By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi State had gotten accustomed to entering the offseason on a high note. This time, it trudges into the sunset saddled by plenty of questions as to where it all went wrong.
The Bulldogs wrapped up an 8-5 season with Tuesday’s 34-20 loss to No. 21 Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. It was the first time during coach Dan Mullen’s four seasons that State did not win its final game of the season.
It’s not just that one loss. MSU, which began the season 7-0 and reached No. 11 in the BCS rankings, lost five of its final six games. When faced with real competition, the Bulldogs were rarely competitive. Their five losses came by an average of 21.4 points, the closest game being the Gator Bowl.
I’m tempted to say that the character of this team will be revealed by how it responds to the disappointing finish. But being better in 2013 isn’t just a product of character or willpower; there needs to be a depth of talent that, frankly, I’m not sure exists at the moment.
There is talent, but is there enough of it for MSU to be more than a mediocre SEC team?
The line was the offense’s biggest question mark entering the season, and it turned out to be the weak link. The defensive line was a disappointment.
This team never developed a strong identity on either side of the ball, and that’s something it needs to search for this offseason. It was once known as a strong running team with a stingy defense, but this season MSU averaged just 144.2 rushing yards per game and gave up 23.3 points, including 37.6 in the five losses.
Nevertheless, a couple of the players who talked after the Gator Bowl aren’t letting the poor finish get them down.
“Oh, we’re going to make sure we stay positive,” junior tailback LaDarius Perkins said. “All the coaches have all the confidence in the world in us, we’re just going to make sure we stay positive and come out offseason and get everything going, so we can get ready to have another great season.”
Junior safety Nickoe Whitley said he doesn’t see the closing stumble being detrimental to the Bulldogs as they move forward.
“I still think we’re going in with good momentum,” he said, “because we’ve got something to learn from and get better off of.”
There is something to be said for such an attitude. I don’t know how much of a difference it will make, but there is plenty to like about what State should have on the field in 2013. For instance, Tyler Russell will be back, and despite his atrocious finish to the season is still a very good quarterback and the unquestioned leader of the offense.
Defensive end Denico Autry finished the year strong and could be a top-notch pass rusher next season.
A lot of good-looking young talent – Ryan Brown, Richie Brown, Cedric Jiles and Josh Robinson to name a few – could give MSU that depth of talent I mentioned earlier.
Hard to say. All we can use to judge this team right now are tangible results, and those tell us that a load of work must be done to avoid a repeat of 2012.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at DJournal.com.