Wanna know my reaction to that justified jibe?
No, no, no. Not in shared humor. Not a bit, though I'm sure some will read it that way. Nope, my brief, tight grin arose from suddenly realizing the winning team had just over-played its hand. That while most Mississippi State folk woke up today numbed knowing weeks, maybe months of payback are in store—and let's face it, we've thoroughly earned it and wouldn't take a bit of it back--Mullen saw himself being mocked with time still on the game clock.
Then he got to thinking immediately on the rematch. Not merely in the normal sense of wait-til-next-year we State folk know all too well. No, the look in Mullen's field-exiting eye; then his attitude in postgame interviewing; it wasn't at all what I've seen from him following prior defeats…not that he'd experienced losing this one before of course. I could only judge that some special button had been pushed.
And that his response might well be out-of-proportion. Meaning, just right in college football calculus. Be warned, anyone observed moping around the football office or locker room or weightroom or other Bulldog football venues in coming days. Feeling frustrated at unfinished business is one thing; feeling sorry for selves is another. I'd suggest the same for fans even if its not what we want to hear this day, this year. Sustained success can certainly spoil, take a little of the eager edge off what was needed to achieve it in the first place. I'll relate that to our own post-season obligations in a moment.
I want y'all to read the following very carefully, even re-read to get the meaning. It's a touchy topic for sure, suggesting Mississippi State might have needed a little humbling, and I'm risking real misunderstanding here. Let me clarify what I'm NOT stating.
I do not want the ‘Our State' theme downplayed or diminished. Just the opposite in fact, this is the right time to expand the campaign. Why? Because this is absolutely the wrong time to reverse what got State to this point in the first place, to yield the field after a painful slap to the facemask. I say this as gently as possible given long friendships but that is what the old State mindset would have done, thus turning one stumble into a full stop. If the current victors laugh at our pretensions…so freaking what? Don't let losing a game turn into losing a generation, as has happened too often in our past.
Nor would I advise Mullen to dial back on bravado. As if he would anyway. In fact, though they'd never admit it, showing that clip to the crowd was blatant proof just how deeply Mullen has gotten under their skin. Or fur. It's a rock-foundational fact that a Mississippi State type of program is not just a creation of but even more a reflection of its coach. Call it confidence, call it cockiness, doesn't matter. Though I recall how in 2009 many State fans shied away from Mullen's brash verbiage, not least in regards to the rivalry. Now we're sure to hear pleas for less inflammatory talk from the coach, and more quiet action.
Which misses the point. To Mullen talk inspires action. I know this because what many of you don't is just how the modern college athlete has changed. Words matter. The right words at the right moments matter more. Not the traditional ‘pep talk' or such, that's as archaic as…well, was gonna say the single wing but then the modern spread-option sure does borrow from such ancient tactics. No, in today's game and in contests of relatively equal ball clubs, mindset makes a difference. We need look no further back than the transition of a downtrodden Dog program after eight yawning years. Or have we forgotten 2000-2008 when at most we dared hope State might win?
Enter Mullen and whatever one thinks of talking loud the difference is nigh-immeasurable. Now not only do the Bulldogs expect to win, so do fans…and are pretty darned loud themselves when the scoreboard reads wrong. Sure, let's go back to the older, quieter, unassertive and inoffensive way of doing Bulldog business. That was so much less stressful.
Yes, we wrote last week about this year's Egg Bowl with its scary, for our side that is, similarities to Mississippi State's 2009 situation. And in some sense that was what played-out last night, based on the frenzied home field ‘n fan response. I doubt they mind writing the SEC the inevitable check for crowd control issues any more than we would have four Novembers ago ourselves. It did result in potential for trouble admittedly, but not between players; I saw the usual round of handshakes and hugs by guys who minutes before had been trying to rip off opposing heads. It was the fool fans getting in-between guys in uniform who had to ruin it for everyone, but I guess that's true of any football fan base these days, college or pro or whatever.
My point remains, as apparently does Mullen's resolve. He doubled-down, so to speak, in postgame on what this rivalry remains to him and by extension to his team. Without, I have to add, diminishing what the 2012 Dogs have done. And it was during the third quarter I commented to a fellow net-editor that well, my preseason call of a ‘eight or nine win team' was coming true after all. Mississippi State has eight wins for only the what, 17th time (counting '76) in our history. And though events in the ACC yesterday might have shaken-up the bowl picture, especially for Atlanta now, the officials I spoke hurriedly to post-game still expect to spend New Years Day in Jacksonville.
If correct then that, friends, is pretty darned fine consolation prize. For those today finding reasons--excuses really--to cancel post-season commitments, two reminders. First, how can you pass up opportunity to observe a State team play for a ninth win (six times)? And secondly, remember how we weren't all that thrilled about going to Shreveport in 2000; after another road Egg Bowl loss, after a season that didn't turn out entirely as hoped? Those who sucked it up and attended got to enjoy an evening worth remembering. Just saying, you never know what may be missed.
