November 04, 2014

(AP) - Mississippi State's rise to No. 1 has been fueled by the Heisman-caliber play of quarterback Dak Prescott and dominant wins against top-10 opponents.

The Bulldogs' performances in recent victories to stay on top have been a little underwhelming. Coach Dan Mullen, however, didn't appear overly concerned during Monday's press conference.

"Whatever opportunity presents itself, winning is the most important thing," Mullen said. "Our guys have been able to do that. They've bought into that."

The Bulldogs (8-0) continue to maneuver unscathed through the Southeastern Conference, going 5-0 in league play, but slogged through wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. They had a suspect defense against the Wildcats and an inconsistent offense against the Razorbacks.

Mississippi State certainly isn't overlooking Saturday's matchup with UT Martin (5-5), a FCS program that probably won't provide much competition.

With much bigger SEC Western Division challenges against Alabama (Nov. 15) and Ole Miss (Nov. 29) looming on the horizon coupled with the way the Bulldogs have played the past few weeks, it's hard to figure out if they're ready for them.

Even Mullen conceded that some of the team's recent trends are disturbing. Mississippi State has eight turnovers over the past three games, including three in the first half against Arkansas that contributed to the early 10-0 hole the Bulldogs had to climb out of to win an 11th straight game.

Prescott's past three games have been fairly pedestrian - especially when he's throwing the ball. He completed just 57.4 percent of his passes against Auburn, Kentucky and Arkansas, throwing three touchdowns and five interceptions.

Prescott threw two picks against Arkansas - and both were ugly.

"Poor reads, poor decision making," Mullen said.

Not everything is going poorly for the Bulldogs, however. Running back Josh Robinson continues to have a stellar season, carrying the offense even when Prescott struggles.

He leads the SEC with 11 rushing touchdowns and is second with 951 yards on the ground. Robinson even showed his ability as a receiver against Arkansas, hauling in a career-high six catches for 110 yards.

It's the Mississippi State defense that continues to be fantastic when it really matters. The Bulldogs are first in the SEC in red zone defense, giving up points just 57.1 percent of the time and only nine touchdowns in 28 opportunities.

Mullen said the turnovers are an obvious area of concern, but he also said his experienced team is improving, even if the recent victories have been fairly close.

"With a lot of veteran players, you don't see drastic improvements from week to week," he said. "Sometimes with a young team, you'll see a big jump from one week to the next. What I want to see is slight improvements."

Mullen said last Saturday's game offered a good learning experience for his team because they trailed at halftime. Mississippi State had only trailed seven minutes the entire season until Arkansas jumped out to 10-0 lead.

"Here we were trailing almost a whole game and still finding a way to win," Mullen said. "That's something we improved on ... we found a way in a different type of situation and came out on top."

It's highly unlikely his team will have any such trouble against UT Martin.

The Skyhawks are 1-17 against FBS opponents, including a 59-14 season-opening defeat at Kentucky. They lost 55-17 to the Bulldogs in 2011 in these programs' only meeting.

UT Martin, though, has won four in a row with Abou Toure rushing for 524 yards and six touchdowns. He ran for 234 yards and three scores on 29 carries in a 62-38 win at Murray State last Saturday.

Brett Favre's nephew, Dylan, is a former Mississippi State quarterback who has appeared in six games for UTM this year.

Skyhawks coach Jason Simpson played for the Bulldogs from 1990-92.

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