BTP: Coming into the Belk Bowl, where do you think the Bulldogs overachieved this season, and where do you think they underachieved?
JS: Mississippi State entered 2015 in a situation the Bulldogs had never faced in their history. In 2014, they ascended to the No. 1 ranking, and played in the Orange Bowl for the first time since the 1940s. Anything less than those accomplishments would feel like a bit of a backslide.
All of that said, I think the Bulldogs have to look back at this season as a bit of a missed opportunity. At the end of the day, this season probably should have played out like 2014, 10-2 with losses to Alabama and Ole Miss. The Bulldogs started slow against LSU, and they rallied to make a comeback. Then on the final drive, the team ate a delay of game call and missed a 52-yard field goal as time expired to win. The frustrating part in that is that Mississippi State left the game with a timeout in their pocket. The loss to Texas A&M has to rank as the most WTF loss of the season. A&M may have had their best game against Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs flat laid an egg in that game.
Also in the underachieving part of the season, the Bulldogs performed much worse against Alabama and Ole Miss in 2015 than they did in 2014. Many hoped with both of the games being in Starkville this year that Mississippi State might have found a way to win one or two of those, but it did not happen.
The greatest underachievement: Mississippi State's lack of a running game was bewildering.
As far as overachieving, I'm not sure anyone expected the passing numbers that Mississippi State put up. Yes, some of it was out of necessity, but Fred Ross and De'Runnya Wilson walked away with two of the most prolific seasons by a wide receiver in Mississippi State history.
BTP: Both the Pack and the Bulldogs had similar seasons in terms of total offensive production, with one main difference being that Mississippi State is a bit more balanced between the pass and the run. Obviously, the key to that offensive success is Dak Prescott - what is it that makes him such a dynamic player?
JS: I didn't realize this until doing some research for my podcast, but Dak Prescott accounted for 73% of Mississippi State's total offense, and he had a hand in over 74% of the team's touchdowns. There were not many quarterbacks who came close to those numbers. Chad Kelly at Ole Miss was 67 and 63%. Watson at Clemson was at 66 and 68% in those numbers. If you go out to Washington State, Luke Falk was just behind at 72% of the team's offense, but ahead at 83.6% of the team's touchdowns. Of course, that is an offense that is all predicated on the passing ability of the quarterback.
As to the balance, the Bulldogs really lacked any threat in the running game. Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert, the two leading yardage gainers on the ground behind Prescott barely end up with more yards than Prescott when added together. In fact, if sacks and kneel downs were taken out of the equation, that race would be heavily favored towards Prescott.
It is really hard to explain his total contribution to the offensive production of the Bulldogs. His play probably gave the Bulldogs two to four wins more than they would have received had he not been playing this season.
However, where he might make the biggest difference is that he has the ability to lead his team and drag them to success. It goes back to the 2013 season. He started to make his presence known in a loss to Auburn in which the Tigers scored the winning touchdown with under ten seconds left in the game and in a 51-41 shootout loss to Texas A&M at College Station. His spot in MSU history was claimed when he came off the bench in the fourth quarter to lead Mississippi State to an Egg Bowl win over Ole Miss that season and a blowout of Rice in the Liberty Bowl.
The 2014 and 2015 season saw him grow even more from that point, but those five quarters and an overtime period cannot be understated in his development as the best quarterback in Mississippi State history.
BTP: Who is one player on the roster who may not get as much notoriety as Prescott, but is just as important to Dan Mullen's gameplan on either side of the ball?
JS: Offensively, one has to look at Prescott's two major targets in the passing game, Fred Ross and De'Runnya Wilson. Both have the opportunity to make big plays happen on every snap. Defensively, players such as Richie and Benequez Brown have proven to be solid at the linebacker position for Mississippi State, and Chris Jones has the ability to be a menace along the defensive line.
That said, no one quite measures up to Prescott in terms of importance in a game play.
BTP: Who on NC State's team gives you the most concern heading into the Belk Bowl?
JS: Mississippi State fans have to be concerned about Jacoby Brissett. He's a senior who can do it all at the quarterback position. If Mississippi State cannot find a way to slow him down, it is going to be a long day in Charlotte. Jaylen Samuels will gain some attention as well.
BTP: Do the Bulldogs have any major injury concerns for the game?
JS: Jamaal Clayborn, the starting center for Mississippi State, has been walking around in a boot and on crutches in Charlotte, so his availability is a major concern. Defensively, Mississippi State will not have Ryan Brown, who as played great on the line for the Bulldogs this season.
In old injury news, on the defensive side of the ball, Will Redmond, Mississippi State's best corner, was lost for the season a while back, and Gus Walley, a tight end, will miss due to injury as well.
BTP: How well do Mississippi State fans travel, and do you expect a large turnout in Charlotte on the 30th?
JS: In general, Bulldog fans have traveled well to bowl games, but Mississippi State fans have never had to travel to six bowl games in a row, and rarely have they made a trip further than Memphis or Atlanta. A couple of years ago, Mississippi State and Northwestern turned in one of the worst attended Gator Bowls of all time. The Bulldogs entered that game off of a disappointing end to the season. Mississippi State fans did a pretty good job of traveling to the Orange Bowl last year. As far as this year, it will be interesting to see. Charlotte is not quite as warm as Miami, and the Bulldogs did not finish the season as well as they could have. My guess is this will be about a 60-40 North Carolina State crowd.
BTP: Let's get a prediction - who's going to be taking home the Belk Bowl trophy?
JS: In a storybook world, Dak Prescott walks into the sunset holding the trophy. For that to happen, the Mississippi State offensive line has to protect him. He was sacked way too many times in the four losses suffered by the Bulldogs.
The game probably plays out similar to Mississippi State's win over Louisiana Tech. Look for North Carolina State to get out to an early lead before Mississippi State's defense settles in. The Bulldogs rally to take a half time lead and hang on for a 38-31 win.
Many thanks again to Justin for taking time over the holidays to answer our questions. Again, make sure to give him a follow on Twitter @justinrsutton. Also, be sure to head over to For Whom the Cowbell Tolls to see my answers to his questions, and check out the podcast Justin and I did together discussing the Belk Bowl!