From The Dawghouse

Our normal noon teleconference was winding down and Dan Mullen clearly wanted to get back to scouting the opponent. Make that, The Opponent. No matter what else a season brings, regardless how large other games do loom nowadays for an upgraded Bulldog program, there's a single schedule-ending matchup always on Mullen's mind and this is it.

So what was going to be a short phone-chat this particular Sunday was wrapping up, with one natural question to address. Nothing about personnel and schemes and such, nor even the annual stakes in any Egg Bowl. It was something on my and many other Mississippi State minds since, ohhh, early September; is Mullen seeing similarities between his own 2009 beginning with the Bulldogs, and what is happening up in Oxford here in 2012?

Why as a matter of fact, yes. The situations aren't identical to be sure, any the respective resumes are often more different than duplicative. Especially in how the counterparts prepared to become SEC head coaches. Yet there are fair comparison to be drawn and, in Mississippi State's case now, to take into game-week account. Because veteran Bulldogs should find it useful remembering how they got where they are today.

And where it really began, on that November afternoon at Scott Field when an unranked State squad directed by an aggressive new coach upset a visiting, #25 ranked, and on-a-roll Rebel team that had crushed the Dogs at home a year before. Fast-forward to 2012 where, let's see now, State goes on the road for this edition freshly back in the polls, or one of them at least as #24, assured of a good bowl trip, coming off a thorough previous-year thrashing of the rival at home…

No, I'm not trying to frighten anyone here, much less imply any forecast of complete role-reversal here in 2012. Plenty of y'all have spent all season grumbling along these lines already, which might say more about some lingering MSU mindsets than anything else. Is it possible? Absolutely so, if these Bulldogs take any iota of preparation for granted and if the home team plays above and even out of their collective heads.

And, if State treats this like any other SEC West game. That's one count I'm not too concerned about today. Last week it seemed Mullen wasn't only re-rousing the troops to play Arkansas, as key as getting the win was to post-season standing. Coming off three losses, two lopsided and the third more frustrating than anything, the impression was a coach setting his squad up for a closing stretch that would do more than decide how 2012 is recalled.

The goal appeared to be priming Mississippi State for the end-of-schedule showdown. It might still intrigue outsiders, this Mullen priority with dominating a single opponent. But we who've watched the series over many, many years have seen the results. Not just here at State but in the opposing camp. I even suggest to any of you who hear peers boasting (rightly I do admit) in their own first-year coach, that you remind them of this.

Ole Miss specifically went out to hire their own Dan Mullen. Then stand back lest you get sprayed with spittle from an infuriated response.

But even they know deep-down, it's true. Ole Miss has had to follow Mississippi State's lead in many areas lately. One might even argue State has achieved success in the rivalry at its own expense that way, but I'm content with the tradeoff and the trends because for a once-unimaginable change it is Bulldog sports and administration and even fans in some ways setting the respective programs' paces. Now the trick is how to maintain a lead.

And I sorta believe one way is to keep the rivals focused more on a person than his program. It's a delicate idea maybe, but makes sense to this old Dog who certainly has seen generations of fellow fans literally obsess over an opposing coach to the point of pure distraction. Mullen understands, as today's comment reminds. "I'll be honest, I'd be shocked if they didn't want to get a win, I think since the day I got here they've wanted to get a win against me."

This quote by the way is a case of read-word not conveying exactly the same message as heard-word. On the screen or tomorrow in print it will read as the purely cockiest comment a coach could say, the classic ‘locker room board' quote if you will. Hearing it first-person on the phone clarifies the subtle difference; I didn't detect bragging but a shrugged-off style statement of fact, because this indeed was Mullen's original message. And goal, back in 2009 when taking over a downtrodden Dog team and fan base in desperate need of energizing.

I often get the sense continued use of ‘school up north' (by the way, there was no label or title used in today's teleconference, it was all-business) and such is more out of routine than ribbing most of the year. Not this week, when we'll hear countdown clock references and ‘tsun' and the like daily. More on this in a moment. For now, back to our original query of comparing '09 to '12 respectively.

"There's always excitement when its something new and different," Mullen agreed. "And how much do the guys believe in what they're doing? We've been fortunate, our guys have bought into everything we've asked them and it's showing on the field. Especially our senior class." (Remember well that last bit.) And yes, Mullen said, there's another similarity seen in scouting already.

