UK Football

John Clay: Miss. St. AD Stricklin says Kentucky can reach the top, too

Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen, right, celebrated the Bulldogs' 38-23 win over Auburn with school president Mark Keenum, left, and Athletic Director Scott Stricklin on Oct. 11.
Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen, right, celebrated the Bulldogs' 38-23 win over Auburn with school president Mark Keenum, left, and Athletic Director Scott Stricklin on Oct. 11. AP

This has never happened before in Starkvegas, of all places, where the local football team is undefeated, with three straight wins over top-10 teams, with back-to-back Sports Illustrated covers, with — drum roll, please — the No. 1 ranking in the entire nation.

So you might think Scott Stricklin, former associate athletics director at Kentucky, now AD at Mississippi State, would be soaking up all the attention from his program's unexpected rise to the top rung on the grid ladder.

Instead, Stricklin has his smiling eyes on his fan base.

"It's been fun to watch our fans," said Stricklin before boarding a flight to Indianapolis and an NCAA meeting on Tuesday. "They are just really enjoying and appreciating this success. They've had a real humble spirit about this."

Well they should. Long an SEC have-not, the 2014 Bulldogs have morphed into the bully on the block, beating LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn in successive weeks.

After a week off to catch up on press clippings and recharge its batteries, State invades Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. CBS matchup with Mark Stoops' Cats.

If it's not a triumphant homecoming for Stricklin, who has family roots in Eastern Kentucky and was a Mitch Barnhart lieutenant at UK before returning to his alma mater, it's darn close.

So did Mississippi State think it would be this good?

"I told people before the season that if we stayed healthy I thought we had a chance to be good, and if we got some breaks we had a chance to be special," Stricklin said. "The thing is, being in the SEC, you never know what that's going to get you."

So far it has brought the Bulldogs to 6-0. Led by quarterback Dak Prescott, Dan Mullen's offense is tops in the SEC. The defense has made big play after big play.

"We've got a lot of fourth- and fifth-year guys," Stricklin said. "And we've got a front seven on defense and a quarterback on offense that are better than a lot of people we line up against."

Prescott sits atop plenty of Heisman Trophy lists. Stricklin said the great thing is the Louisiana native is not just a great player, but a great kid and leader.

"If I send him a text message about something, it's not like I get a return later in the day," the AD said. "I'll get a text back in 45 seconds saying, 'What do you need, Mr. Stricklin?'"

Mississippi State is not really an overnight sensation, of course. This is Mullen's sixth year, and the former Florida offensive coordinator has built the program brick by brick.

"I read somewhere during the offseason, 'Has Dan Mullen plateaued?'" Stricklin said. "We've been to four straight bowl games, which I don't think people realize how huge that is for this program. We've got an entire class now that has won at least seven games each of the last four years.

"To be in that six-to-eight win range is perfect, I believe. It's a lot easier to make that next step from six-to-eight than it is from three-to-four."

Speaking of next steps, Stricklin's working knowledge of UK and his experience at Mississippi State beg the obvious question: Can the same thing be accomplished at Kentucky?

"Absolutely," he said. "Rich (Brooks) did it when I was there. He recruited guys like Wesley Woodyard and Marcus McClinton and Jacob Tamme, where he had done a great job of evaluating. They took some knocks their first two or three years, then started having success in their fourth and fifth years."

In fact, Stricklin said that when his predecessor and former Barnhart aide Greg Byrne hired Mullen, State looked for examples of tradition-less programs that had experienced sustained success. Kansas State was one such program. Virginia Tech was another. Rich Brooks' Kentucky was another.

"That's how we wanted to do it," said Stricklin, who was Byrne's assistant at the time.

Now MSU has done it, and more, and is appreciating the moment.

"There are a lot of people around here who have gone through some tough football seasons," Stricklin said. "They're soaking it in. The looks on their faces, I wish I had words to describe it. That's been neat to see."