STARKVILLE, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi State’s rise to No. 1 has been fueled by the Heisman-caliber play of quarterback Dak Prescott and dominant victories over top 10 opponents.
The Bulldogs’ performance 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, 5-0 Southeastern Conference, No. 1 CFP) continue to maneuver unscathed through their league schedule, but slogged through victories over Kentucky and Arkansas. They had a suspect defense against the Wildcats and an inconsistent offense against the Razorbacks.
Now Mississippi State has a game on Saturday against UT Martin (5-5), a Football Championship Subdivision program that probably won’t provide much competition.
Much bigger SEC Western Division challenges against Alabama (Nov. 15) and Ole Miss (Nov. 29) loom on the horizon. 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’s completed just 57.4 percent of his passes against Auburn, Kentucky and Arkansas, throwing three touchdowns and five interceptions.
Prescott threw two interceptions against Arkansas. Both were ugly.
“Poor reads, poor decision making,” Mullen said.
But not all is bad for the Bulldogs. Running back Josh Robinson continues to have a stellar season, carrying Mississippi State’s offense even when Prescott has a rough stretch.
He leads the SEC with 11 rushing touchdowns and is second with 951 yards on the ground. He even showed his ability as a pass catcher against Arkansas, grabbing a career-high six catches for 110 yards.
And the Mississippi State defense 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,” Mullen 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 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.”