Which means Mississippi State abruptly boasts a far higher football profile in all aspects. A team that wins, big; and fans that follow, bigger. And while I've seen on-line grumbling, in an impressed sort of way, from Wolverines wondering why cowbells were allowed in the house if the SEC has purportedly banned noisemakers, I thought it more remarkable that from anthem to alma mater practically every State fan I saw stayed standing.
It all affirms what we elder State-smen learned long ago. Just give Bulldog fans an opportunity and a reason, and the reaction will ring around the conference. Country, even. You gotta think locals along the various Gator Bowl byways wondered if those maroon masses were following the lead of some Mississippi State Moses, parting SEC seas by stretching forth his cowbell.
A Jacksonville jest was Scott Stricklin could have set up outside the stadium gate and sold season ticket orders to at least half of the departing crowd. A clever notion but not practical if one ponders a moment. Remember, all season ducats were sold for the past season and I kinda doubt there will be many failures to re-order given A) the successes of Mullen's second season, B) the expanded promise for year-three, and C) the chance to cheer on an even better home team this fall against all the main rivals. Stricklin said back in August that season ticket prices would hold for '11, albeit with one fewer game which is a de facto increase…but then he could hike the cost today and I bet not a Bulldog would blink.
Especially as fans figure this is one way to afford our increased expenses. Good thing I stuck to plans of arriving in Jaxville on the 29th, as it the next morning Mississippi State and Mullen shook hands on an unprecedented—for Dogs—deal. Talking on, and off, record with Scott and then on game-day congratulating Dr. Mark Keenum, the relief in taking care of this vital bit ‘of business so soon was obvious. OK, maybe State's administration had to push up the schedule a couple of weeks than the original mid-January target, to be timed for p.r. and naturally recruiting impact.
Turns out expediting the dealing made about as big a publicity splash as possible, though recruiting was already apparently going rather well. It also allowed some of our fearful fans resume normal breathing prior to the game…though now they are hyperventilating over potential assistant staff losses. While I don't pretend to know yet if Manny Diaz will take his defense to Texas, and would really miss his post-game and press conference presence, I also don't see it as a crippling loss for the program. Not now. Not with MSU making it clear that successful staff service will be well-rewarded, specific figures to be negotiated in the weeks to come. And, with Mullen already having shown he can re-fill positions and not just keep on-track but actually accelerate.
By the way, if our board reports of Angelo Mirando being promoted to receiver coach prove true, congratulations to a young guy who proved himself under postseason pressure. Seriously, the Gator Bowl had to be the best single game for State receivers of the entire season, catching the ball at least. Downfield blocking was usually another matter with one very well-noticed exception. Wonder if that Wolverine safety's bell is still ringing from Brandon Heaven's highlight hit?
Major contract extensions, annual staff poachings, biblical-sized travel parties…all proof of program progress as well as reason to expect still more in store. Also as our own Steve Robertson reports daily from San Antonio (I don't envy you the fast transit from Atlantic to Alamo, compadre) the recruiting continues on uptick, though goodness knows a few of the commits are sure to endure exponentially increased opposing pressures in the days to come. Not just because rivals want their talents; they want even more to keep said talents out of Mississippi State's future game planning and play calling.
Speaking of which, beaming beside the Gator Bowl trophy Mullen was asked how State's center-stage success will impact ongoing courting. "We're going to find out in a little over a month how it affects recruiting around the state," the coach said. "Nationally it's great to get recognition but it's not going to change our approach, we stil want the best players in Mississippi to come play for us. And our local areas, I still consider part of Mississippi, like Alabama and Atlanta. A little bit of Florida, and some Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee…" At which Mullen's voice trailed off while his smile amped up, showing that oh heck yes the Bulldog coaching staff plans to parlay New Years Day 2011 victory into some Signing Day wins, too.
Especially closer to home, per the man himself. "All these young players in the state got to see us bring a huge crowd, play in a New Years Day bowl game, go out there and play Michigan and get a big win and win a championship. And I think that's just the foundation of many big wins to this program. I think a lot of players around the state see that."
Hopefully players who can fill the few notable niches needed to complete Mississippi State's offense for 2011. There aren't too many because, as I can't tire of noting, every Bulldog who touched the bowl-ball on offense—with the obvious exception of starting center J.C. Brignone—was an underclassman. That's right; all the Dogs who carried, caught, and threw in the Gator Bowl return for more. And that doesn't include the notable pair of sidelined playmakers, Chad Bumphis and Marcus Green. That State could beat Michigan without their services says much, much for how the whole unit has developed in two Mullen seasons.
Now mix in some formidable redshirted talents such as Jameon Lewis, Nick Griffin, Brandon Hill, and the offensive outlook is that much brighter. All that to my aging eyes appears lacking is a couple of true speedsters, guys a tenth-of-a-second faster than the current receiver/runner roster to send streaking downfield to haul in the long ball and strettttttch defenses to the point of being broken by Ballard/Perkins/Elliott/Griffin. By the way, I do hope none of us miss the enormity of the fact we just saw the first Bulldog ever, ever, to take a football into an end zone 20 times in one season, something not achieved by Walter Packer, Don Smith, Michael Davis, Jerious Norwood, Boobie Dixon, et.al. So Vick Ballard, do take your bow.
