Guess I oughta have saved the theme one more week, as it will ring all the more deafeningly true today when the rankings should list SEC West folk 1-2-3. Not to mention the '11 schedule pitted these Bulldogs against the East's top two finishers. Then again I need to mention it after noticing a growing trend among our fans to be so blinded by this obvious fact, as the direct reason MSU is now 5-6 going into the schedule finale, that they can't see it for frustration and demands we ‘must demand better' and ‘not accept mediocrity'. By the way, have ya noticed the % of such impassioned folk who don't know how to use the ‘shift' key on posts? Maybe a good shrink could explain it.
I won't pretend enjoying yesterday's events in Little Rock any more than, well any of our previous trips there. Or to keep current context our other meetings with top-five competition this season. It isn't ever fun seeing first-hand just how good the game's very best are if it comes at your own expense, but that is our Bulldog reality in 2011. Just as it was in '10 and '09 and before for that matter. '12? Or beyond? That comes down to the only fact which truly matters in making up ground on our overbearing league's leaders, recruiting. Better recruiting. Far, far better recruiting.
Better players, playing better in other words. That's an issue, again, for another column. For now let's reprise the leading line of last week: how Dan Mullen teams have not lost a game, any game, they were supposed to win.
Because this week State plays somebody the Bulldogs are supposed to beat. Have to beat.
Don't think I accidentally left off the "to earn bowl eligibility" clause there. Oh, it matters much. Playing post-season football is the new necessity for Mississippi State. Not just a happy hope, even annual ambition. The new necessity for what we'll from now on consider an acceptable season. Yet…
…call me old-fashioned, old-school, or just plain old. I'm just one of those archaic State guys who measures my years by wins over what a former coach with experience on both sidelines once called ‘those people'. Now I might not go quite as far as the most fervent, who always claim they'd be content with a 1-and-whatever record as long as the one was another Egg Bowl triumph. There might, might be some odd circumstances to make losing (no pun meant) bearable…but nah. Even another Omaha trip doesn't quite offset the pain of defeat in the only sporting event on the calendar that truly counts. Retain the Golden Egg and it's a good year for Mississippi State sports, period.
As you might expect then the measure of recent years has been just fine. And now it all can get even better with the first three-peat in my lifetime, much less working time. Maybe younger generations have no idea how big this is for us elders, who for too many decades just hoped for back-to-back wins. Trust us, it matters. In fact, if any of y'all were, or happen to know someone who was, actually at the scene during those 1940-41-42 wins, post it proudly this week.
Because if all goes as it must, they'll be joined by a few thousand more. I say a ‘few thousand' because only that many State folk were in Oxford last November for the joyous, if closer-than-necessary, finish. I was standing on our sideline by Dr. and Mrs. Mark Keenum during the last Rebel chance and am not sure either of them drew a breath for four, five minutes. Myself, I was hyperventilating. But we survived and celebrated, almost as much as we had a year before with what so far is Dan Mullen's signature success at State.
Now to be sure I've listened to and passed along a whole lot of coach-speak over the years. And I'll understand if any get skeptical of his comments. Yet don't doubt Mullen means what he says this week about the import of winning another Egg Bowl. "Obviously, the biggest week of the season for us, as it is every year," was today's leading line. Equally obviously we just had to dig deeper, as to how much more emphasis is being placed on this rematch for the bowl qualification?
"None." That's exactly what Mullen said. No more emphasis this time than the last when a 7-4 State squad was trying to improve bowl standing. Or in '09 when the Dogs had no post-season options at all. The fundamental things still apply, as someone once sang.
"There's no more emphasis on that," said Mullen. "This game is the game that leaves a good or bad taste in your mouth for the next nine months." (I would interject here ‘next 11-months-and-three-weeks' but that'd be persnickety.) "It can make a good season great or a bad season good. It's that type of game and it sticks with you for a long time." Oh, does it ever, coach. And you weren't even there for the Dick Pace Ripoff of '81, or the Immaculate Deflection of '83. Or shivering on the Oxford sideline while frozen turf crackled underfoot as State's last-chance pass somehow ended up between, yes, my loafers. And I wasn't an eligible receiver. Or '95 when our first modern-day shot at a three-peat was blundered away. Or 2000, or, or, or…
Yeah. This matters. And whether you believe the man or count it coach-speak or what, it matters that Mullen frames the game in such a way every single season. I don't doubt for an instant he lusts as much or more now to put another West pelt on the wall somehow, or get that breakthrough win over a top-ten (now, more likely to be a top-five) opponent. Those are the Next Steps in program progress that must at some point be achieved if State is to develop long-term stature in and out of the SEC.
