Building a Better Bulldog: How Dan Mullen Got Mississippi State Into the Big Time

When NFL scouts look at Benardrick McKinney, they see a multimillion-dollar specimen. At 6-foot-5, 249 pounds, McKinney has the rangy build of a prototypical outside linebacker and the freakish athleticism to match. Through five games, he leads Mississippi State in total tackles and tackles for loss, just as he did in 2013 as a redshirt sophomore. McKinney considered leaving school early for the NFL draft after last season. He appears to be as good as gone next spring, when he’ll likely hear his name called in the first round.

When Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen first laid eyes on McKinney, he wasn’t sure if he was even looking at a Division I player. In 2010, McKinney was a senior at Rosa Fort High in the tiny Delta town of Tunica, Mississippi. SEC coaches were at least as likely to be spotted at one of the local casinos on the river as they were to be betting a scholarship on another raw, dime-a-dozen prep quarterback who would have to be taught another position. Recruiting sites slotted McKinney as an “athlete,” the industry term for QB projects with little hope of completing passes in college, and settled on a two- or three-star rating. 247Sports rated him as the 26th-best prospect in the state; neither ESPN nor Rivals bothered to rank him at all. Mississippi State was the only FBS school that offered a full ride.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State

The databases of those sites are filled with hundreds of Benardrick McKinneys, an endless, anonymous backlog that grows a new ring every year. Few of them are ever heard from again. Statistically speaking, the ones who are — whether by overcoming physical limitations or, like McKinney, by growing out of them  are outliers: They beat the odds, but they don’t change the odds. They make for cool stories, not for case studies.

But then, to hear his coach tell it, McKinney’s emergence from obscurity had nothing to with odds, gambling, or catching lightning in a bottle. To Mullen, it’s all in a day’s work. “I don’t look at where they are today. My mind is, ‘Where are they going to be three years from now?’” Mullen told me. “Here’s a 6-foot-3, 210-pound high school quarterback who hasn’t played a lot of linebacker. But you talk to him and you realize he has toughness. And he can run. And you get him in the weight room, and he grows an inch and a half  which you can’t control  and he becomes a 250-pound athletic linebacker who can play at the next level.”

Over five years in Starkville, Mullen has told the same kind of story many times, about many different players, in response to what must be the most frequently asked question since he set foot on campus: How do you find the players to compete at Mississippi State?

Until very recently, a hypothetical was always implied  how do you hope to find the players to eventually compete at Mississippi State?  with the understanding that, obviously, Mississippi State will never really be able to match up athletically against the SEC’s blue-chip overlords.

MSU has the smallest revenue stream in the league and arguably the most obscure profile across the region; it hasn’t produced a conference championship since 1941, or so much as a winning conference record since the turn of the century. Given the fate of Mullen’s predecessors, the real deeper implication to that question has always been more along the lines of, “How do you plan to not get fired?” or, when things are going a little better, “How do you plan to parlay limited success in this job into a better job?” No one who’s occupied Mullen’s seat has managed the former long enough to achieve the latter since Darrell Royal, who left for Washington following a two-year stint in Starkville in 1955.

Lately, though, the question has become increasingly literal. In its last two games, Mississippi State has dispatched then–no. 8 LSU and then–no. 6 Texas A&M by a combined score of 82-60, and neither game was as close as the score indicated.1 In the process, the Bulldogs have vaulted from outside the national rankings to no. 3 in the latest AP poll, the best ranking in school history, in a span of three weeks.

Saturday’s visit from no. 2 Auburn will mark the first game MSU has played as a top-10 team since 1999, and its first ever as a top-five team. That’s not the province of scrappy, overachieving upstarts, and for once the Bulldogs look like anything but: Bootstrap narrative notwithstanding, it’s impossible to look at guys like McKinney, quarterback Dak Prescott, and 6-foot-5 wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson — all former three-star recruits, somehow  and cast them as Davids come from the wilderness to pick off unsuspecting Goliaths. Athletically, these guys look like the Goliaths.

