HOOVER — The 2016 season could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who dropped their opening game against South Alabama, 21-20.
The upset set the tone for the season for the Bulldogs. They lost the third game of the season to LSU and then dropped three consecutive games against Auburn, BYU and Kentucky to drop to 2-5. Mississippi State finished the season 5-7, earning a bowl game not because of their record, but rather their academics – Academic Progress Report scores were used to determine which teams with losing records would fill vacant bowl spots.
The Bulldogs allowed 35 or more points five times in 2016, including a 51-3 beatdown in Tuscaloosa against the Crimson Tide on Nov. 12.
Mississippi State has made seven consecutive bowl games under Mullen in his eight seasons as the head coach. On Tuesday he made his ninth appearance at SEC Media Days.
“I looked it up, the iPad did not exist when I did the first one of these (SEC Media days),” Dan Mullen said.
Brandon Bryant, a safety, will return for his junior season. He was fourth on the team in tackles with 62 and intercepted one pass last season. Leo Lewis, a sophomore linebacker, is the leading tackler from 2016 returning.
Nick Fitzpatrick was not in an enviable position last season, having to replace legendary quarterback Dak Prescott, but he led the SEC in total yards (3,798). He threw for 2,423 yards and ran for a team-leading 1,375 yards on 195 carries. Fitzpatrick did everything he could do to replace Prescott, who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
“Nick Fitzpatrick had a pretty solid year,” Mullen said. “Quarterback development is all about improving the passing game. He’s having a great summer, improving. He’ll continue to grow, continue to develop.”
Mullen said Prescott remains in contact to try and help Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick will have senior wide receiver Donald Gray to throw to in 2017. Gray was fifth in the conference in yards per catch with a 17.3-yard average. Gray was one of only two players in the SEC with multiple catches over 70 yards.
Martinas Rankin will also return for his senior season, with the duty to protect Fitzpatrick. The Bulldogs offensive line, led by Rankin, allowed the second fewest sacks in the SEC in 2016.
Mississippi State will begin its season against Charleston Southern on Sept. 2.
Head coach: Dan Mullen
2016 record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
Returning starters: 14
Toughest question Mullen faced: Dan, you’ve won more games in Mississippi State than anybody in an eight-year period. Is that as good as it get you think or do you think you can do even more and what would it take to do more?
Mullen’s reply: Well, you know, I don’t know as good as it gets. To me, I’m — my life has no finish line. I tell the players that. There’s no finish line. So we’re always striving to get better in everything that we do, every single day, trying to improve our potential to be the best that we can be. There’s obviously a lot more ahead of us. We have not won the West yet. We have not won an SEC Championship. We have not won a National Championship yet. So there’s an awful lot ahead on the table of goals that we want to achieve as a program, but I am proud through all the work of our players. One of the things I take pride in looking at our guys throughout the year to come back and work with us, come back, they are around the program.
You need to know: Mississippi State is coming off a disappointing season, just barely clinching a bowl game with a victory over in-state rival Ole Miss in the final game of the season. The success of the season should hinge on how quarterback Nick Fitzpatrick plays. The junior replaced Dak Prescott last season was up-and-down last, with a 54.5 pass completion percentage and a 124.3 passer rating.
Best player quote: “I try to prepare myself the same way every week. I really don’t worry about my knee. I trust that each doctor that has operated on me every time, so that is really not a thought in my mind anymore; I just focus on coming out and winning a game. My family has been behind me the whole time and I just stay prayed up about the situation. My mom and my sister have always had my back. It’s been a hard road getting here but at the same time I wouldn’t change anything about it because all of those setbacks made me who I am today.” – Senior linebacker Dez Harris on his three ACL knee surgeries.