"We're trying to get six wins, get ourselves to a bowl game, and continue to build this program into the future. We've got to find a way to get a win next week and 3-3 at the halfway point of the season."
No sooner had the words been uttered than I knew how they'd be interpreted by a portion of the fan base. A portion, mind. As with Olympic judging we should discard extreme scores and sentiments at either end of the spectrum pro or con. But no doubt some see it as Mullen suddenly settling for worst-case 2011 scenario. That being, ironically enough given this week's schedule, a return trip to Legion Field in January. Coincidental, too, as it was exactly 30 seasons ago a Bulldog team coming off a breakout 1980 had a frustrating following year and ended up in, yep, Birmingham for the Hall of Fame Bowl. They still play that one, right? Oh, OK. At least we won it and yes, I was there.
But maybe we're jumping the season-snap count thinking that way. And this morning Mullen offered follow-up to the postgame statement. He's taking nothing back, understand. Neither is the coach conceding anything else at this point.
Hey, he even holds out a New Years Day date again as a goal. "If we win out we'd go to a January 1 bowl game, I'd imagine!" he said with a hint of humor. But just a hint as Mullen is plenty serious about his ongoing perspective for this and seasons still to come. Which is why I asked this morning, is adjusting immediate goals for a team pretty much the same as adjusting lineups for performances, for injuries, for matchups, etc? That is to say, just coaching.
"Our goal is always to win the West. Besides that it's improve, how do we become a better football team." Now one of those objectives is over so it's focus on the latter, presumably. Or as Mullen agreed, "It's changed, we'd be a real long shot. It's hard to imagine some of the teams in the West losing three or four games that are ahead of us.
"Our goal realistically is what level of bowl game can we get ourselves to. Obviously for us to continue developing we have to get to a bowl game."
Interesting word there, realistically'. We can find 55,000-plus interpretations on any given home Saturday at Scott Field. But the reality is Mullen's six-win statement was where quite a few of us already were thinking pre-Georgia. Wrote it myself last Sunday, of shooting for a 6-6 season and the Liberty Bowl. Which is still realistic so to speak, though it will require (teeth gritted) two SEC peers making the BCS level again. Curse my perceived pessimism if you must but ever since that fourth down lunge at Auburn fell short I've been keeping SEC score on bowl eligibility.
Counting Kentucky and Ole Miss out, I really could foresee four six-win teams now. In fact the pivotal game for SEC bowl breaking-down may be this weekend, Georgia at Tennessee. Doesn't seem to much matter for MSU who wins, I'm just talking in how it sets up the second half for everyone. It looks like the Florida quarterback situation will ripple through the rest of the league, the rest of the season. And deflated as we are today, no Bulldog should shrug off an utterly unpredictable South Carolina visitor next weekend. If coach and quarterback get in a sideline fight (re: MSU vs. Florida 2000) State's season can take a much better second half course that quickly.
Really. Or, Realistically. Speaking of which…
"I don't ever set win goals," Mullen said today. "Maybe everybody took that the wrong way yesterday. Our goal is to win the rest of our games. But to keep growing our program it's critical to get to a bowl game."
Sounds realistic enough here. Of course it's also easier to say after the greatest goals are gone. Setting aside personal predictions (OK, if you must, mine was 7-5 and Nashville) I believe what has the faithful feeling so flattened right now is the letdown that has been building for four weeks since that fatal fourth down. Georgia didn't deflate many hopes, it just finished them off. Hopes I mean that in just two seasons Mullen had entirely turned this program in a permanent contending direction. Hopes we and he fanned to be sure, but what the heck is a coach supposed to say through spring and summer? "Hey, we took a huge step forward last year, now we gotta take a couple of shorter steps sideways to regroup"? Honest, yeah, but we once had a fellow who tried that sort of honesty and it was called pessimism, defeatism, same-old-MSUism, and the like.
So no, I don't at all mind having the flames fueled leading up to this season. The larger point is, or better be, that whatever else 2011 brings it not douse the fire.
