick, which is recovered at the 26-yard line.
Three plays later, on fourth-and-one from the Bulldogs’ 17, the crowd of 61,133 is a bundle of nerves -- early collapses are all too familiar. But true to Collins’s instruction, the defense uses its brains. Sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown hears Hill make a check at the line of scrimmage. With the D overloaded to the left side, Brown senses Hill will audible to a run to the right. He blasts into the backfield and hauls down tailback Tra Carson for a three-yard loss and the game’s biggest momentum shift. “It was unbelievable,” Collins said afterward. “He knew where the check was going to go and ran in the backfield and made a play.”
Prescott throws for two touchdowns and runs for three. Crossing into the end zone, he kisses his fingers and points to the sky in a tribute to his mother. The Bulldogs take everything given to them against a porous A&M defense, with Robinson rolling for 107 yards. They did it without starting center Dillon Day -- suspended for stomping -- and Lewis, who injured his leg in Thursday practice. Redshirt freshman Gabe Myles fills in for Lewis with four catches for 24 yards, a 20-yard run on a reverse and an 11-yard pass to Prescott on a gadget play. “We made a Mississippi State-ment,” Prescott says.
Collins’s defense holds the Aggies without a touchdown for 39:46, forcing three turnovers -- all interceptions by sophomore reserve linebacker Richie Brown -- and sacking Hill four times. Collins rolls through five or six different coverages, everything from “quarters, quarters, half” on one snap to Cover Two the next. “We were trying to make him go to the second and third read,” Collins says.
Want to know what a revolution sounds like? Between the third and fourth quarter, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” blares through the stadium speakers. The throng rings cowbells to the beat, creating a deafening roar as they try to hold on to the feeling.
The stakes get even higher against No. 2 Auburn this week. But for Mullen, Prescott and the Bulldogs, everything is falling into place. Everything.