And as of State, "We know they're a good team, they have four losses but I think it's to top 16 teams." Which showed Kovacs has done his homework on both the Bulldogs and the national rankings. But back to the conference vs. conference theme, what do Wolverine players think of SEC squads?
"Fast, physical, good football teams," according to Kovacs. Quarterback Denard Robinson said it more strongly. "It's ‘the' conference for physical football," he said. Of course Robinson is a native of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and grew up on Saturdays watching the Gators in particular and "everybody in the SEC" in general.
Wolverine coach Rich Rodriguez never coached in the SEC but did work in league country, with two assistant seasons at both Tulane (1997-98) and Clemson (1999-2000). Not surprisingly one of his prouder moments came in the 2005 Sugar Bowl when his West Virginia squad beat Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl. He is 4-0 coaching against SEC teams, and Michigan is 7-3 against this league in bowl games.
Yet the SEC superiority subject does still push even a relative Big Ten newcomer on the defensive. "I think the Big Ten overall has gotten better," Rodriguez said today. "The last couple of years the league has performed very well, not only against other conferences but particularly against the SEC."
"We want to go out and win for Mississippi State," he said today. "But also give bragging rights to everybody in the conference. You'd love for the SEC to finish with the best record." Not that the league got off to a flying start Thursday as Tennessee lost to North Carolina in double-overtime. Still the Volunteers were only 7th in the SEC bowl pecking order this winter and better matchups are yet to be played.
That includes three direct SEC vs. Big Ten contests tomorrow. Such bowl contracts linking these leagues makes sense to Mullen. "You see so many of these matchups because the Big Ten and the SEC are the two premier conferences in college football," he said. In fact it wasn't so long ago the league up north was making the sort of superiority claims that now are conceded the SEC. Mullen happens to have had a hand in what was the turning point of the 2000s, when Florida took on Ohio State for the 2006 B.C.S. championship. It was hard to find any national talking head not picking the Buckeyes that year.
"That was a very talented (Florida) team, they got upset at being told they had no chance!" Mullen recalls. As it turned out the Gators did win the game, the national title, and "it ended up with eight to ten first-round draft picks" Mullen said. Since then the SEC has owned the B.C.S. game and on January 10 it will be Auburn trying for the fifth-straight title.
Mullen coached in Big Ten country as a Bowling Green assistant and grew up in the northeast for that matter, so he has a sense of how the game was played there. Stress on ‘was' because he sees things changing for rustbelt ball; such as Southern stereotypes that play is purely pounding and plodding.
"Watch Denard Robinson and the first thing that comes to mind is not slow!" Mullen said. More seriously, "Football is very cyclical. I think people look a lot more at style of play. There's a lot of spread teams in the Big Ten now, as that expands they're going to have a lot more athletes running around. That might change the perception from the power-I and three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust."
Yet there is still a certain stylistic something to how the various leagues like to play, and Mullen knows why it will likely stay that way no matter how trends and schemes change.
"You're building a roster to compete within your conference. We're going to recruit to compete against the SEC West; they're recruiting against their conference. That takes precedence." During the regular season, he means. Post-season? Oh absolutely, MSU's coach is keeping conference score.
"And it makes it a lot of fun for the coaches and players. And for bragging rights for the commissioners and presidents when they get together."
CONTACT TIME: Speaking of getting together…as much fun as everyone has had this week the Bulldogs are ready to get to the real business. Game day can't come fast enough now for a team that will have had six practice days here in Jacksonville, along with two full weeks of work back on campus before Christmas.
Mullen has been pleased with the effort during bowl camp, especially down here where distractions could arise. "We've had a great week of practice," he said, adding though "For days we've been slamming heads with each other, I think these guys would tell you they're ready to hit somebody else. In fact Mullen commented Thursday that he'd seen some teammates getting chippy with each other in some contact periods."
One of those guys, linebacker Chris White, agrees; though he says bowl-work attitudes haven't changed much from before or during the season. "We're always pretty physical in practice, we have a fast tempo and go hard. It hasn't been any different from the last 12 weeks. This past week has been pretty tough."
KEEPING COOL?: Late-week forecasts here are encouraging for New Years Day, with hopes wet weather will hold off until Sunday. In fact, expectation of 70 degree conditions for game day has Rodriguez concerned for his club. "I'm sure it will feel like 95 to us! So we have to have more guys ready to play, and we're harped to our guys about hydrating today and tomorrow all day long."
The stranger fact is that Mississippi State players are also adjusting. Campus bowl camp was always cold and on a couple of days flatly frigid, at least by Starkville standards. So the Bulldogs are welcoming this friendlier forecast too. "These guys will tell you they're very happy it's nice and warm tomorrow," Mullen said. "If you asked if they'd rather play in warm or cold weather everybody on our roster would say the hotter the better!"
And a trio of Bulldogs attending the press conference appeared to be taking care of their own hydration plans. While Mullen was speaking White, linebacker K.J. Wright, and defensive end Pernell McPhee were hitting the water carafe on the table. The one who didn't was offensive tackle Derek Sherrod, perhaps because he was seated by Mullen. Or, maybe, he feels just fine, as Mullen commented on Sherrod's "insanity" of jumping in the cold Atlantic water during an early-week team trip to the beach.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS: Alright, maybe calling this a trip ‘home' for McPhee is a stretch since Pahokee, Fla., is a fair distance from Jacksonville. Still the senior won't lack for local flavor at tomorrow's game. "I've got 50, 60 family coming to the game," McPhee said. Which means there has been a whole lot of ticket-scrounging among teammates to take care of this demand.
