As checklists go for college quarterbacks, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott owns a healthy archive of accomplishments.
Mark off Heisman front-runner, cross off two Sports Illustrated covers, write his name next to 36 school records and know that he led the Bulldogs to a temporary place atop the national standings in 2014. He was under center when they were named top dogs in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings.
But while the personal accolades can’t be ripped from his grasp, there will always be a “what if” bird flying around Prescott’s head. The 6-foot-2 senior fell from grace with Heisman voters last season when his Bulldogs dropped three of their final four games after starting 9-0.
Record book notations and a box full of magazine covers seem fantastic, but how will Prescott look back at his college career knowing he was so close to the game’s most coveted personal award? Do you think it will haunt him to remember how his junior season’s 9-0 start derailed into a 10-3 heap?
What is Prescott’s legacy at Mississippi State going to look like?
Lucky for him, Prescott still has an opportunity to elevate his status. And his Bulldogs – while not on a path to a national title without a lot of help – can still wreak havoc on the College Football Playoff landscape. The main hurdle in the way: the Alabama Crimson Tide, the same wrecking ball that annihilated Mississippi State’s dream season of a year ago.
A day of mistakes
When the Bulldogs take the field at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday, almost exactly one year will have passed since Alabama knocked Mississippi State off its top-ranked perch. In 2014, Prescott threw three interceptions in a 25-20 defeat that wasn’t as close as the scoresheet says.
On the strength of its defense, Alabama jumped to an early 19-0 lead. The Crimson Tide front seven did a phenomenal job clogging run lanes, and the defensive backfield took advantage of Prescott’s uncharacteristic mental mistakes, namely two second-half interceptions deep in Alabama territory.
Had Alabama defensive back Cyrus Jones not picked off an underthrown pass in the front left corner of the end zone, or Prescott not slowly floated a pass that was stolen by Crimson Tide safety Landon Collins near the 20-yard line, Mississippi State’s unblemished run might have continued.
Prescott had a simple response during his postgame press conference: “I can’t turn the ball over like I did,” the quarterback lamented, according to the Associated Press.
In 20 previous starts, Prescott had only thrown three interceptions in a game one other time, a 2013 loss to South Carolina. Those two games remain his worst for miscues. In fact, he’s only thrown more than one pick in a game four times, and he’s only turned it over through the air in 30.2 percent (13 of 43) of the games in which he’s thrown a pass.
The new and improved Prescott
Despite the road bump against Alabama, Prescott entered the 2015 season with solid numbers. He’d just finished a 3,449-yard campaign and could boast 41 career touchdowns to only 18 interceptions.
He’s continued to grow this season. Compliments from around the SEC have poured in as Prescott has improved his completion rate by more than 6 percentage points from his career numbers. He has also limited the mistakes that cost him so dearly against Alabama.
The Mississippi State passer has an 18-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2015. No other quarterback can boast such an impressive success rate, and only Florida State’s Everett Golson can say he’s thrown at least 200 passes with only one snafu (Prescott has 300 passing attempts, 93 more than Golson).
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops recently said Prescott looked “more comfortable in the pocket.” He opined that Prescott was even more efficient than a year ago, and that he had the vision and confidence to stay back and hurl the football, even when pressure was coming hard.
Prescott’s own coach, Dan Mullen, agreed, but expanded on his senior leader’s growth and intelligence.
“I think you’re seeing a guy that understands our offense and what we’re trying to accomplish, and the defenses in all the looks he’s seeing,” Mullen said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “He’s able to stay in the pocket and deliver the ball, either more efficiently and quickly, or hold on to the ball a little bit to get to his third or fourth progression and read instead of just taking off and running.”
Prescott may have left some big plays in his reservoir last season by scrambling a bit too early. By staying in the pocket and letting plays develop this year, he’s opened up different options to the coaching staff and allowed for a much more explosive offense. But it’s not the big plays that impress Mullen the most.
“I think Dak has done a fabulous job of continuing to develop,” Mullen said. “I like to call it unspectacular things. I think a lot of people are used to watching Dak Prescott go out there and make these great plays and break some tackles, scramble around, throw a ball deep down the field.”
It’s Prescott’s comfort level and leadership, according to Mullen, that have put him on such a path toward personal and team success. Prescott the playmaker ultimately couldn’t get it done last year. The Bulldogs were ranked seventh in the final College Football Playoff rankings (and lost to 12th-ranked Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl), and Prescott finished eighth in Heisman voting.
But Prescott the “unspectacular” still has a shot. Saturday’s game against his demon, the Crimson Tide, will spell out whether his legacy is one of rising above obstacles, or if Prescott is incapable of elevating to the next level.
Always a surprise
After three seasons at Haughton High School (Haughton, La.), Prescott wasn’t a terribly sought-after commodity. Mississippi State was the first school to offer him a scholarship, and his other potential destinations – including Louisiana Tech, Memphis, North Texas, McNeese State and TCU – didn’t conjure the same feeling of excellence.
The 3-star passer was the 24th-ranked football player in Louisiana, according to 247sports composite ranking, and the 20th-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country.
After a stellar senior season at Haughton, Les Miles and LSU dangled an SEC alternative in front of Prescott, but he stayed true to his commitment and enrolled early with the Bulldogs.
While it may seem shocking that Prescott has found such astounding success after such an unheralded recruitment process, what may be even more stunning is that even after the Heisman hype, his profound numbers and the great strides he’s made as a quarterback, he’s not projected as a top NFL draft pick. One NFL scout did recently say he’d prefer Prescott to Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, but most prognosticators see the Mississippi State senior as a late Day 2 draftee.
Prescott has come full circle
From lesser-known high-school recruit to potential mid-round draft pick, Prescott seems to be in similar underappreciated waters four years later.
A win over Alabama on Saturday, however, will erase any snub-like feelings his recruitment or the potential draft process has heaped upon him.
Prescott has made a living while being overlooked by the establishment. His career numbers compare to top-level passers, and it’s not easy to find a quarterback like Prescott who limits mistakes and can change a game with his feet.
He’s now equal parts playmaker and game manager. Playmaker has always been a compliment, but it hasn’t been until just recently that game manager is too.
None of that will mean as much, however, unless Prescott can show both on the biggest stage available. That means put up or shut up against the Crimson Tide on Saturday.