From The Dawghouse

A week ago we debated the rhetorical question, were the Bulldogs the 23rd-best club in the country as of that day? Beyond holding that polling position, of course. So a Sunday later following another, oh, let's call it interesting evening, and with sustained standing in the new polls, we revise the question. Exactly how good is #21 Mississippi State anyway?

Quick answer, and the one Dan Mullen assuredly supports: good enough to run September unscathed. One of, let's see, six Southeastern Conference squads unbeaten at the equinox. Whatever else one thinks and whatever else is to be said, let's keep this fact foremost in all evaluations. The Bulldogs are four-and-go and it has been many long, weary years since we could say so.

And yet…if judged by the tithe of this fan base unhesitant to make their own opinions known, one would think Mississippi State is limping along in obscurity rather than ranked and on track to eligibility for a rather nice bowl. Speaking of which, those Gator and Liberty reps at last night's game made sure to visit the post-game presser to chat with Mullen and Scott Stricklin. Yeah, been an equally long time since this program received such September respect from the blazered boys.

Let's be entirely clear here. A pretty pedestrian win over South Alabama is not something worth filing near the top of an all-time rundown of great games. I am not putting more meaning into this W than, well, the real meaning. It is another W, and after all is that not what we're playing these games for? Still that aforementioned portion appears obsessed with victory margins more than victories. Hmmm, surely they don't have a friendly wager on the outcome or something like that?

Nah. More likely it is the emotional notion in college football fandom that every win against a lesser foe must be dominating, overwhelming even. That if the Bulldogs can't blow out South Alabama or Troy, they didn't play well, are not a good team, and thus doomed to SEC obscurity. I've two responses today.

Firstly, have y'all looked at September scores from the rest of the country? Sump'n strange is going on in the college game this year. I won't go so far as to credit parity because the margins of many victories don't support it. This seems more like, say, baseball; where one game's results have nearly no bearing on the next contest. Or put another way for football, there has been so little consistency from week to week by almost anyone. There is the one overwhelming exception and even they seem prone to going through motions in some of the non-conference quarters.

Otherwise, it is hard to guess which teams will show up any given Saturday. Or not. A friend who does enjoy the occasional wager didn't dare drop a dime on anyone yesterday, having been burned too often in preceding weeks. My own un-invested predictions have been about as badly off too. Maybe things will shake out in October with in-league play taking over. Maybe not, and you must admit this sheer unpredictability is kinda fun.

Now secondly and more directly related to State: we said it last week and repeat it here, nobody adds up style points in December for bowl bidding. Those aforementioned scouts won't recall MSU's margin over Troy and South Al, just that the Bulldogs took care of business. This is also what they are going to be watching, often in-person too, at upcoming contests with Kentucky and Tennessee. That, and the rankings.

As you can tell by now I'm not in any day-after mood to vent for another week about odd fan attitudes regarding ‘deserved' wins. I will repeat this though, how in four seasons now Mullen still is perfect against unranked/unvoted opposition. Didja notice too, he just scored his 25th win at State? Meaning he is already #5 in our history and at this pace will stand #4 before the bowl game.

Where his team ranks after the Egg Bowl, ahhh, that is the better question.

I will grant the continuing critics this: last night produced one of the stranger stat sheets I've seen for a game that wasn't particularly close. And after application for correctional purposes, both teams should erase all video of mutual first quarter futility. Ugggggly football. As if one team was already on open date and the other occupied soaking in the surroundings. Oh, one good thing about hosting these infant programs is watching their reactions upon visiting Scott Field. It reminds us of how far our campus and venue have come, eh?

Somewhat related to this, I commented to a bowl rep that programs such as South Al, Troy, Lafayette, UL-Monroe are why Conference USA is going down the drain faster and faster. The Sun Belt is getting players CUSA clubs used to make a living on. A merger, heck even outright takeover of the older league by the younger upstart seems possible.

