In this humble opinion we could snip off the numbers in front of the names, toss them around in one of my College World Series caps, pour ‘em all out on a table and the end result would be just as accurate. Meaning, to bring this back our way, at any particular quarter on game day Mississippi State is worth rating in that range. Seriously. There are series where these Bulldogs show flashes of top-ten teamdom.
And, corresponding stretches which would send them to Others Receiving Votes, save for the obvious fact Dan Mullen's men are among the few remaining unbeatens in the land much less the polls. That counts. So what if the combined victories of MSU victims so-far isn't much more than State's own 5-0 record, they can only beat who they play and the Dogs have assuredly done so. With, I add, enough solid stretches of offense, defense, and specializing to point at the squad's still-unreached ceiling. Unreached? Hey, at times I'm not sure we can even see the roof right now…though I still stand by greater expectations in 2013. But that's also a moot MSU point for the moment.
Win #6 and suddenly we're in seriously strong position for 2012. Not just bowl-eligible faster than any State squad since 1999 (we hear that year bandied around a lot these days) but in the must-see schedule for some big-name classic committees. Yes, I'll post during pre-game who all have scouting seats on the press box's fourth row. True, they'll also be there as much to watch the visiting Volunteers as the home team, but that's OK. In the coming three weeks the SEC East is going to shake itself out.
Meanwhile over here in the Western precincts the 2-0 Bulldogs are, thanks to their own efforts and all sorts of other developments, suddenly envisioning themselves right in the thick of the Division fight. It's a bit foolish to talk of ‘controlling fate' as duhhh, that's obviously so for any October unbeaten. But the simple scheduling fact is, should State take care of home-field business it is MSU and not the other ‘-SU' setting up an earlier West showdown than any expert anticipated.
All well and good, as long as the Dogs play well and good Saturday night. Make that very well and even great in aspects. There is just no over-stating State's situation with Tennessee coming to town…and you have to think town and campus alike will be a-flutter all week. While official types rightly frown on such talk, I would love if some of y'all who negotiate with, ummm, the sidewalk venture capitalists would report next Sunday what was the highest reported price paid for a ducat. It's been many a long season since we enjoyed this sort of excitement in advance of a home game not involving an arch-rival or top-ranked guest. One wonders if any attendance records are at risk?
OK, what one really wonders: is State up to the opportunity?
Normally we wise-guy scribes would answer it depends on what Dog team shows up for kickoff. It isn't so simple in this 2012 case. As noted already, this club does not so much have on- or off-days, but their play quality varies radically almost by quarters. Something about changing directions maybe? Nah, but this almost mercurial manner (hey, I gotta remember that phrase!) by both units has been noted by Mullen himself. I read fan posts suggesting it is players relaxing or taking cleat off the gas or whatever. The coach has his own description.
It's focus. Not getting lazy or taking things for granted or what Tyler Russell would call ‘stuff like that', exactly. But the same squad which can string together series of first-class intensity will suddenly let attention to details slip. Not a lot, mind, but then the way this offense and defense alike are structured it doesn't take much to lose the timing. Or tempo in Mullen lingo. Sorta like this afternoon's eight-hour run, where for all the Boxster's splendid agility had I blinked at just one particular point north of Nashville they'd still be peeling me off a Tahoe's bent bumper. He'd burned it down himself reacting to an unexpected jam ahead at the 24/65 interchange. It only takes one @@@@@@@ as they say to spoil the day for a whole lot of people. Related to that, Porsche radios are near worthless so I didn't know until getting back and turning on the tube just how good Smoke was at piloting a car roof-first and no tires touching ground. A wreck he caused, admittedly, but boy was it spec-tac-u-lar!
Back to the Bulldog topic though. Focusing, if you will. I would fret more about lack of such in the past three games if not for other encouraging evidence. We all saw what a fully-focused team did to Auburn, and never you mind how the Tigers have sputtered about since; that was a legitimate State tour de force they'd prepared a literal seven months for. Ten days sufficed to hit Kentucky's field full-focus and –force both with a superb start, and that was an opponent friends and fans were taking for granted.
Not so these Vols. Say what one will about their defense or to-date lack thereof, Tennessee will put up the points. That gets a team's attention immediately. Focuses them, in fact. By the way, while Mullen was rather jovial with us media wretches afterwards, we're told his post-game radio was more blunt about Saturday's lapses. I have to figure that is the tone taken with the team, too, to be continued all week just in case any Dog fails to focus appropriately.
Mullen is actually walking an interesting line these days. He has an unbeaten top-twenty team with plenty opportunities to keep climbing, so he can't disdain their winning deeds to-date. At the same time State's position in this ultra-volatile everywhere season is only as strong as their most recent score. Or stop. It's a lot faster falling than climbing after all, and Tennessee could deflate the Dogs all too easily. Nor would it be rated an upset, need we note. It's not far-fetched to suggest these teams are playing for the same polling position of next week, and even the same bowl destination.
Such are what are at October stakes in a season of such inconsistency. I'm tempted to honor old peer Kyle Veazey (no, he's not deceased, just living in Memphis which to me is the same thing) with the infamous Blazing Saddles faux quote of Nietzsche here, but will save it for another editorial. Or will what looks like SEC chaos turn out to be reprised Talking Heads, same as it ever was? I don't know.
I do know Mississippi State is still an unfinished football product, in a good way. There is a little bit of provable progress each week, and even some seeming setbacks—such as Russell's inexplicably bad showing against South Alabama—get addressed and fixed each week. Remember preseason fears about blocking and receiving? I submit both units have not merely exceeded summer expectations but showed themselves of real SEC-status. Interesting, too, how Mullen slipped Tobias Smith in for two early series then got the right guard out, presumably to have him rust-free and full-speed for this week.
The defense has been a little more confusing at times. While not agreeing with fan assumptions of a ‘vanilla' approach (notice the very best defenses are pure vanilla with no need of added flavors and colorings), I'll agree things have stayed a little on the basic side for three weeks. The occasional blitz has hardly been send-the-house, more like just a fifth man joining the front four in attempting pressure. And while yes, there have been some yards allowed, coverage comes into its own when red-zone room gets tight. I'd love to be note-booking next weekend about a rash of interceptions and given how Tennessee likes looking long the chances should be there. I mean, Corey Broomfield hasn't snagged a ball since late 2010 and that is way, way too long between picks.
It's also been far too long since we could spend a week on this sort of Bulldog build-up. There'll be a lot to discuss in coming days…assuming this new system allows it. I'm almost glad I was 500 miles away when the blowup came, except that I couldn't get my three stories filed from the press box either! And Gene's e-mailbox was that jammed from frantic subscribers, it was 1:00 eastern time before the last two documents got through for him to post.
I can't make y'all feel happier about a bumfuzzled process, which was supposed to happen back in August anyway and had to be delayed several times; a sign of how complex the technical process is. But what you should recognize is FOX doesn't spend money lightly and a whole lot of it has been invested in this transformation. Meaning, it will work, eventually; and it evidences the commitment our corporate parent has to keeping this deal building. If they weren't spending the big bucks and making changes, I'd worry about the future. Make sense now?
And I'll still be posting pre- and in-game, we at least got that working in time last Saturday. Here's to hoping what I file and you read (unless you are at the game and I'd encourage that anyway!) recounts Mississippi State's next big move up the polls. I reckon we'd all be happy arguing whether are not the Bulldogs are deserving of a top-15 ranking, right?