By JOEL COLEMAN
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Not since the United States presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt had there ever been a more successful Mississippi State football senior class than the group that walked out of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on Wednesday after the Bulldogs pounded NC State 51-28 in the Belk Bowl.
Quarterback Dak Prescott captured much of the attention as he closed out his illustrious career, but the 12 other MSU seniors joined the now-legendary MSU signal caller in lifting the Bulldogs to never-before-seen heights.
“In (116) years of Mississippi State football, only six teams have won nine games,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said in the moments following Wednesday’s game. “They’re one of those six, and up until two years ago, there had only been four (teams to win nine or more). To do it with this group, this senior class, in consecutive years is really special.”
Prior to Wednesday, no MSU team had ever won nine or more games in back-to-back seasons. These seniors changed all that. Along the way in their careers, the group broke 50 school single-season and career statistical records. They helped MSU enjoy a national ranking for 29 total weeks, including a school-record 10 weeks in the Top 10 and five consecutive weeks as the nations’s top team in 2014.
In all, MSU went 34-15 on the backs of its senior class. Only the 1942 seniors had a better mark at 34-5-2.
“i’ll tell you what, I am so proud of our team,” Mullen said. “I am so proud of our players and these seniors. I feel like they have really changed what people think Mississippi State football is all about.”
As vital as MSU’s seniors have been to the Bulldogs’ rise to national prominence, they leave the cupboard far from bare. That much was illustrated in the Belk Bowl beatdown of the Wolfpack when MSU started just four seniors on the offensive side of the ball and one on defense.
It was a pair of defensive youngsters that quickly put the Bulldogs on the path to victory in the contest. Linebacker Gerri Green hauled in an interception on the first play from scrimmage. Safety Brandon Bryant made highlight reels everywhere with a pick of his own later in the first quarter. Both turnovers led to MSU touchdowns.
“It’s exciting to see that,” MSU junior linebacker Beniquez Brown said of the performance of the underclassmen. “I know how hard those guys work. I watch them every day. They do a great job.”
Offensively, the Bulldogs graduate a pair of starters along the line. One of those, Justin Malone, says it’s a position that has great things ahead.
“They’re going to be special guys here,” Malone said. “Deion Calhoun and Elgton Jenkins are both redshirt freshmen who played a lot this year. They both work hard and have huge upsides. They are big, strong and athletic guys so I feel good leaving this offensive line with three returning starters and two freshmen that are now veteran guys.”
Prescott leaves behind the biggest shoes to fill. Of the school records this senior class broke, 38 of them are his. It’s tough to imagine that production can be replicated.
However, Prescott thinks not only that it can, but that the guys to do it are already on the roster in the form of Nick Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley and Nick Tiano.
“They are all really talented,” Prescott said last month of MSU’s stable of returning quarterbacks. “I’ve told them all that I think they are better than I was at their age.”
Odds are, with the departure of Prescott and the other seniors, 2016’s preseason projections will again have the Bulldogs predicted to struggle in the Southeastern Conference. Even with their now-departed group in tow, Mississippi State was picked to finish last in the SEC West by league media this season.
If the up-and-coming Bulldogs learned nothing else from their predecessors though, it’s how to ignore low expectations. Because of this year’s senior class, the bar at Mississippi State has been raised.
“You can go back to picking us last again after a great win,” Mullen said after the Belk Bowl. “But the guys in the locker room, that’s what we do at Mississippi State. We win.”