Bottom of the ranked Division teams, he means, but the point holds. For all the pride Mississippi State can take from ending the 2010 season with a top-twenty ranking, and opening this new one with similar status, what matters to these Bulldogs is how they stack up in the SEC. Finish higher in the West this year, Bumphis says, and even better rankings are sure to follow.
But before kicking off both conference and Division play next week at Auburn, these Bulldogs have some other Tiger business to take care of. It starts this evening with a 7:10 kickoff at the Liberty Bowl against Memphis and FSN telecast (consult local cable providers for availability).
Now it might seem tempting for the Dogs to take Memphis just a bit for granted. After all, they romped 49-7 at Scott Field a year ago this weekend and it could have been an even bigger blowout. Bumphis offers caution worthy of a veteran. "We can't coast in this game," he said. "Memphis has a lot of good athletes. And this is the biggest game of their season, so we've got to do our jobs.
"But with our coaching staff, they won't let you get like that. They make sure we know that every week we have to go out and play no matter who we're playing and where we're at. We've got to play every week."
Now how the Bulldog offense plays on opening night is something fans and media alike have waited almost a month to see. The last practice open for observation was August 8, after all; since then any reports have been from the participants, and obviously guarded. To say the least. Coach Dan Mullen has had over three weeks working with the unit to hone them not just for opening night but the critical, even decisive two-game run against a couple of SEC Tiger teams.
Bumphis would not offer any specific clues of course. But the junior did have an interesting insight on the general tone of offensive thinking here in year-three of Mullen's scheming.
"I don't think it will be much different. Like last year, we've got the same skill players coming back, the same running backs, quarterbacks. I think we'll do a lot of stuff we did last year, except they expect us to be better at it." Ahhh, that's it then. Take what the Dogs did in 2010—which worked well enough to set season records for total plays, yards, and first downs—and be even more productive at it.
Correct, Bumphis said. "Instead of the actual scheme, I think the expectations are higher."
There is no over-valuing the experience State's runners, throwers, and catcher have earned the last two years, explained Bumphis. Including him, one of the ‘early adopters' of the spread approach as proven by him leading the team in catches and yards as a true 2009 freshmen. He duplicated that status last year as well, and is already either in or about to crack the career top-tens for yards and touchdowns at his position.
Remember how Mullen said in year-one that the progression of a player was knowing what to do, then how to do it, and finally and most importantly why it is done? Bumphis thinks the veterans have just about reached that stage now.
"I think we have got there. I think the wide receivers understand the concept of the offense and what we need to do as our role." Most of all his own role as the slot receiver (the ‘H' position) as well as an occasional ball-carrier on end-arounds or straight reverses. Of course he did all those things at Tupelo High and at an all-state level.
Now, at the SEC level? "I haven't felt this comfortable on the field since high school. I mean, I feel like I know everything that is going on and what to expect, I can read the defenses a lot better. I just think I've gotten a lot better overall."
Mullen has also not offered many hints as to who will be returning kicks, both punts and kickoffs, but Bumphis is the most obvious first choice if the coach prefers a proven producer there. At the same time State wants to get younger guys like redshirt WR Jameon Lewis into that situation, or even all-around athletes like CB Johnthan Banks. So who lines up deep tonight is another wait-and-see.
Whatever the assignments, Bumphis and Bulldogs have had enough practicing and have built up the emotions and attentions for tonight's kickoff. The first of the year, and first chance to not only defend that ranking but hopefully improve it when the next round of polls are published. Exciting stuff, sure…but not to be a distraction per Bumphis.
"We just have to go out and execute our gameplan. We just have to play fast and do what we do, and let everything else take care of itself." Including their set-up for SEC season and consecutive West opponents. By the way, about that earlier comment where Bumphis said ‘at the bottom'…is there not another team actually occupying the Division cellar these days?
"Yeah, well, we plan on keeping them below us!" Bumphis grinned. "But we still have a long ways to go."