Big Picture: Mississippi State is serious SEC title sleeper & more

In 2013, it was Auburn that came out of nowhere (well, technically the bottom of the toughest division in college football) to win the SEC. On Saturday night, we may have gotten a look at this season’s big SEC sleeper, the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who did something only two other teams have done in the past decade — go into LSU, at night, and beat the Tigers.

Those other two teams that did it happened to be the No. 1 teams in the country — the 2009 Florida Gators and 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide.

There was nothing fluky about the Bulldogs’ big win. They jumped on LSU early, scoring 14 points on a team that had come into the game without allowing a point in the previous nine quarters. MSU did it primarily by mauling the Tigers at the line of scrimmage, outrushing LSU 302-89 as State RB Josh Robinson, a Louisiana native, ran for 197 yards — the most an LSU D has allowed since Darren McFadden ran all over the Tigers in 2007.

The real star was big QB Dak Prescott — also a Louisiana product — who for a year has been an intriguing talent respected by rival SEC coaches but still something of a question mark when it came to delivering a big win.

Last season, Prescott had a 2-6 TD-INT ratio in the regular season against teams that played in bowl games, but against LSU he was superb, extending plays and throwing for 268 yards to go with 105 more rushing. On Sunday afternoon, coach Dan Mullen was still fired up about how his 235-pound QB improvised his way after things broke down into a 74-yard TD pass to give MSU a commanding 31-10 lead late in the third quarter. LSU rallied behind talented freshmen Brandon Harris and Malachi Dupre, but the Bulldogs survived.

"The last three minutes of that game aged me about 10 years," Mullen told FOX Sports on Sunday. "Obviously, I learned a lot of stuff in those last three minutes that made me a better coach. … I pride myself in clock management, and I really did a poor job of it. I have to have the right personnel to finish the game and to make sure they finish the game.

"I was really proud for our guys. We talk about wanting to compete in the [SEC] West, and we start out by playing in an environment where the only teams that have gone in there at night and won were No. 1 teams in the country — to get that win gives our guys confidence that we can go compete for the West title. If not, it can derail your season."

As tough as the Bulldogs are in the front seven and on their O-line, they should be in a lot of games against the heavyweights of the SEC, but if they have a chance to be a legit conference title contender, they need Prescott to play like he did against LSU.

"If he can play at that level, we’re going to have a chance to have a great year," said Mullen. "We expect that out of him. I don’t think he played above his level. He showed great leadership on the field. He didn’t let the situation get too big for him. He made some really good throws. He missed a couple of throws and ran the ball physically. He made some pretty good reads in the run game."

WEEK 4 WINNERS & LOSERS

On the season, Prescott has an 11-2 TD-INT ratio. Better still, he’s also run for over 100 yards in each of the past three games, which given his connection to Mullen — the former quarterbacks coach at Florida — his sturdy frame and the fact that he wears the No. 15 has evoked some comparisons to a certain former Gators star.

"The way they’re similar is they’re winners," Mullen said, referencing Tim Tebow. "Dak shows up every day ready to work and give you his absolute best. That’s amazing for young people or for anybody. He never comes in and is having a bad day. That’s what you see from great players and great leaders. That’s what you see from Alex Smith or Tim Tebow.

"He can be a physical runner when he needs to be. He can run downhill at you, and within a quarterback run game, that is pretty hard to defend. When the play breaks down, he can extend the play."

MSU has a bye week to get refocused before it has to take on two more heavyweights in successive weeks, first getting a visit from No. 6 Texas A&M and then No. 5 Auburn. After what he saw not only on the field at LSU Saturday night, but also in the MSU locker room after, Mullen is optimistic that his team is far from satisfied.

"Guys were fired up and juiced, but I don’t think our guys viewed it as a huge upset," he said." I think they expected to win. That was really good for me to see. A lot of guys were like, ‘All we are is 1-0, and that doesn’t mean a whole lot. So let’s try to go 1-0 again next week, because I guess off the rankings we have an even tougher team coming up after the bye week.’"