Anyway, back to the home team. Last week the defense was scrutinized relentlessly, this week it is the offense's turn. I should qualify all commentary by stating, there is no definite indication just how much Tyler Russell's hand is or is not hurting him. We all saw him wearing the icepack exiting Troy a week ago but nobody—meself included—thought to ask him Monday about it. Then last night Tyler wasn't brought to interviews; Dak Prescott stood in for the starter and while the backup certainly merited talking to we all wanted to look at Russell's hand and in his eyes. Next chance is Tuesday, FYI, no standard Monday presser during open week.

It's worth wondering because Russell wasn't merely ‘off' as Mullen said afterwards. The quarterback was way off his game and aim, missing connections in a big way utterly unlike what we saw the first three outings. Those startling high-and-outside throws looked like, well, predecessor Chris Relf much more than the precise Russell's style. Besides that, and as commented on during the game, Tyler was forcing the good throws into traffic. Got away with it, mostly, though I suspect that first interception of the season will be put to very good use by the coaches this week.

Not all fault lies with the flinger though. After two excellent ground games in a row, last night it looked as if everyone had lost their timing. Runners arrived a step late or early, I mean, save for that third-quarter series where Josh Robinson hit three interior rushes just perfectly. Had LaDarius Perkins played all the way I suspect things would have gone smoother, yet I won't complain about working the other three in for real snaps. It will pay off in the long run, so to speak.

Plus points? Receivers got consistently open for a second-straight week, a trend we definitely welcome. Tackling was much improved with the proviso no Jag runner was the match of Troy's tough guy. And while soft-seeming coverages on the flanks left openings for frustrating gains, when the field got shorter the secondary made USA pay with picks. I still can't get over the fake glasses John Banks wore in postgame. I mean, I had a pair of identical frames in elementary school…

Everyone listening or reading Mullen's immediate post-victory comments clearly caught his spin. "We're going to leave the month of September 4-0 which puts us in the position we wanted to be in," the coach said. Smiling, too. Part of me wonders if he had let the team have it before reporting to reporters, because the handful of Dogs talking all reported Mullen had expected a bigger and easier evening. Yet none indicated that they'd been vented-upon by the boss. Maybe that comes this week, when Mullen needs to keep attention for open-date practicing.

By the way, Mullen really does regard this as the half-way point of 2012 schedule, an idea he floated three weeks ago on the call-in show. He counts August camp and scrimmages as part of the season too, making October and November the second half. Mullen also scores the first half as a near-complete success.

"It's good to leave September 4-0. Even when we haven't played our best game we're getting a W. it's something we can learn from, we can correct our mistakes and get better. So it's good to be 4-0 and not have played our best ball yet."

That right there is the key. Rather than obsessing over what is not being done or done well by this team—and yes there are assuredly such items—we need to remember this. These Bulldogs are not a finished product. Not hardly. This is not the exact same team that will line up in Lexington, they will have adjusted and tweaked and if necessary simplified aspects for October. For the better, one presumes. Something as simple as having Tobias Smith in the lineup changes so much of the offensive approach for whatever weekend(s) he is available. In fact that might be the October area to watch most closely given how Smith's presence impacts the entire line.

We ought also anticipate an increasingly aggressive defense in month-two. I mean, month-three by Mullen's math. There was plenty safe-playing the last two weeks and I can't argue, but come SEC action individuals just have to man (or zone) up and be the better player. They've had September to figure it all out and can apply lessons learned. And lest we forget, this presumably passive approach has still produced the nation's best turnover ratios and interception totals, correct?

So, back to the original proposition. Is this a true top-25 team today? Well, the best answer for now is, why not? Seriously, review all the other records results, then try to argue Mississippi State doesn't merit a place in the polls almost by default. Which is good enough for me, today.

Just as 4-and-go is good enough for Mullen. "We talk about we want to compete for championships. Here it is, we're going to head into October still in a position to do that."


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