Now. With all the happy hurrays said, dare we turn a bit towards the…well, negative is too strong. Cautionary, let's call it. Yes, cautionary. Because as more than a few have beat me to in message board discussin' and cussin', there was about as much to Mississippi State's victory last night to temper celebration with caution.
And that is not a bad thing in the bigger picture.
We'll pause here to insert the necessary qualifiers. That was not a full-strength State squad doing battle with the Blazers. It wasn't so much the temporary absence of Vick Ballard hampering the first half attack, because LaDarius Perkins played the part quite well. It was the discombobulated offensive line that left MSU scarily close to another ‘first' for Mullen: his first upset loss at State. One price of victory at Florida was over-working guard Tobias Smith; shuffling the front for both him and J.C. Brignone's gimpy legs almost crippled everything offensive.
Fortunately Brignone is boot-tough and tipped the Bulldog balance in the last half, and Smith should be recharged fully for this weekend. Yet last night reminded how razor-thin MSU's margins remain in this absolutely essential area. Nor need I remind that until, or if, some other receivers get in-synch with Chris Relf (had Brandon Heavens looked left-shoulder not right there in the fourth quarter the win woulda been much less stressful), the passing game lacks something. I've fretted before that the loss of Marcus Green will yet bite this bunch in a big game and now I'm further convinced.
Then there is still the annoying issue of often-incomplete tackling. I do give UAB's runners/receivers credit for effort…but they aren't of Randall Cobb quality. Be sure State coaches will preach this more forcefully in this week's defensive drills, about putting the guy down and not just knocking him around.
But…for all the UAB angst, one fulfilling fact shines bright today. Far, far better to gripe about how one was won than bemoan a loss. Or as Mullen put it both last night and again today at noon, "It's great we can teach and we won the game. There will still be some smiles in the meeting room, but also some relief because of the mistakes we made." So don't go calling me negative, gang, unless you'll accuse the coach of the same MSU mindset.
In fact mind was very much the matter of last week. Mullen warned his team within hours of reassembly after the Florida win about getting caught up in the fun and fuss. If anything last week's practices were as tough as August camp…but some sort of distraction was inevitable in light of Dog debut in the polls. "I don't have proof," Mullen said today. "Our kids were focused in the week but, you know it happens. It's just in kids' minds. Now we've been ranked before, that's old-hat now." Umm, speak for yourself coach, you got used to a number in front of the team name at Utah and Florida; for us here in Bulldog Country rankings remain reason for rejoicing. Yet Mullen did have an immediate point to tell the team at their Sunday start-over meeting.
"When you get that attention the first time, you can lose a little bit of what got you there. Now we have that over with, we're bowl eligible now, we can concentrate on just becoming a better football team."
Because, the Bulldogs have to be a lot better team if they intend to weekly improve their bowl standing. Put another way, they have the relief of knowing to plan for a holiday date; it's the destination T.B.D. by their own efforts in the four SEC contests ahead. Or put yet one other way, the better the record the better the bowling weather for everyone.
In fact, Mississippi State's remaining slate features at least two foes who are, objectively, contending for the same tier of bowl berths as the Bulldogs. One of those is, naturally enough, Kentucky. The Wildcats have bowled in Tennessee the last four years, thrice in Nashville and once in Memphis. Just the sorts of destinations that a six-and-counting-win State team can now look at as a baseline. Of course better is out there with, say, eight wins; then we're thinking Atlanta, or if conference chaos continues even a Florida address.
But not without winning this one. Or not likely since after all there are other ensuing shots.
Still, it is fascinating that due to the schedule—and moon phases?--just how often Mississippi State and Kentucky manage to meet in what hangs as a ‘hinge' game for either, or both. As in, the winner can think bigger bowling, while the loser likely slide into a lesser berth or misses out entirely. Ironic, eh, considering that—in football at least, I don't dare speak for the winter sport—these two fan bases relate rather nicely by SEC standards. I've heard few foul words from either side about how they were treated at either end of this inter-Division road trip.
So while this is not exactly a ‘must' win for a six-win-already State…it's now a lot bigger in the other picture. Fortunately, if not comfortingly, I just got to watch the first two quarters of Kentucky's game with Georgia. Folks, the Wildcats were usually the better team from scrimmage. If not for some terribly-placed fumbles and a kickoff return, that outcome would have been reversed. So don't get any notion UK is coming in cold; nor should we overplay that loss to Florida as a comparison. SEC football is having one of those fun, if frustrating, falls where as the financial folk say previous results do not indicate future outcomes.
Which is another way of saying we don't know what Wildcat team will arrive in town this weekend. We do know that the Bulldog squad awaiting them will have to look a whole lot more like the one that played defense as at Florida, and offense as at Houston, if next Sunday's sun is to shine on a seven-win State squad. And the training staff will be the busiest bunch all this week. "We're a banged-up football team," Mullen said today.
"Vick Ballard should be ready for Tuesdays practice and full speed. Tobias Smith should be full speed and ready to go. J.C. Bringone told me nothing was re-aggravated in the game. We expect to get Damein Anderson ready this week." And that's your Sunday sick-list report.
It's also a good point to close on, after noting this. Get ready for a busy Bulldog weekend. Beside the main event Saturday evening, there is a noon basketball scrimmage open to all. Including, I'd daresay, quite a few folk dressed in blue who want to get a sneak peak at some guy named Sidney before they face him in Lexington next, let's see, here it is, February 15. The Diamond Dogs are in the home stretch of fall baseball scrimmaging so check their weekend schedule, too.
And, this is the formal reunion of the 1980 and '81 Mississippi State teams, with hopefully an appearance—health allowing—of Emory Bellard hisself. No guarantees, we're told, but wouldn't it be fitting if ol' Emory could see this edition of Bulldog football in action? Because, for all the hype of modern ‘spread' offenses, at heart Dan Mullen would have fit right into the wishbone/option era.
Now, if only we could bring back the three-decade-ago editions of Hull, Harris, Bond, Haddix, King, McDole, Young, Collins, Cooks, Edwards, Friday, Fesmire, et.al., for just one 2010 evening. A Halloween Eve, in fact. Hmmm…
…anybody got the numbers to a good witch doctor, voodoo priest, tribal shaman, and time machine operator?