ROLLE ON WINSTON: ‘HE’S GOT TO MAKE BETTER CHOICES’

SIMS’ OFFSEASON WORK SHINING THROUGH

Some 750 miles away from Tuscaloosa, a very interested observer was riveted by the Florida-Alabama game. Just like they are for a lot of college football fans, Saturdays are hectic and emotionally draining for Ken Mastrole. However, Mastrole’s connection to the game was not because he attended either school or because he has been a lifelong die-hard. His is actually more personal than that. Mastrole, a former Maryland quarterback, tuned in to watch Blake Sims, the new Bama QB, who proceeded to shred the Florida defense.

Sims completed 23 of 33 passes for 445 yards and four touchdowns that included throws of 79 and 87 yards.

It was the best performance by a guy few even close to the Alabama program had expected to be the Crimson Tide’s starter just a few months ago. But after the way Sims played Saturday, he’s proving to be something of a revelation for the Tide. And Mastrole, who became Sims’ private QB coach this offseason, couldn’t be too much happier about it.

So far, Sims has thrown eight TDs and just two INTs while connecting on over 73 percent of his passes and is averaging a gaudy 11.25 yards per attempt (only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota has a heftier average among FBS starters).

BEST PHOTOS OF WEEK 4

Mastrole, who had previously coached E.J. Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater, among others, said Sims’ dad reached out to him last offseason. Sims began training with him during his spring break and later took two more trips to South Florida for more tutelage. 

"I love his poise and how he looked totally in control," said Mastrole, who estimated he’d worked with Sims for about 100 hours in the offseason. "He’s showed people that he can pass. Some people had questioned, ‘Can he throw the deep ball? Can he throw the fade?’ And he’s also showing the football savvy. He knows when to back-shoulder a guy. I thought I saw all of that come out (Saturday)."

Mastrole spent some time tweaking Sims’ mechanics because the Georgia native had a tendency to throw side arm and often would get flat-footed and didn’t align his body to the target. "He got away with being a good athlete," Mastrole said, adding that he’s also stressed visualization and breathing techniques as well as keeping Sims more on balance when he throws.

But Sims was just one of a handful of proteges Mastrole was tuning in to watch Saturday. Earlier in the day, he flipped on the Iowa-Pittsburgh game to see how the Hawkeyes’ Jake Rudock, a guy he’s trained since the kid was a freshman in high school, was doing. Later in the day, Mastrole, who said he charges $125 to $150 an hour depending on the program he’s doing with a QB, watched Vandy-South Carolina, where he had three QBs in action — Vandy’s Patton Robinette and Wade Freeback, as well as South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson. He also checked out the games of N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett, Houston’s John O’Korn and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. On Friday night, Mastrole watched Mike White lead USF to a win over UConn in the rain.

Mastrole tapes all of his quarterbacks’ games to go back and look at the little things. Mostly mannerisms, he says, and things such as how the quarterback is controlling himself in the pocket. He said he feels a lot like a big brother and "kind of lives vicariously through these guys," but that he also tries to be respectful of the players’ college coaches and their relationships.

Things seem to be going pretty well for Mastrole’s guys, especially his QB at Alabama.

KIFFIN’S IMPACT ON THE TIDE

Speaking of the Tide, for all the digs that Lane Kiffin has taken, he’s proving to be quite the addition to the Tide staff. Bama is averaging 588 yards of offense this season, up 144 yards per game from last season. And, as Jon Solomon notes, Alabama is actually averaging more plays (78) than Auburn (73).

Even more interesting is the fact that the Tide are averaging 12 more plays a game than Kiffin did in his five games last season running the show at USC.

BYU HAS BEST CHANCE TO GO PERFECT

Team I gave the best shot to finishing the year unbeaten: BYU. As much as I expected the Noles to roll through this season and beat everybody, after this past week and all the Jameis circus, I’m not as sure anymore. Meanwhile, the Cougars keep rolling. They had their hands full with a solid Virginia team, but still won and scored as many offensive TDs against the stout UVA defense as UCLA, with Brett Hundley, and Louisville, with Bobby Petrino, combined.

