Certainly Mullen won't accept any such suggestions in that spirit, much less allow these or future Bulldog teams slack against opponents bearing numbers before their names. Put another way, this coach isn't hanging professional reputation on the fact he's only lost to winners so far. I merely bring this up for a few perspective points, on a morning when I fear a sizable segment of fan base has lost it. Perspective, I mean.
The phrase ‘blindingly obvious' exists because it really does happen. In this particular case, that today's Bulldogs are fated (for good or ill, you decide) to play their game in a most remarkable era. I've said it before and will reprise the thought: SEC football right now is not merely the best it has ever been, certainly within my own era. It is demonstrably the very best college football has been, anywhere, any era, ever. And here Mississippi State is right in the middle of it all. I want to say it's a cycle and things are due to change; in fact 2008-10 appears to have been the peak and recession is slowly underway now beginning in the Eastern precincts.
Then I look at the average class-ages of who we're playing this year and think, great, more of the same ahead for '12 and beyond. Oh, well, nothing we can do about who is on the other sidelines. Our own, now, that's more crucial this winter than ever and with the regular season winding down recruiting assumes even greater MSU magnitude. More on this in weeks to come.
Back to ‘blindingly obvious' though. I just get an increased sense our folk are missing or ignoring that fact, because the degree of aggravation over our five SEC losses this season has grown just a bit beyond reason. At least to me it has. But then I've spent too many years walking into opposing press boxes, or working sidelines home and away, where the day's opponent openly disdained the Dogs. Do I really have to tell ya it ain't that way so much this season? Even the currently-almighty LSU and Alabama groups treated State with open regard.
I'm trying to express that things have changed, and continue to, for the Bulldog better out there on the field. Yet one might never guess that given the sort of Sunday morning lamentations I've seen and heard.
And know what?
That's a good thing.
I invested so much virtual-ink on all the above to set a stage after all. See, we who do have that sense of historical perspective (much as we'd love to have lots of memories erased) would look at a 5-5 record with two games left to earn a bowl berth, any bowl berth, and call it good. Great, even, for us that went nine years between bowl games. Or decades between beating Alabama. We'll try to tell you youngsters or newcomers to the Bulldog brand how ‘you had to be there' to appreciate what we now have.
Actually I'm glad many of y'all weren't there and don't have to endure what we did. Hmmm, suddenly remember that ongoing decade-plus stretch of LSU futility, too. Anyway. The point holds. In three years Mullen has revived, really reinforced the hopes experienced fans have for MSU football…
…and at the same time created an atmosphere of expectation that leaves others increasingly frustrated we aren't the top-ten, make that top-five program on a BCS bowl track. Good for y'all. Don't let up on such open ambitions. Keep the pressure on for bigger and better.
Because Dan Mullen is.
All this is worth explaining because some of his comments are easily, make that naturally, misunderstood. Such as several weeks ago when he talked about a ‘six win goal' following a road SEC setback. Naturally it was seized upon as ‘settling' for less than best. It wasn't of course; he was defining an annual baseline of bowl eligibility which applies to all SEC programs these days what with the league's post-season ties.
Fast forward to last night and hours of beating helmets against an opponent that seriously expects a second shot at LSU in the national title game. Parenthetically I'm old-fashioned enough to say only conference champs should play for the big trophy, never mind perceived unfairness it implies if the best share a league address. You had your shot already. Keep conferences meaningful, otherwise we take another sliding step towards the blandness of NFL-Lite. Sorry, got off-track again.
As written at the time, the stat sheet was more lop-sided than the scoreboard, and there never was much feeling that State was going to put up many points. Don't try telling Mullen that today. "Looking at the film there were some opportunities we had to make some plays," he said, adding though "You have to make every play when you play the top teams in the nation." Which State couldn't.
This angst expressed around Bulldog Country has more to do with the glaring examples of such. And, with the eyebrow-hiking changes at quarterback(s) in specific situations. Let's not overlook that the guys involved had their own questions too, though Tyler Russell was certainly able to offer a convincing explanation afterwards. Something else being missed at the moment was this staff wasn't actually operating off-the-cuff in their calls and changes; as Russell said, it was all practiced same as any other week.