McPhee is one of six Bulldogs with a Florida home address. Yet Michigan nearly doubles that with eleven gator staters on their roster. Three of them are well-known to McPhee, too. "I've got three teammates on the team," he said. "Martavious Odoms, Brandon Hawthorne, Vincent Smith, that I played football with in high school." That would be in McPhee's only high school season with Pahokee. "We're all good close friends," he said, though "Now we're going to be enemies on the field."
At least one Bulldog is familiar with EverBank Field, though it was under another name at the time and he doesn't play. Mullen made four trips here in his Florida tenure to play historic rival Georgia. Successfully, too, as Gator teams were 3-1 against those other Bulldogs in what was known in less politically-adept days as the World's Largest Cocktail Party.
It turns out Mississippi State is staying at the same hotel as Mullen would with Florida; and obviously the coach knows the local layout. But, "We haven't brought players to the stadium yet," Mullen said. "We'll do that the first time this afternoon." Where, he expects, the Dogs will greatly enjoy the NFL locker room they'll be using. Otherwise, "I don't know if it's a huge advantage for me, other than being familiar with the surroundings and just in game day operations."
MAKING THE COMMITMENT: The extension, and expansion, of Mullen's contract dominated Thursday bowl news here and back home…even getting headlines around the SEC. Peers are impressed, and maybe even a few rivals depressed, at the $2.65 million-per-year agreement. Not just because it will keep Mullen in the MSU market for a while longer but for the impressive jump from a (reported but likely low) $1.5 million package this contract year.
Along with paying the boss more, raises for State assistants are assured along with expedited plans for a football-dedicated facility and, later, significant renovations and a closely-calculated expansion of Davis Wade Stadium. Athletic director Scott Stricklin and Mullen settled on a letter of agreement Thursday, ending fan speculation—fear, even—that Mullen was vulnerable to offers from others.
"For whatever reason contracts represent status these days in college football programs!" Stricklin said this morning, adding that folk forget Mullen was always under contract anyway. But it was also obvious a revision to the four-year pact was coming after the turnaround second season.
"It's something we wanted to do to show him how much confidence we have in the program he's building," said Striklin. "It is pretty remarkable where we've come in two years from where we were in November 2008." Certainly Mullen has changed almost everything about Bulldog football since his December '08 hiring, thus Stricklin and University president Dr. Mark Keenum were looking for ways to cement the this partnership.
A day after reaching the agreement, Mullen said the dimensions of this mutual commitment are clearer to everyone. "Now we have the opportunity to be here a lot more years, and to expect a lot more of these things." As in, winning seasons and bowl trips. "But I see the appreciation in our fans' faces for what our team has done this year. And we've noticed it really from day-one, how supportive the fans are." Those fans—a few hundred of whom were outside the Hyatt Regency waiting for the Dogs to depart a bowl luncheon function—have assuredly appreciated the change in Bulldog football fortunes.
Senior linebacker Wright did enjoy freshman success at State with a winning year and 2007 Liberty Bowl trip. But he said today that what the program has become is so much stronger, and better; thus his pleasure at the contract commitment Mullen and MSU are making.
"He's taught us how to win as a football team," Wright said. "Before, we didn't know how to win and how to prepare."
"I'll try to get my y'alls better!" quipped Mullen today about settling down for the longer term. "It's a great town to live in, a great place to raise a family, great people to be around." Folk who, Stricklin and Mullen agree, need to raise their goals now.
"It's not just Dan," said Stricklin. "It's the staff he's brought with him, the strength staff and other coaches. And just creating a mentality that there's no reason we can't be as successful as other schools. We need to take away the glass ceiling and strip away some of the barriers that we create and understand at Mississippi State you can win championships."
Or take it from Mullen himself.
"People like to speculate the grass is always greener at other place. I think we're in a very green pasture and have the opportunity to hopefully build something special."
RINGING ENDORSEMENT: Special enough that the athletic director isn't shy forecasting a permanent change in holiday scheduling for Mississippi State folk. "We don't want this to be a every few years sort of thing, we want this to be something that is part of our calendar each and every year."
Safe to say bowl committees around the region and maybe beyond have noticed how quickly Bulldog fans were able to fit the Gator Bowl week into their holiday plans. Stricklin reported sales through MSU's Ticket Office were "right around 15,000" today. "The students didn't take as many as we originally thought so we may not quite get to 15,000. But this is probably as far as we've asked our fans to travel to a bowl game in a long, long time, and I imagine the majority of the fans in the stands tomorrow will be wearing maroon. And you might hear a bell or two."
Hear them legally, at that. Cowbells are welcomed at EverBank Field tomorrow, and have been heard around town for the last few days already. Yet the man who led the spring and summer fight to return Mississippi State's unique tradition to semi-legality won't be clanging away Saturday. Stricklin didn't bring a cowbell to Jacksonville.
"My daughters did. I didn't pack mine. It rings in my heart, though," he said. "Sorry, I couldn't resist!"
"I'm just happy we can reward our fans by coming to Florida to play in a New Years Day bowl game," Mullen said. "It's not just a reward for our players but for our fans. Hopefully they fill up the stadium with a lot of cowbells."
FARING WELL: The Gator Bowl ends some splendid Mississippi State careers, none more so than that of Sherrod. As a blocker he'll leave no official statistics in the record book, but all appreciate the impression he has made in four Bulldog seasons. He leaves as a first-team All-SEC (both media and coaches) and CBSsports.com All-American.
And his football career is far from over. "He's about to get a big contract!" Mullen joked today. More seriously, "I hope he goes as the first pick in the draft, I know he has the ability. I know he's the best offensive lineman I've ever coached. But also as an example of how to do things the right way and live the right way."
WORKING WEEKEND: The thousands of Bulldogs fans will be free to swarm Jacksonville streets to celebrate New Years Eve. As for the fellows they came in support of, well, things will be a bit more boring.
"Oh, I do bed check at 9:30," Mullen said.