Mullen understands. Look, he spent two years building up a ball team that broke through some pretty stout barriers. They had some luck sure; big luck in the three key wins over Georgia, Houston, and Florida. And there were just a couple of injuries that we can't say directly cost any games…though I'll always wonder how it would have turned out with Arkansas had Marcus Green and Leon Berry not been lost earlier. And speaking of Green he apparently remains injured of confidence if not body because he still isn't the expected factor. Seven games ahead, though, so we'll see.
Anyway, the margins are far slimmer in year-three and departed with offensive line injuries. Speaking of which Mullen said evaluation of the revamped front five resumes this afternoon. "We're still learning what their strengths and weaknesses are in live situations." Monday we'll get some more specifics on how, say, James Carmon did as a guard. And how Chris Relf's game really graded in ways that don't show on a stat sheet. By the way, about that short-skipped swing pass in the third quarter that looked so dumb at the time? I thought then and saw again today on review, good thing he hit the dirt…because a UG linebacker was going to pick-six it had Relf followed through with the throw.
I'm not saying Relf was good, or that I'm not just as curious as all about how the quarterbacks are being used at the moment. We sure as heck know by now to take injury statements for exactly what they're worth, such as this past Monday how Tyler Russell was "fine to play" a week. Still have to ask tomorrow of course. You never know.
Mullen knows this. "We're going to get that fixed, get our guys crisper and cleaner and perform at a higher level, and put ourselves in best position to win football games." Coach speak? Sure, but the most realistic thing any coach can and should speak at such a point. I know, I know, I KNOW you fans weary of ‘execution' comments…but seriously what would you offer otherwise? I can only recall one example in my MSU tenure where a coach radically changed attacks mid-season. When Bob Tyler junked an option offense and went all-throw, all-the-time. We got a lot of yards and a lot of excitement, without much more winning.
Nor should we look for lots more instant aid from the bench. Now it was kinda curious seeing frosh defensive end Preston Smith activated in game-five, but the position can use the help. In that light it's more curious a Joe Morrow hasn't gotten in the games given such struggles to get guys open downfield, but then we can't see practices either. Mullen now doubts any more redshirts will be burned but sounded as if the door isn't locked quite yet. He mentioned ‘Sunday night football' where the redshirts and reserves play practice games after the varsity is done; and again we'll request an update tomorrow at the weekly presser.
Overall for now, "We just have to tweak and make sure we're putting ourselves in position to be successful. And you have to really evaluate the talents of the younger guys and older guys that are playing, you have to tweak things around their strengths and make sure we're not asking them to do things that they're not ready to do on the field. Or stuff that we've been able to do in the past but it's not playing to their strengths right now. But we're not going to change fundamentally who we are."
So there. Look for the tweaks this week as it relates to lineup adjustments, position shifts, play selection and so on. Ahem, do I hope fans howling for more passing were satisfied yesterday. On no less than eight—eight!--of State's dozen first downs in the first half either the ball was thrown or the quarterback sacked. Happy now?
Though it is also correct that many of those throws were ‘long handoff' type passes to take what the defensive scheme offered. Point being exactly what Mullen said: Mississippi State will make no fundamental changes on any side of the ball. The personnel will be fit into the plan, the plan tweaked to suit skills, just the same as in 2010. And 2009. And in any other year Dan Mullen directs this operation.
All that said Mullen openly acknowledges the need of post-season play to affirm Dog direction. Any bowl will do in that regard, what matters is to extend every season. Besides, the projections of October 2 are subject to constant changing for the better if the Bulldogs figure the right fixes. Along that line Mullen may discuss big-picture bowling but to the team he talks next game need. It's all UAB, not bowling right now.
"Win three games, and you're in position to win four," Mullen said. "This is a game we need to get ourselves back to .500 at the half-way point of the season, get some momentum coming back into a home game." Not to mention the home-heavy half of this schedule, with Orion soon to be joining the viewing crowd for evening games at DWS.
Just leave the club at home, buddy. We Bulldogs get beat-up enough motorvating the miles between Reform and Gordo which are to be traversed again this weekend. All the more reason to cheer for second-half season successes so we don't have to take 82 until May in Hoover.