Center Dillon Day, looking very Goliath-like, on the sidelines.

Center Dillon Day, looking very Goliath-like, on the sideline.

So seriously this time, coach, how did you find the players to compete at Mississippi State? Like, for real?

Mullen has answered the question this week the same way he has for the past five years — the same way every coach has always answered it  with sincere platitudes about hard work, chips on shoulders, and a personal drive to be the best.

“We look for guys with work ethic, guys that have a desire to work and want to be great,” he said, offering about as much enlightenment as a politician reciting a stump speech about job growth. “Those are the guys that are going to continue to grow.”

He offered Prescott a scholarship before any of his SEC peers, Mullen said, because he thought Prescott was “a winner” and had “the ‘It Factor,’” that certain je ne sais quoi that cannot be defined and has therefore been applied to virtually every quarterback who has done anything positive at any point in the past decade.2 Still, when he arrives at another canned line, “My goal is to make everybody a five-star walking out the door, regardless of what they were coming in,” the pitch is utterly convincing. On that point, the results speak for themselves.

Texas A&M v Mississippi State

The efficacy of recruiting rankings is a perennial lightning rod for college football fans, and for many coaches, too. Like the vast majority of his profession, Mullen professes to ignore them. (“We trust our own evaluations.”) Anecdotally, the inefficiencies in the system are legion. ESPN rated 40 incoming quarterbacks ahead of Prescott in the class of 2011, of whom maybe four have lived up to the distinction. For every Braxton Miller, Brett Hundley, and Teddy Bridgewater at the top of the list, there are many more Kiehl Fraziers, Max Witteks, and Christian LeMays. On the micro level, there’s something to the complaint that the profitable, insular niche that recruitniks have carved out over the past decade functions too much like an end unto itself — a year-round obsession with rankings and analysis for their own sake, disconnected from and unaccountable to anything that subsequently happens on the field.

In my own research, however, I’ve consistently found recruiting sites like Rivals and 247Sports to be very effective at setting a broad baseline for expectations at the macro level,3 in the same way that, say, life insurance companies set expectations by establishing proven criteria for guaranteeing they bet right more often than they bet wrong.

Occasionally, certain individuals will defy those criteria: a lifelong smoker who eats fast food every day may live to be 90 years old. A vegetarian who exercises every day may suddenly drop dead at 50. But when it comes to assessing outcomes among large groups of individuals, say, 1,000 smokers vs. 600 vegetarians, then the results become very, very predictable.

The same holds true for size, speed, and the other variables that coalesce into “talent.” And as we’ve been repeatedly reminded for years, no conference is bigger, faster, or more talented than the SEC, whose overbearing reputation on the field has been undergirded by an iron grip on the pipeline of top players.4 In each of the past five years — roughly the span that makes up current rosters — the Big Five recruiting powers in the SEC (Alabama, Florida, LSU, Auburn, and Georgia) have ranked among the top 15 classes nationally, according to 247Sports’s composite rankings,5 with multiple cameos by Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss. The conference has accounted for at least eight of the top 20 recruiting classes each of the last four years; in 2014, it accounted for seven of the top 10.

Mississippi State? The Bulldogs have yet to crack the top 20 under Mullen, and ranked among the bottom four recruiting classes in the league in every cycle except 2012. This is the big-picture context that defines every move he makes on the job, and sets the accompanying ceiling:

14.10.09-SEC Full Recruiting Chart

That’s the long-term challenge, but the gap doesn’t get any narrower when we focus on the present. Quite the opposite: I cross-referenced every player listed this week on official depth charts released by Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M against their original recruiting rating,6 and on paper, at least, the difference between the top of the division and the ostensible bottom is a yawning chasm:

14.10.09-SEC West Recruiting Chart

Mullen’s only five-star signee, sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones, is listed as a backup; of the four-stars on hand, only four of the eight are listed as starters, all on defense: senior defensive tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls, sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown, and senior safety Justin Cox. Everyone else on the no. 3 team in the nation, by the standards of the rest of its own division, arrived as an afterthought.