"The most important thing when I turn on a film, what I look for is a team where all eleven guys are playing hard. And I've seen their guys playing hard." Not just hard but in ways that make 2009-10 reference material useless in this year's preparations.

"They're a totally different offense, and a different defense as well. That happens with a new staff. A very different team than what we've faced schematically, attitude-wise. It looks to me Hugh (Freeze) has their guys playing hard and battling right down to the very end."

Of course in all but one case, and that against a team State is fresh off thrashing, the very ends have not ended well. Lingering lack of depth, relative newness of those said-schemes, the inevitable risks that come with being so constantly aggressive to make up for other areas, that has bitten them at the very-end more often than not. Yet you just know too there will be that breakthrough game where it all clicks…just as it did for Mullen's own first team as noted already.

Just as I'd have to expect the coach to tell the 2012 Bulldogs.

And this again is where a solid core of seniors should, make that must, take charge of game-week. Mullen is the face on Rebel dart-boards these days but it is his first signing class along with redshirts and survivors of 2008 who have to execute Saturday evening. As nerve-wracking as it was at the time, I'm now glad Arkansas did some first-half face-slapping yesterday. Not only because it let the Bulldogs show they could stay the course with only minimal adjustments and beat an opponent that relies on fast-paced passing and attacking defense (sound familiar?).

But just because it proved State had put the three-loss streak behind and moved on to remaining business. Admittedly I wouldn't want to fall double-digits behind this week to a home team that will, or certainly should, be playing at a maniacal pace. They've got a bowl bid on the line after all, which is more than the '09 Dogs were playing for. Yet what this week is about must not, in MSU's camp, be focused so tightly on the opponent beyond scouting-and-scheming.

It needs to be about them, themselves. Their place both in the final 2012 college landscape and in the bigger Bulldog picture. As to the former, a ninth win gives State a strong but not sure shot at the Chick-fil-A Bowl with the Gator as the second option. A loss and it's Jacksonville for almost-certain; it isn't entirely fair to dismiss a Vanderbilt bunch that should have eight wins of their own but the good Gator folk would be slashing budgets and maybe body parts at the prospect of selling tickets to a Commodore-Northwestern matchup. Oh, and it looks like there'll be no SEC team with seven wins this year, so six-win squads are suddenly contending for Nashville. There's a Rebel bunch that'd gladly take that date.

Anyway, back to State's present position. I'm not among those who are already fretting their world is about to come to an end Saturday night. I still like the long-term potential of the roster Mullen already has assembled and, based on commitments, how some areas are to be strengthened by recruiting. Goodness knows the quarterbacking is in the absolute best shape in three decades and maybe ever. Ditto the backfield, and based on the last two games the offensive line is developing collectively.

Maybe the defensive front hasn't stepped-up as hoped post-Fletcher Cox (ohhhh, what might have been this fall had he returned for a senior season) but I'm convinced they are better than the opponent this week regardless of set and scheme. They just have to play a whole evening as they did yesterday's second half, showing that fine balance of contain and attack necessary against a quick-footed quarterback with a streak of wildness in pressured passes. Adaptations in the secondary, begun in the second half at LSU, are showing results as well, and bode nicely for the future even after graduations. I know, it's nigh-heretical to suggest based on our history as well as current tackling statistics, but it's Bulldog linebacking that—to me anyway—will be the difference between victory and failure this weekend.

Because this is what I've been reminding myself for two months now (yes, I'm still somewhat prone to over-regarding the rival too; I just haven't panicked at their show of fresh offensive prowess). Take the respective starting 22s and their alternates; compare and contrast. Which then would you rather take into a game in 2012? Right.

But…the margin I'm convinced Mississippi State has to work with is as fragile as the respective mindsets Saturday. Put another way, if both teams play at their own potential and by their own best gameplans, the Bulldogs by rights should win. If Mullen's men take an atom of this for granted, they'll lose. And the gloating will be as unbearable as, well, as it was when his first team scored that upset which we now know was the starting-point for bigger things. Or as the saying goes, what goes around comes around, made no easier to accept by the fact the rivals have borrowed freely from State's example.

I'll wrap with one other Mullen tele-comment today, addressing concerns that bowl-bound Bulldogs are content or that a newly-motivated foe has the attitude edge. "This game stands alone on what it is," Mullen said, recalling 2011's example. "Last year's game was bowl eligibility for us, but more important it was the Egg Bowl."

"So I'm going always getting the other team's best shot when you play the Egg Bowl."

Gene's Page Top Stories