True, this Gator trip won't have the same electricity as '10, back when winning big was fresh and thrilling. No matter, because that's also part of the point, see? If sustained success spoils some of the original excitement, it ought also inspire a need for ever-more. That's exactly what Mullen was saying, challenging really, the underclassmen on this club with comments about working harder, how what went into preparing for the 2012 game—and I kinda wonder today if he referred to the season itself—wasn't enough. His exact words: "If you want to see a different result you've got to be better, put in more, put in more effort, work harder. That was kind of the message for our guys, come back with that attitude."
By ‘our guys' I have to believe he's including himself and his staff. I'm not spending time today forecasting firings, let's let the dust settle for a few days first and it's unlikely though not impossible moves would be made before the bowl game anyway. Still something has got to give in a few areas that were flat-out frustrating this season. State has quite likely the finest pure passer of our history and while the numbers are excellent the record is just a little short of same. Tyler Russell is taking too #$%^&*() hits and it's not nearly all his fault. I know, the line ought return intact if Tobias Smith's appeal is granted and that's good, but either there are some technical protection issues to address or the offense in general has to be re-thought to take fuller advantage of Russell's talents.
Including recruiting guys who can just plain get open. I mentioned the team reflecting their coach, that's unintentionally ironic in the physical sense as Mullen was a self-confessed slow college player himself. Goodness mercy me but what I'd give for two really, I mean REALLY fast receivers who—just as important--also know how to run a route rightly. They'd have made marvelous difference last night and for that matter in many more MSU games. Though we also admit, the '12 Egg Bowl may well have been lost when Fletcher Cox exited a year early. Stop griping about blitzing and pressure, people, we didn't have a difference-maker on the line this year and that's that.
The larger frustration is how a superbly talented and long-seasoned secondary underachieved. Sorry, they just did. It made fine sense at the time to devise methods of getting all the best guys on the field together, I applauded the approach. Who knew that guys who'd played together so long would be unable to, using the coaching term, communicate well or often at all? Reckon that left with Charles Mitchell? Whatever, even great corners can't cover everybody all the time and something was missing. And these past two years remind just how remarkable Chris White was, a linebacker with the size, speed, and smarts to be anywhere, any time.
Now to be completely fair here, the above wish-list and critiques are all relative as Mrs. Einstein would say. It relates too to another Mullen theme, of the transition from good to great. Mississippi State has good players this year, good enough to win eight games…and good enough to have won a ninth had they approached the Egg Bowl with the same near-evangelical fervor as in 2009 and '10. Please don't misunderstand this either, by no means am I implying the Bulldogs took '12 for granted; they didn't.
What I mean is this year it was the other team, boiling-over with the losing string thrown in their faces, took their own game to the proverbial higher level. One which State didn't or to my eye wasn't ready to match this time.
Next time? Now the obligation to upgrade, in team talent level and mentality alike, falls upon MSU and Mullen. I have to wonder if the coach was talking to himself somewhat last night, reviewing how his program got to the point of expectations and what needs doing to cement that status and how much too must rededicate. If Mullen really was, we'll see the results in recruiting, in scheme and staff evaluations, in adjusting the off-season programs, and on. If there are signs of mellowing, then I'll start worrying.
Because up to now his program's trajectory has kept climbing, even through the transition from ‘newness' of the first years to expectations and accompanying risks of satisfaction. Something our regarded rivals ought remember too; it's easier to play with hair-on-fire fury the first year of a new regime. Motivation isn't as automatic after those down-beaten boys who enjoy winning at last leave the program to youngsters who see themselves as winners before even stepping on-field. It's all natural, to be taken in-stride, and how the coach handles the second and third phase defines just what sort of, well, coach he really is.
And I'm still slightly surprised that a comment of last week's column, how Ole Miss intentionally hired their own idea of a Dan Mullen to revamp their program, didn't produce more fuss on each side of the divide. That counts as confirmation I guess.
It's easy to overlook positive trends of today. The Football Complex goes operational in December. Stadium expansion is underway; north end zone bleachers began coming down last week in fact. State can match paychecks with our peers. All essential aspects in first sustaining and then advancing, even if we admit…the challenges only increase too. Put another way, I've given thought to the 2013 schedule. Enough said on that for now.
What I suppose I'm really saying is two-fold. First, that a stinging setback in the game which Mullen built a program around, and that State designed its image equally around, in no way negates either approach. It actually, and ideally, strengthens the resolve. That is also the second point there, that neverever can State success in the series be taken for granted. Not by a coach, not by the players, not by fans. Especially not if we really mean it when we proclaim this is Our State.
Besides, after holiday feasting and days of leftovers, some humble pie makes a healthy dessert. Especially if Mississippi State devotes the coming 51 weeks to ridding ourselves of the bitter taste.
So consider the 2013 Egg Bowl kicked off.