But never forget those fundamental things (any guesses what my favorite all-time flick is?) Beat the rival, regularly. Play bowl games, annually. Seriously, people, this is still just year-three. I'm not telling anyone to be content with just those first two goals, I am saying recognize they are the Bulldog baseline, if you will, without which the rest can't be developed. Much less recruited.
By the way, seems safe to suggest Coach was playing coy today on one aspect, as when asked about Rebels ruled out for the game. "Whose suspended for them?" he responded all innocent-like. OK, we'll play along. Told some suspensions were official now… "Obviously there are guys in their program, that when you get to a rivalry game it's all about that one game," Mullen said. "I'm sure we're going to get the best game they've played all season."
Maybe so, though from our own painful experience we know how a team playing out a dead-duck's tenure can and often will just call it a day. Re: 2003. Never forget how some of our people were absolutely convinced, mostly by themselves, those Dogs would go all-out to send their coach off with a last hurrah. Right. 31-0 and coulda been 62-zip if the other guys had really cared to try.
If this sounds as if a win is being taken for granted here, oh heck no. A letter written to the other school's student paper back in 1978 still stings, thank heaven it's been lost by the recipients. I've still got the shards of my only cowbell, which shattered when dropped on the Memorial Stadium grandstand after I think the third goal-line fumble of an utterly unnecessary loss. Learned early, in other words. And seriously, what better 'up yours' signal could a rival send than to win with a departing coach? Won't be surprised if a lotta billboard space has been reserved around this state for just such a possibility.
More practically, any offense with a big back and speedy receivers is cause for genuine concern as it only takes hitting a home run or two to rouse the underdogs and rattle the favorites into bad decisions and worse results. Equally, these Bulldogs are far from sure things in key aspects, beyond one: they'll show up.
Oh yes, they'll show up to play. When Mullen first installed that now-famed Countdown Clock in the locker room it was seen as a spur to program pride for a team that had been beaten-down in the rivalry. An initial objective on the road back, if you will. It served well at that task at the, umm, time.
Yet it is just as useful here, today, now that Mississippi State is the favorite. Coaches need not suddenly stick any old-style bulletin board material in lockers or relate to players what the other side is (supposedly anyway) saying about them. That Countdown Clock is always there, ticking through the twelve month cycle, keeping the Egg Bowl always in MSU minds. Ditto the hallway display in Templeton Center.
Sure, I'm nervous. Not that I'm fretting with many Egg Bowl week superstitions. The fact that I'm wearing one of my College World Series shirts (Lemme quickly check which year…OK, it's a 2007) is purely coincidental. I'd pull on a SEC basketball championship cap too, if it didn't require digging so deep into the stack of other SEC and NCAA caps on the shelf. And I might accidentally disturb those carefully arranged press passes from the four Egg Bowl wins in these last six years.
A display which I now shall tempt football fate by saying ought to have a new addition by the wee hours Sunday, upon departing as almost certainly last-man-out of the press box. I do so dislike November night football, almost as much as campus crew annoyed at us who can't lock the joint up until we've finished filing. But I will admit, there is nothing entirely like walking down the back-stairway of DWS, looking over a darkened campus and town as the celebrating winds down, and thinking…this is why I still do it. Oh, I will serve my time with Bulldog basketball, with suddenly is getting its swagger back. I will follow the Diamond Dogs to all corners of the college globe and after a talk last week with John Cohen am expecting a lot more miles next season.
But this…this is what makes it all worthwhile, wrapping up another Mississippi State season with another win in the Bulldog books and the Golden Egg still safely housed on our campus. If we take care of business, that is. I and we endured more than too many wait-til-next-years after all. Our ongoing This Year trend is far more fun.