A few of them, at least, were on the radar. Prescott, a Louisiana native, committed to Mississippi State in the summer of 2010, just before his senior season in high school, and stuck with the Bulldogs despite an eleventh-hour overture from LSU that December. (The Tigers already had a commitment in the 2011 class from a more prototypical pocket passer, Stephen Rivers — younger brother of Philip  and reportedly viewed Prescott in the “athlete” mold.)

Wilson, an Alabama native, told reporters this week that he turned down an offer from Auburn because he grew up a Crimson Tide fan and couldn’t bring himself to wear rival colors. But Mullen seems less interested in recounting his occasional victories on the trail than he is in touting his center, senior Dillon Day, a former two-star prospect who had logged 38 consecutive starts before serving a one-game suspension in last week’s win over Texas A&M, or senior guard Ben Beckwith, a former walk-on whom even Mullen admits he never projected as a long-term starter. In them, he sees the anonymous, long-toiling grunts who have built themselves into the anchors of the Bulldogs’ breakthrough: blue-collar avatars for beatdowns of blue-chip opponents.

“I’ll tell a kid sometimes, if he’s not rated very highly [by the recruiting services], ‘Hey, we have you rated higher than that,’” Mullen said. “If he’s got two stars beside his name, that’s even better. Because in my evaluation, he’s not that player.”

Texas A&M v Mississippi State

Because it’s still only the second week in October, and more of the season still lies ahead than is in the past, it’s worth pointing out this is not the first time Mullen has had Mississippi State in the position of validating a hot start, and the last time didn’t end well.

In 2012, the Bulldogs won their first seven games against the cushier half of the schedule, rising as high as no. 13 in the AP poll in late October. From there, they dropped four of their last five in the regular season by ghastly margins — 31 points at Alabama, 25 points against Texas A&M, 20 points at LSU, 17 points against a mediocre edition of Ole Miss  and limped into the offseason at 8-5, following a Gator Bowl loss to Northwestern. The year before, MSU had opened in the preseason polls for the first time in a decade, at no. 20, only to limp to a 7-6 record with one victory over an opponent that finished above .500. In both cases, the lesson was plain enough: A solid, well-coached MSU team was capable of going only so far with its limited resources, and no further.

By contrast, the 2014 edition is only 5-0, and still faces three top-10 rivals in the final seven games. Saturday’s visit from Auburn is the last big home game; November brings short but daunting trips to Alabama (no. 7 in the current AP poll) and Ole Miss, which shares the no. 3 slot with its in-state rival. As far as the Bulldogs have come over the first six weeks, Mississippi State can’t afford to think of itself as playing with house money: A top-five ranking is unprecedented, but the expectations that come with it are a very long way from being fulfilled. (As Mullen has said, “If you win a really big game, the gift is you get an even bigger one the next week.”) Somewhere in the distance, the burden of coming up short with the biggest opportunity in school history in hand also looms.

Unlike its predecessors, though — and in this case, “predecessors” can apply to the last 73 years  this team has already demonstrated that it’s up to the challenge, not only in the win column, but on the field itself, in the context of having dispatched two ostensibly elite opponents with apparent ease. The victory at LSU snapped a 14-year losing streak against the Tigers and a 15-game losing streak against ranked opponents, dating back to 2004. The victory over Texas A&M marked the first back-to-back wins over ranked opponents in Mississippi State history. By any realistic conception of what a championship team looks like — even if LSU’s subsequent flop against Auburn suggests the Bayou Bengals are a rung below their usual station, even if A&M’s defense remains a persistent issue and Aggies receivers were plagued by a terminal, teamwide case of the dropsies  the Bulldogs have passed the preliminary tests with flying colors.

With those two games under their belt, the question is no longer one of talent or “tradition,” whatever that means. Beginning this Saturday, it’s only one of consistency, just as it is for every other outfit with all of its goals still within reach.

Filed Under: College Football, Mississippi State, Dan Mullen, Dak Prescott, SEC, Alabama, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton