If the game itself goes as well as the build-up, this will have been a completely successful excursion for coach and players alike. Mississippi State arrived Monday and, so far, has been able to strike a satisfactory balance between fun…and game.
"This has been a great event so far for us," Mullen said at Thursday's combined coaches press conference. "A great opportunity for our young men. It's a celebration for the season and a reward of not just getting to play a game, but an educational reward coming to Nashville. The learning experience they have, whether staying in a hotel that has more people than some of their home towns; or going to a first hockey game, or going on a river boat ride, it's a great educational experience. If we could finish it off with a win it would be a spectacular bowl trip."
Of course any bowl trip ought to be something special. While the Music City Bowl might not have the stature or tenure of New Years Day bowls, it offers both teams an exclusive broadcast timeslot Friday evening. Last year's game drew a 7.1 million audience, fifth-best of any SEC-affiliated game. There is the $3.65 combined payout, the larger (if undisclosed how much) slice going to the SEC.
But in this year's case, the MCB also pits a pair of teams from neighboring and not exactly friendly leagues against each other with the victor posting a winning season. Both are 6-6 after the regular schedule, and while fan bases rarely regard 6-7 as a ‘losing' season if the bowl game tipped the balance…going 7-6 looks a lot better from any perspective.
"Finishing the season with a win is huge," Mullen said today. "You're talking about next September 1, so there's a good nine months we don't play football. The importance of that momentum, coming off a win, leaves a good taste in the mouth. It's a positive reinforcement for your kids.
"You want to win the trophy. We're playing for a championship, to me that is the most important thing. And that's what we've talked about all week."
Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe has followed basically a similar bowl-week approach, and also likes how the Demon Deacons have responded. "They were really cranked-up this morning," he said, noting how at the team picture session on LP Field today his players looked a little different than the rest of the week. "I think it kind of hit home that we're getting ready to play a game again."
Mississippi State's scheduled team photo and walk-through on the field was Thursday afternoon, and Mullen expected the Bulldogs to be impressed with the Tennessee Titans home field.
"We get to play in some of the great stadiums in college football week-in and week-out. But the opportunity to come play in a NFL stadium is a great experience. And maybe for some of our younger guys a motivator, that maybe they can come play in this stadium if they work hard enough and play well."
Many Bulldogs of course are making a second post-season appearance in a professional venue. Mullen's second State squad celebrated a breakthrough year by playing in Jacksonville's Gator Bowl, and by thrashing Michigan 52-14. Now veterans of that squad will try achieve not just consecutive bowl wins, something not done at State since 1999 (Peach) and 2000 (Independence). They can also score back-to-back winning seasons.
Wake Forest is trying to come out better than break-even after consecutive losing seasons. Grobe, who took the Deacons to three-straight bowls before that, said his team is "blessed" by this chance to play again. Wake Forest began the season well but limped through the second half with some close and painful calls, and a just plain painful 41-7 thumping by SEC member Vanderbilt to end the schedule.
"Certainly after that game we didn't have a very happy team," Grobe said. "But the opportunity to play another game is important to our guys. We were just leaking oil pretty bad by the time we got to that game, so it's an opportunity for us hopefully to bounce back."
Though, he's doing it with a roster of guys two years removed from bowling, or new to it entirely. Grobe sees the difference now compared to 2008 when he had a mature squad comfortable with everything. Now, "A couple of our classes have never been to one. I hope they handle it well."
Not that Mullen counts his club as well-seasoned in post-seasons just yet. The ten practices held on campus were heavily tilted towards younger and less-proven players, a pre-spring camp for all intents. Nashville work has been about the real game itself. Still, Mullen noticed some encouraging carry-over from a year ago.
If anything, it helps more at the bowl site. They understand when it's time to practice, when it's time to worry about football. And knowing they can still go out and have a great time. They're not worried about not having fun."
But what if anything has Mullen done differently this second bowl-time around? Yes, he agreed, there were some practical—if unspecified--lessons from the Gator Bowl that have proven useful.
"We tried to keep a schedule very similar to what we did last year. We tweaked some things last year that I didn't like; this was too much or this was not enough in one area or another. But we tried to keep our routine pretty similar, before we left and once we got here. That when it comes to football, we're in a game-week routine."
Practice has apparently gone routinely as well, including the much-discussed quarterback depth chart. Senior Chris Relf will get the bowl start, in his college finale. He was Most Valuable Player of the Gator Bowl, and is coming off his third win in the even more meaningful Battle for the Golden Egg. But a campus camp knee sprain to Tyler Russell leaves the backup situation doubtful. Blank, even as the only other game-experienced quarterback Dylan Favre left the team earlier this month; and freshman Dak Prescott is redshirting.
Mullen isn't ruling Russell out. "Tyler they said felt good today, so we'll see how he goes tomorrow whether we rotate them or just stick with Chris." Otherwise, Mullen said the rest of the active roster is "Pretty healthy and ready to go."
Friday's game is also the kickoff for SEC bowl season, the first of eight games involving nine league teams between December 30 and the January 9 B.C.S. title tilt. That it pits neighboring conferences against each other makes for a natural topic among fans and media. But not the teams, apparently.
"The kids can respond better than me," said Grobe when asked about the annual inter-league rivalry of bowl season. "But honestly we haven't even brought up the ACC-SEC thing." The SEC had a 3-2 edge in the regular season meetings. State did not play any ACC team this year, and hasn't since facing Georgia Tech in 2009, Mullen's first season.
MSU and Wake Forest have never played football. In fact there are only a couple of slender connections here, the most notable in MSU minds being Grobe's experience as an assistant coach with Air Force two decades ago. He worked with the Falcon squad that ran wild over State in the 1991 Liberty Bowl.
Which also means he has been exposed to something bound to shock his players. Grobe has heard cowbells in action. "Dan reminded us today (at the coaches luncheon) that a cowbell is actually a musical instrument," he quipped, adding that he recalled the classic Saturday Night Live cowbell skit State shows before home games. It will be something completely different, Grobe acknowledged.
"We've played in some tough environments. We haven't played in front of a lot of cowbells before."
His team will now though, as athletic director Scott Stricklin gave State's official ticket-sold tally at 13,500 but added that thousands more were purchased from the bowl and other vendors. Last year well over half the Gator Bowl crowd came to cheer the Bulldogs, which other bowl committees noticed for their own future reference.
Certainly Mullen intends to keep Mississippi State in the annual post-season picture. Yes, he's made use of this week on the recruiting front, too. It is something of a balancing act in fact, keeping the current club focused on their own affairs while continuing to build up the larger program.
"You're not going to come from being not very good to a championship in one season. It's not a magic wand, that it happens in one year. So not just for our players but the players in Mississippi and the recruiting aspect. They see we're building the program. That after going to bowl games in a row we're now in position to compete for a championship, and then for a BCS game."
Just not this year. Not this Friday evening. The 2011 moment is sufficient to itself anyway for these Bulldogs, even those not graduating with the final horn. Everybody wants to walk off the field a winner for both their whole and post-seasons.
"I think our guys und the importance of being here," Mullen said. "After right now we're looking at nine months of matt drills and sprinting and running hills, they better enjoy this."
This will be Mississippi State's 15th bowl appearance. Should the Bulldogs win, it would make for a five-bowl success streak, too, dating back to 1999's Peach Bowl. State is 8-6 in post-season play to date.