December 30, 2014 10:38:59 AM
STARKVILLE -- When it comes to selecting the top moment for Mississippi State sports in 2014, it could only be the time the football team spent ranked No. 1.
Entering the season, MSU's football program never had been ranked in the top five of a national poll. On Oct. 12, a day after MSU's 38-23 victory against then-No. 2 Auburn, the team ascended to the top of the college football mountain for the first time in school history, as the Amway Coaches' Poll (USA Today) and The Associated Press Top 25 voted MSU No. 1 ahead of luminaries like Florida State, Alabama, and Oregon.
Reaction was swift.
"It's a neat deal," said MSU coach Dan Mullen of his team inheriting the top spot from previous No. 1 Florida State. "It's a nice honor. It won't change the way we get ready and compete, but it feels good to be recognized. The people I'm happiest for are our fans, fans who have been there from the very start for us. When we got here six years ago, we wanted to build a program like this, but first we needed the fans to buy into our program. They did, and here we are."
While Mullen's reaction was typical of a coach trying not to oversell the importance of a national ranking, MSU's journey was anything but typical.
In his sixth season, Mullen led the Bulldogs from unranked to No. 1 in five weeks, the fastest rise in the history of either national poll. MSU also became the fifth team in modern college football history to beat three consecutive top-10 teams. MSU accomplished the feat with a 34-29 win against then-No. 8 LSU, a 48-31 victory against then-No. 6 Texas A&M, and the victory against Auburn.
On Oct. 11, College Gameday, ESPN's weekly countdown show also debuted in Starkville and broadcast live from The Junction. It was part of a whirlwind of national media attention that included national magazine covers, numerous spots on ESPN's SportsCenter, and the seemingly ubiquitous presence of quarterback Dak Prescott, who rode strong performances in the three-game run to springboard himself into contention for the Heisman Trophy, which goes to the nation's top player.
"It's cool," Prescott said of the No. 1 ranking. "It's something we all believed was possible long before it really happened. We thought we could do this back in the offseason, but to see it actually happen, it was unreal."
There were plenty of other memorable moments that ranked behind the MSU football team reaching No. 1 this year, including MSU winning at LSU for the first time in 23 years, MSU accepting an invitation to the Capital One Orange Bowl, and the passing of legendary MSU broadcaster Jack Crystal on Sept. 7.
MSU's stint atop the polls wasn't a flash in the pan. Sitting at 6-0 when it took over at No. 1, MSU played three games and enjoyed two bye weeks as the nation's top-ranked team. MSU's first game as the No. 1 team was a 45-31 win at Kentucky. It added wins against Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin before losing at Alabama on Nov. 15. In all, MSU spent five weeks at No. 1.
The Bulldogs finished 10-2 and accepted an invitation to the Orange Bowl. Along the way, Mullen's team reached heights never before seen in Starkville.
The Bulldogs set 22 individual or team records in winning 10 regular-season games for the first time in school history. Five players received All-Southeastern Conference recognition, led by Prescott, who was a first-team selection by the league's media and its coaches.
A win in the Orange Bowl would help MSU reach 11 wins for the first time. At No. 7 (College Football Playoff rankings) entering its game against No. 12 Georgia Tech at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN), MSU could finish with the school's highest ranking at the end of the season. Through it all, reaching No. 1 for the first time remains the crowning achievement for the Bulldogs.
"I think our program is headed in the right direction," Mullen said. "As we continue to move forward, we have an unbelievably great administration, great leadership within our administration, and great facilities. We've all worked for this type of goal. We came here to build a team to compete for championships. I think we were able to compete."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat
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