Put another way: this might be the least ‘whimsical' State staff I've ever covered, and certainly the least-prone to panic. Nothing they do is not scripted to some extent in yet more other words. Well, maybe changing kickers, OK. That was more a momentary spur. But then that's kickers after all, a species ill-understood even after a century-plus of putting fast foot to oblong ball. May it ever be so. And expect to read much more about quarterbacking calls during the days ahead.
What we're ultimately getting at is, what are our still-expectations of 2011 and can they be satisfied? For that matter how does Mullen see the situation with two games left? He spoke today of how fine the margin is. "It's been two plays. We needed to make one more play to beat Auburn, and one more play to beat South Carolina. Then we've exceeded expectations." Though, he followed up, "I don't know that we had a net-expectation this year. It's just the margin for error is very small in the SEC, and we've missed it by two plays."
Plays, need I really note, that the 2010 team made against Georgia, Houston, and (ranked for those still annoyed by the leading paragraphs) Florida. That's why they played on New Years Day. Now what is really odd, and further evidence that a SEC slide is begun, is this '11 State squad isn't absolutely out of such contention either. Take these next two games, let a couple of East opponents finish as they likely will, and suddenly some bowl committees have some verrrry interesting choices to make.
More realistically, we can figure State is going to be taken by one of the three post-season parties who were represented here last night. In their picking-order, the Chik-fil-A, the Music City, and the Liberty. And here's the kicker: all are in line to invite MSU even with just six wins. It helps of course if #6 is again the Egg Bowl with the natural end-of-schedule emotions winning guarantees. A couple of our direct competitors are likely to have less-happy fan bases given how their regular seasons conclude. And don't think bowl staffs didn't notice the throng taken along to Jacksonville. In today's iffy economic climate that counts, lots.
Of course the Bulldogs still must do their part with win #6, or far better #7. Here we get back to expectations, whether perceived or real. If you get the idea that game-two shortcoming still stings Mullen, bingo. So much of what happened since harks back to an afternoon at Auburn. Yet here we are heading to Little Rock (daylight football, what a long-sought joy!) with baseline ambitions still attainable. If anything the hosts are feeling more pressure as they retain their own hopes of throwing a major monkey wrench into the SEC's and BCS's fine plans. Lawdy but what a mess that three-way deadlock would be to untangle!
For our part, it's down to earning bowl status; and then determining exact stature. I'm content with that. But those who aren't? You're in good company with a head coach and ball club that no matter where they holiday in 2011 will ask themselves what else, what more might have been, how to fix it for the future…
…and how to beat all those other ranked, bowl-bound guys.
Oh, a couple of quick notes: as of his noon teleconference Mullen had no update on the health of Chris Relf (concussion, missed all the second half) and Nickoe Whitley (he called it an ankle sprain today though some thought it looked worse). Both were due in the training room later today, with updates coming Monday at the regular presser. We hope. Suspended linebacker Brandon Maye's status remains TBA. The tone of voice wasn't encouraging, but maybe it was just the phone line.
Mullen sounded more positive, if still angry, about LT James Carmon's night. Of half-night as he was replaced at intermission by Blaine Clausell. "We'll see at practice this week. He (Carmon) had three false starts and silly false starts. But we'll judge in practice, to see how he rebounds from that. If he has a great week he'll be back in the rotation." Which need I remind applies to most other positions such as quarterback and now kicker? Some coaches give lip-service to the idea of weekly compeititon; here in 2011 the Dogs live it.
Finally about that funky second-quarter formation used thrice to get what became State's best series of the whole evening started. One natural query was worth asking: how does flanking-out everybody but the center, two guards, and either one or two quarterbacks in the backfield impact receiving eligibility? It doesn't.
"The end two guys on the line of scrimmage are eligible receivers, and the three off the line," Mullen explained. "There's always going to be five ineligible."