As we've just completed the three-game second stage, it's time to resume the first. Coach Dan Mullen and men take on Arkansas and Ole Miss clubs which occupy SEC strata more similar to State's. How the Bulldogs make use of these opportunities, or not, will settle which bowl game we attend as well as how we judge the entire year. Along with our evaluations of the program's progress through four falls.
I'm not of a mind and for that matter body to hash-through last night at length. Exiting Baton Rouge just after 1 ayem (kudos to the B.R. police for setting sobriety checkpoints, and they sure looked busy) and arriving here at D.B. Universal HQ at 5:45 does take a toll. The players said it pretty well themselves as you can re-read at leisure today. In quite a few respects State played better than in either of the preceding losses; in no other area was the performance actually worse. The difficulty remains those aspects which remain problem points. Most notably medium- to deep-coverage support that leaves cornerbacks trying to do too many jobs besides their own assignments and everyone looking scorched in the process. If there was a safety on the travel roster that didn't play last night, I didn't notice. None that did came away covered in glory, to put it mildly.
Kickoff coverage remains baffling too, because as Mullen said today in his own post-mortem A) a lot of different guys have been tried and all struggle; and B) on a couple of Tiger returns the first Dogs-downfield got there on time and place, only to miss their man. That's why I expected and then defended the late second-quarter high kickoff. Mullen did too, saying today it worked as planned. What did not work was a couple of tragic coverage busts. Just plain busts. No, there wasn't a steady pass rush but we've known that to be the case all season, why expect great changes in month-three? To my eye from the press box though the front four, or three, were getting somewhat closer to the quarterback than before, though. Meaning it's been a practice emphasis.
Another by-the-way; an insider who works practices said last week was maybe the best overall of the entire season, saving of course the reported quad-pull that kept LaDarius Perkins on Saturday's sideline. I don't know if he'd have made a huge difference but then whose to say Perk wouldn't have tipped some scheme scale too? The key to me was how well players who'd been slapped by the reality of losing for the first time(s) responded superbly last week, contrary to odd gossipy comments seen on the boards. I also have to think the Dogs now have even better perspective on what they were up against in those two defeats, and last night's as well.
They were, simply, up against better, deeper, more veteran teams. Anyone who wants to argue otherwise today, please, step back and de-tox emotionally the way I'm having to do physically. Travel Tip: combining Barqs and Starbursts is another idea which seems sensible only at 3:00am along an interstate. And another note of absolute triviality: what is the only SEC road trip which does not require I touch a tire to Highway 82? Right, Baton Rouge. Though starting next year College Station makes it two, and lemme tell you there is no really good route that direction. I've asked. Southwest Airlines and I will be doing business in '13.
Understand, optimism is healthy and even necessary to last long in the SEC. But unrighteous wrath over losing to, let's see, a trio of top-ten teams consecutively? Man, I gotta wonder what has happened to college football fans in general and some State supporters in particular. Not nearly all, just the most volatile, whom all appear to lack a filter between emotions and keyboard. And whom all are not at the game itself, else they wouldn't be posting practically as the play is snapped what sort of fool would make that call/read/adjustment/substitution/etc. I'd suggest a ten-second delay for such fragile folk, but even ten days wouldn't be enough for a few. Bless them. Actually I regard this as a price Mullen is paying for raising expectations. Nor do I begrudge championship chatter to coach nor club. Seriously, what were they supposed to say at 7-0?
No, leave that to my chattering class to express caution. Which is exactly what this column says of course. State 2012 isn't ready to take on the very best head-to-head, least of all three weeks in a row. No shame at all because as a fan mentioned to me Friday at the team hotel, a mid-pack SEC squad would be upper-tier in almost every other BCS league. Put another way, I can't think of many or even any likely ACC or Big Ten matchups these Bulldogs can't handle come bowl season. What has fans frustrated is just how un-competitive State was against Alabama, A&M, and LSU in order. I'm not bothered.
I am however concerned about one single overriding fact of the resumed regular-season. Can Mullen re-light a fire in his fellows for two absolutely crucial weekends? I'm not talking sets and schemes and personnel and plays. Those are adapted weekly as it is, and besides there are only eight real practice days left anyway, remember? Drop demands for major moves, please, this team is what we see. All else is recruiting by now.
The reason I stress emotional readiness in the remaining games is simple: I really think the physical matchups favor Mississippi State on both lines of scrimmage. I've bounced this off several peers and all agree, for what it's worth. Nor is there the sorts of skill discrepancies as in recent weeks. There are Hogs and Rebs who I'd gladly have on this roster, most obviously a wideout from each, but on the whole the Bulldogs grade out comparably in runners, throwers, and catchers. On the whole, I repeat. Oh sure, Mullen reminded this morning that Arkansas still has all the talents which made it a top-ten team in spring. But losing their play-calling cyborg of a coach has clearly taken something from all circuits. Or perhaps Razorback struggles affirm a private suspicion that the current college game has created: teams that expected to contend for the top and suddenly don't, also don't come to play in the same way. I call it the creeping ‘professionalizing' of college football and blame the BCS and pending playoff.
Whereas teams on the big rebound—a la Ole Miss—continue to play with heart and soul all the way through. We saw it here in 2009, as more than a few State folk have been pointing out. More on this next week. The application in our case is, to my mind, Mississippi State falls into the middle. Just as they do in the SEC standings, by no coincidence. That raises yet another by-the-way comment, related to the ‘haven't beaten anybody' theme echoed a lot lately. Do please consider just a moment: good teams beat bad teams and lose to great teams. It's not complicated.
Mississippi State is a good team as of today. I've seen bad teams and believe me this is not one by any imaginable stretch. Nor is it great either, and the gap remains frustrating I admit. The Bulldogs are good enough to finish with a good record and achieve a good bowl…if. If they win their remaining games. That is how we will judge just how ‘good' a team 2012 is. Or was.
I have to think the Dogs know it too. If not then there's some serious questions to be asked afterwards and boy will they be. Interestingly and even ironically, I suspect Mullen is going to have to reach back to his first seasons with State just to assure motivation remains strong. You know, the chip-on-shoulder routine, which we ought to have been past by this point but once again remains an emotional option. Now he can point out the recent record with Arkansas as unfinished business and I got to believe several seniors will take it seriously. But emotions are dangerous things too, and adding-in the Nick Bell element for Senior Day will be interesting to observe. Not least how we media play it this week, without hopefully over-playing it.
Well. The coffee is wearing off and the race underway, sounds like my cue to go into drowse-mode until my ears lose the overnight road rumble. In fact I'd advise we all catch what breaks and breaths as we can today…because the most intense two weeks of 2012 are about to begin. It says much about big-picture thinking these days that we can't even enjoy yesterday's landscape-shifting upset, as that all but assures every SEC team other than the eventual champion now slides one notch down the bowl selection ladder.
Which in-turn means Mississippi State must, must win-out. A nine-victory regular record, which obviously would mark this team's worthy place in our history, also puts the Bulldogs in either Atlanta or Jacksonville at the least. Back in April such a suggestion would have brought joy to all State souls. It still should today. The flip-side is how far things would slide with one, much less two more losses. And the reaction from fans would make a Mayan shake his head.
Yet that's why we play these schedules. The regular one, I mean, for Mississippi State 2012.