Seriously, add a couple of genuine deep ball threats and then we can really see more of Mullen's spread-system repertoire. Which I admit he would be adjusting for 2011 anyway, with the loss of Derek Sherrod and Brignone. A Sherrod simply cannot be replaced straight-up nor would we expect so. This in no way means MSU won't still be able to pound the ground productively, I've great faith in John Hevesy's gang as younger blockers are promoted. And was it ever encouraging to see Tobias Smith put in a near-full game, eh?
On t'other side of the ball, we can't downplay what is leaving with K.J. Wright, Chris White, and Pernell McPhee. I also must offer a tip ‘o the cap to Zach Smith for his senior services on special teams and in package-defense duties. In fact we crossed paths at a Starkville eatery today and I suggested he audition for the role of ‘Mayhem' in those TV commercials…seriously, show me anyone more willing to throw his body around regardless of damage.
So where the offense has to replace two exceptional individuals, the defense must reload a group of guys that essentially defined how the whole unit played. If there's such a thing as ‘chemistry' on defense, they were the key ingredients and their smarts as well as skills aren't easily restocked. White in particular; in a single season he vaulted from merely very good to a great, great State linebacker and as good a middle-man as we've had here in my three decades. Yeah, Johnie, including you…
But this is where past recruiting and ongoing maturing must be allowed for, and what annually-competitive programs all do. Where great players go on and guys who can become as great move up.
State is aiming at exactly such status.
Which is why Mullen was able to transition within literal minutes from on-field celebrations of how 2010 ended to discussing year-three of his program. One which has the reassuring commitment to all involved of an extended/upgraded contract agreement. In fact Mullen could look at the Gator Bowl just the same way many of us also have: as the kickoff to an even happier New Year. Winning only made it that much better, of course.
"For the future, you always want to win your last game of the season, I think it leaves a great taste in your mouth going into that off-season," Mullen said. "We went from average to good and now we want to go from good to great. Hopefully that catapults into the step from good to great, just as winning the last game of our previous season did going into that off-season." (Yeah, given time Dan the Man will always manage to work a certain rivalry winning-streak into any discussion.) "Our goals as a football team are to find way to win the West and always improve. We had nine wins this year and it was a successful season. Next year it will be more than nine wins for us."
So, there. Celebrate what is and get to work on what will be. Or as we quoted him in the last of four stories filed from the Gator Bowl press box—darn right that was a working trip for this kid—Mullen already had turned over the club calendar.
"The team worked all year round and they left their legacy today on Mississippi State football. We'll enjoy the win, and tomorrow the 2011 team will be born."
Well, it's January 4 and presumably already tomorrow. Signing Day is barely a month off now, practicing starts in early March and the Maroon-White spring festival is April 9…a date Mullen cross-checked in the bowl press conference with his boss. Not that he checked with us media wretches about such things of course, but he didn't resist quipping "Don't worry, spring ball is going to be open!" More to the point Mullen is issuing another challenge to the happy hordes that followed State to the bowl party.
"If we can bring a huge crowd like this today I'd expect no less than 40,000 for our spring game," he said. Would I seem a shade cynical if I were to predict today that the game's announced attendance will be, ohhh, something like 43,123? Just a thought…
Another thought is how much has changed how quickly here in Bulldog Country. Many of us have returned from bowl trips happy about the present and hopeful for the future. I know I have, dating back to my own postseason premier at the 1980 Sun Bowl. Still have the press passes in fact, hanging on a bookshelf hook along with all the other bowl credentials of a checkered career. Yep, Gator Bowl media tag #127 just joined that collection today. Truly, though, comparing this to all previous (games, I mean, not passes) this might be as optimistic about the ensuing season as ever before. More so for the years to come because, as noted already, there is so much about this roster that is only going to improve. Put another way, the Bulldogs have not peaked; in fact the apex seems quite a ways off and that's a very good thing to think.
A new reality to return to, if you will. Though arriving back in town today affirmed reports of bad weather since I found ceiling insulation bit stuck to my residence's walls and trees downed…one of them two strides from the back window. Fortunately no damage inside as the light works, the gravity works (to borrow from another, more recent Brit author and I award points to anyone who posts who he was), everything functions including the TV I'm about to watch the Sugar Bowl on. Certainly it makes my returning to routine easier to bear after two weeks either on the farm unwinding, or covering a benchmark Bulldog beatdown of a ‘name' rival in Jacksonville. A great town to visit but living and transiting there has to be a rush hour headache of primo proportions. Still if you told me today State would be playing in the 2012 Gator Bowl, I wouldn't complain.
Mullen and MSU of course want more. That's the new reality here, because goals only grow greater from now on. Including that aforementioned Sugar Bowl…