From The Dawghouse

School is back underway, preseason out of the way. In five days we are on the way, west. Yep, a new Bulldog season is upon us. No need to add ‘ready or not' as based on post-practice conversations and Fan Day appreciations the featured actors in this 2013 passionate play appear ready. I even heard the obligatory ‘ready to hit somebody else' cliché yesterday. Made me nervous for a moment.

Those of us not wearing the uniform—an overwrought subject I intend to steer entirely clear of this year by the way—are a ready as ever will be to hit the road to Houston. Where we should pay mind those legendary Leadbelly lyrics as re-interpreted by C.C.R., regarding ‘better do right, better not gamble, better not fight' and so on. We can leave it to the Bulldogs to put up the fight; as to any unwise wagering, well, I guess that leads to our own final item of preseason business.

Predictions time.

This has been delayed long as possible, as explained in the annual Football Edition of D.B. Which by the way is still available for those who want to request a sample as shown on the front page here. I'm pleased that at least through August the position breakdowns have stayed fairly intact, the exceptions being due to practice injuries of which none should bear on the opening game. Fingers crossed of course.

Yet after our one week watching this team work, and ensuing weeks discussing practice results with lots of player and all assistants, I'm just as much up-in-air about picking a regular season record as back in July. Or April. Or January for that matter. As I've said on some out-of-state radio shows in the last ten days, when they press for a prediction, we could suggest a wins total anywhere from five to nine and I wouldn't blink or argue. In either direction.

The reason for such uncertainty this late in the forecasting day is not so much anything to do with the Bulldogs. On those same shows I've also said in terms of overall ability, experience, depth, coaching, etc., this 2013 team is among the six or seven best State squads of my tenure. Which begins season #34 this week, by the way. Frankly it's frightening that I've witnessed nigh 30% of Bulldog football history. That I continue to do so might be scarier still, but I guess it beats having a real job. Or that's what I'll tell myself sometime late in next Sunday's drive back.

Back to topic… Yeah, I do like this team. A lot. The offense has the personnel for not just production but real excitement, what with the best passing quarterback of my own working-era and likely ever here at State as well as proven runners and veteran blockers. If they just give Tyler Russell an extra tenth or two to toss, AND some blatantly talented but still-new receivers develop ahead of usual schedule, the offense can be explosive. While this old Dog doesn't mind boring gameplans which succeed there's no overstating what big-play potential does for an entire team. Or to an opponent. Nothing but nothing gives club confidence like certainty of scoring. I believe based on both last season and this preseason State should put up the points. Should.

Equally, though it lacks the back-end star power of last season, there are encouraging aspects to this defense. Note, I'm not claiming it is definitively ‘better' than 2012, nor worse. Just different in some ways and means of doing their things which seem, repeat seem, capable of creating the havoc, mayhem, pick your label that these Dogs have planned. To be fair I'd also anticipate this year's approach as having potential for big breakdowns, when as inevitably happens in college ball the other side guesses right or just executes perfectly. As more than a few State players, mostly defensive guys in fact, have said this preseason, their coaches remind them daily that those fellows on the other sideline are on scholarships too. It's a thought fans ought to remind themselves of as well.

The larger point remains, that every indication is for a Bulldog defense becoming the aggressor at point of contact whenever possible and practical, and having the athletic ability everywhere to do so successfully. The depth and variety, too. If there's an area where Coach Dan Mullen's staff, or staffs given the annual shuffles, has consistently excelled in recruiting it is bringing in defensive linemen and backs. Now that the linebacker chart has also been restocked, Dog defense as a whole should be a strength for seasons to come. I don't at all dismiss what we graduated in Banks, Slay, Broomfield, three great guys and great Dogs. In fact I'm sure at some point this season I'll grumble an ‘if only' they had been here to work behind this front seven. At the same time the upgraded front can easy the transition for new starters who already look like quite capable corners and safeties in their own right(s).

Plus, and this is where my main overall optimism rises from, we have the makings of a defense that can put the offense in easier scoring positions…which in turn can force foes out of their own plans into riskier stuff. Even without points-off-turnovers the MSU offense ought be able to dictate some terms too. Again, again, I'll qualify by acknowledging all this is to-be-seen and for that matter –proven on the field with everything counting. Still signs are trending positively for State, and I haven't even mentioned those, let's see what'd they call themselves at Fan Day? Oh yeah, that ‘elite' bunch we know and love as State special teams. Anybody else eager for some quick points out of the kicking game? Mullen surely is. Baker Swedenburg may be the most under-appreciated Bulldog punter in generations, so boringly consistent that nobody notices yet in some ways a Defensive MVP for providing field position. Devon Bell is bound to make that freshman-to-soph surge in consistency, right? Just don't start griping about touchbacks, with the coverage potential on this roster wouldn't you rather tackle returners around the 20?

So. Having hashed-through all the good stuff, we're calling for a championship season in 2013, right? Wellllll…

The elephant, as well as tiger, gamecock, aggie,, in the room looms over every calculation. An observant board poster put State's challenge best this week in three words—schedule, schedule, schedule. A schedule doesn't entirely dictate destiny, but in this expanded Southeastern Conference it is the most significant single factor. And here Mississippi State has had the normal—hah!—challenge compounded by booking this opener with a top-twenty matchup.

Oh, well, as a certain top administrator said while we were leaving practice earlier in the month, it is about time for State football to test itself outside the conference. Goodness knows this time next week we'll all have a better grasp of capabilities on both sides of the ball, in terms of what to expect when it is time to face our directly-comparable conference peers. Those, those are the games that will determine how successful 2013 ultimately is, not the opener.

And it is those same games which make predicting such a problem this year.

Trouble is, there are two West teams I just can't get a reasonable read on. Another school has some question about whether their all-important quarterback is available, though I ‘spect he will be in the clear eventually. And another is one injury away from chaos, with a whole season to play before we meet, as if I really needed to say who.

Given such absurd uncertainty it's tempting to take what is known about State and schedule, then factor it through best-case for the Bulldogs and worst-case the opponents, and come up with a record. It'd be a good one, too. I can only surmise it is alllllll the seasons of good, of bad, and often just plain weird bounces which have Yer Editor hesitant how far out along this fragile limb I'll stretch. What does seem safe to say is that once past the acknowledged leader ‘o the West pack—any arguments? No, OK—and their closest challenger, third-through-seventh is sheer guesswork at the moment. An injury here, a fluke play there, or just who has to play where and when in the season, all make for utter unpredictability this year.

OK, enough delay. Following a formula of what you'd stake some actual Coke-money (I'm Southern Baptist remember) on, allowing for ordinary injuries among the guys that hit the most, weighing home vs. away, considering the reinvigorated attitude Dan Mullen has displayed since re-working his assistant staff before spring, and finally letting the heart tip the resulting balance by one W the head doesn't see, and…

…8-4. Your mileage may vary, as they say, and come December I can hope lots of y'all are calling me a pessimist or some such while we're budgeting for a big bowl trip. I'll slather that crow in hot sauce and dark chocolate and gobble it grinning. I know the Bulldogs themselves have other, better ideas as they darned well should. They can begin proving so next Saturday, and we'll be on the scene for kickoff. Won't you?

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