Yes, the Bulldogs know. Especially so the Mississippi State offensive line, which understands the challenge coming to town Saturday evening (6:45 kickoff). Left tackle Clausell has gone up against those previous two nation-leading defenses in 2011 and '12, so he can speak from personal experience.
"You just have to go out there and do your job and that's the only way to beat them," Clausell said. "Do your job with the less mistakes. So that's what we're working on trying to do."
Notice the fourth-year junior lineman said ‘trying to do'. That's honesty speaking, not intimidation at all. Offensive linemen have a uniquely candid approach to themselves and their jobs. Of course this also means than when a Bulldog blocker says something positive…it merits attention.
And after the past couple of SEC games, Clausell and company are trending positively. No, Mississippi State did not beat either South Carolina or Texas A&M in road games. But the offense has begun moving the ball more efficiently, and more consistently.
"I think we've played pretty good as a unit," said Clausell. "That's all I can say, I think we're doing really good right now, we just continue to work and get better every day."
Clausell may well be Exhibit A for proving progress. Facing a pair of top-15-ranked opponents in hostile venues, the left tackle came home with grades, he related, of 86% and 88% respectively. Both scores earned Clausell ‘champion' status for these weeks; and being so nearly equal point to the consistency Coach John Hevesy has sought since opening day of the 2013 season.
"I'm trying!" grinned Clausell.
Not just trying but now winning more often than not. This was evident two weeks ago when Clausell, and the entire line unit, were settling into stances against South Carolina and their all-everything Jadeveon Clowney. Who just so happens to primarily play at the right of that line, or opposite left tackle Clausell. Not a few skeptics went to Columbia expecting a sack-fest or some such.
The Gamecock defense did make their plays but not #7. Clausell rose to the challenge splendidly, checking and chipping and just making it a long day for Clowney, as if it were another day at the office or something.
"Well, I just went into the game preparing like it was any other opponent. I didn't try to get overwhelmed with who was across the ball from me. I just thought about doing my job and my technique every play." The result was no sacks allowed by the left tackle, and some evident frustration by the opposition as Clowney began attacking from other slots. To be sure there were double-up plays where left guard Gabe Jackson slid over in support.
But Clausell took the lead and held his own, leaving Clowney frustrated. "Maybe a little bit, but I wasn't really focused on that," Clausell said. "I was focusing on doing my job."
A job the junior has performed better than ever lately. To be sure, a running quarterback like Dak Prescott provides some degree of ‘blocking' help himself as defenses have to respect the dual-threat a half-second or so longer. But pocket passer Tyler Russell has also benefited, finding more time to look and fire at Texas A&M than he'd enjoyed before. Naturally this signals improvement on the ‘blind side' occupied by Clausell.
"I feel I've improved on my technique a little bit, especially pass-pro (protection) and just coming off the ball more and harder. And getting a lot more game-smart with adjustments and everything."
At the same time, the Bulldog ground game is also making some strides. Prescott's footwork is one reason, and adapting to a full-house backfield for some series and situations has played to other squad strengths. None of that matters much without some sort of seam to hit, and the front five are raising their games at the point of contact. This, in fact, is what they are more proud about after a couple of inconsistent months.
"Yeah, we felt we had to go out there with a chip on our shoulder," Clausell said. "Because nobody expects us to be anything. But we're trying to prove that wrong, that we can be one of the best offensive lines in the country." Clausell credits some increased intensity from his immediate partner, senior Jackson, a nice guy who needed to get a little mean here in his final college November. The results are showing.
"He's being a good leader and everything! He makes sure we all come ready to work every day."
This week's workload is likely the heaviest of the entire season for the fellows up front. Alabama's number-one ranking against scoring is genuine, and a couple of Bulldog offenses can attest to the opponents' prowess. State has managed just seven points in each of the last two meetings; for that matter no Bulldog squad has scored more than one touchdown against the Tide since 2007 and one of those was an interception return.
Clausell was an underclassman at Baker High School in Mobile way back then, with no idea he'd end up playing at Mississippi State. He did figure at that time he wouldn't wear crimson and white, not from lack of potential. "I never really was an Alabama fan, actually the only guy in Alabama that was getting tired of ‘roll Tide' and stuff. So I look at it as a rival game," he admits. That said, he bears no grudge at all to a fellow hometown product even if A.J. McCarron is running the rival's offense. "A.J. is a great player and somebody good to represent Mobile."
He'd just prefer that his maroon and white club come off Scott Field with more points than the rival. Or than a ranked opponent for that matter, as all of State's losses this season have been to teams with a number in front of the name. True, ranked teams get that way by winning over the un-ranked…but the Bulldogs are looking to break through eventually again as Coach Dan Mullen's 2009 and '10 teams did.
"I mean it's going to take playing a good, clean game; cutting down on mistakes and giving everything you've got every play. Do those two things and there's no way you can lose." Which is an awfully optimistic tone for an offensive lineman in this or any matchup. But the Bulldogs are building confidence and apparently welcome a chance to go muscle-on-muscle with the reigning champions.
"I think it's just the fact we try to get better every day at something," Clausell said. "Everybody is coming off the ball with everything. And Alabama is going to come off the ball, so we try to simulate how the game is going to be so we'll be ready Saturday."