BEST TOP 25 SHOTS FROM WEEK 4

Earlier in the season, the Cougars went to Texas and gave the Longhorns their most embarrassing home loss in over a decade. The biggest remaining hurdles for BYU appear to be road trips to UCF and Cal. Houston coach Tony Levine, whose team lost to BYU two weeks ago, was wowed by Bronco Mendenhall’s squad, especially with its size and physicality. Keep in mind: BYU is a team with corners who are 6-foot-2 and 6-1, and their starting wideouts are 6-3 and 215 pounds and 6-6, 215, and their QB Taysom Hill is the Cougars’ answer to Tim Tebow.

"Hill is so underrated," said Levine. "They list him at 6-2, 233. That might’ve been when he was 12 years old. He’s bigger than that. Film doesn’t do justice to how fast he is either. One guy’s not bringing him down. In pads, he’s runs like he’s a 4.4 guy. He runs away from people.

"As a passer, he’s accurate and has a quick release. He makes great decisions."

Virginia players were raving about Hill after their game, too: "I told (Hill) after the game that he was going to win the Heisman," said LB Max Valles. "He is the best athlete I have ever played in high school or college."

Worth noting: Last season Valles’ team faced Clemson with Sammy Watkins and earlier this season they faced UCLA with Hundley (UVA also played Oregon last season, but Valles didn’t play in that game).

RUTGERS’ BAD BREAK

Horrible news for Rutgers: Standout RB Paul James is out for the year with a torn ACL. In his absence, Justin Goodwin did run for 102 yards against Navy on Saturday, but James will really be missed as RU tries to get back to the postseason after a dismal 2013.

Kyle Flood’s team is 3-1 and gets a visit from Temple next week, but come October is when the Big Ten schedule cranks up, and the Scarlet Knights finish with four of their last six games against ranked opponents.

HAIL MARY HANGOVER?

Arizona’s frenetic comeback, scoring 19 points in the game’s final three minutes to beat Cal, was the kind of thing that makes college football so great. It was an impressive rally by the young Wildcats over a very inexperienced Bears squad. It’ll be interesting to see both programs deal with the Hail Mary Hangover impact in the next week.

I was curious to see how the winners and losers of a last-second Hail Mary fared the following week. The winners of 13 Hail Mary endings of FBS games dating back to Colorado’s wild win over Michigan in 1994 are 8-5 the following week. The losers are 6-7. (So, quite honestly, I don’t think it means too much of anything other than I spent 20 minutes looking it up for what I suspect was a dead-end theory.) Here’s the Hail Mary if you missed it:

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE I

For all of the talk about how dominant SEC defenses are, it’s kind of interesting that there is not one SEC team ranked in the nation’s top 12 in fewest yards per play and there are at least two teams from every other Power 5 conference. Highest SEC team is Ole Miss at No. 13.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE II

Of the six FBS teams in the country that have had only one turnover this season, three of them (Oregon, Washington and ASU) play in the Pac-12.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE III

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

Auburn, which just beat No. 20 Kansas State on the road, will face seven teams ranked in the top 17 among the Tigers’ remaining nine regular-season games.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE IV

Think South Carolina misses the presence of Jadeveon Clowney and the attention he drew? The Gamecocks are tied for last in the country with just 2.75 tackles for loss per game. In the previous two seasons, they’d averaged 6.7 and 7.2 per game.

STAT OF THE WEEK, TAKE V

Miami’s Al Golden just saw his Canes lose at Nebraska by 10, meaning he’s 2-6 in UM’s last eight games against teams from the Power 5 leagues. Worse still, those six losses have all been by double digits, with an average of 20 ppg.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

From Tulsa World sports writer Eric Bailey about OU’s breakout star of the weekend:

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.