2013 Liberty Bowl Setting State's 2014 Stage

They aren't ignoring business. And certainly they mean no disrespect to the opponent. It's just that the future is on many a Mississippi State mind. "Yeah, it's hard," Taveze Calhoun said. "We always think about next year, we've got all these people returning that played a lot of downs this year. Our coach constantly reminds us the only game that is important is the next game."

That next game being the last contest of 2013, against Rice in Tuesday's AutoZone Liberty Bowl (3:00ct). And yes, there is enough about this matchup with the Conference USA champions to bring Bulldogs of all classes back to business. Such as securing a fourth-consecutive winning record, something Mississippi State last achieved from 1997-2000.

For that matter these Bulldogs have already written a fresh page in the program's all-time annals, going bowling for a fourth-straight year. Third-year sophomore Calhoun has had a hand in this unprecedented Mississippi State streak, as a redshirt in 2011 and rotation cornerback last year. This time, he will be starting a bowl game as part of his career progression.

Which is a word he would apply to the program as a whole, in fact. Young though he is, Calhoun understands just how special extending the bowling streak is to Bulldog athletics. And the University too.

"It's just trying to change the tradition," said Calhoun. "We have a standard now, and we want to live up to that standard, to make a bowl game every year. So that's one of our goals every year when we come in, to make a bowl game because you don't want to lower your standards." Hmmmm. This makes it sound as if the key to greater success is making bowling more routine than it is special?

For Calhoun, this has been a special season already. He ended the regular season sixth in total tackles, impressive for a cornerback. And speaking of ‘ending' the soph made a big statement in the scheduled finale with a 11-tackle performance against Ole Miss, nearly double his best output in any other game. He also collected all three of his interceptions in November, with a pair of picks against Alabama.

The biggest turnover though was his interception of Arkansas' fourth down pass in overtime to seal the victory which kept the Bulldogs in bowl contention. And if he didn't get a pick in the Egg Bowl, counterpart Jamerson Love came up with the deciding overtime fumble forced by safety Nickoe Whitley.

That play epitomized a Dog defensive secondary which came into its own in that frantic final months, with safeties and corners combining for eight interceptions. For the season Whitley had five picks, which he'll stay at—as well as his 15 career intercepts—after December surgery which will keep him out of the senior season bowl game.

For Calhoun and Love, both underclassmen, their three picks apiece (and five were in SEC play) were more than personal achievements. It affirmed the faith coordinator Geoff Collins and new corners coach Deshea Townsend had in them to take over the jobs held by now-professionals Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. Neither current Dog claims to be at that level yet…but they know they belong where they are as starting SEC cornerbacks.

"As far as me and Jamerson we came in, we hadn't played a lot and it's different from the practice field and game field," Calhoun said. "So I think we learned a lot every game, as the season progressed we became more comfortable making plays. And our coaches constantly put us in positions to make plays so eventually we started making those plays."

"We already knew we had confidence in ourselves. Because we learned a lot from those guys, they taught us a lot about the game. We were just waiting on our opportunity, so we took all the things those guys taught us and did things Coach Towns taught us. And we were able to have a successful year."

Satisfyingly successful on the whole, though Calhoun and company would like to have a few do-overs against the likes of Oklahoma State and Auburn and LSU. It's the classic ‘if they knew then what they know now…' notion. Still the hard lessons in those losses surely paid off in the overtime victories which brought the Bulldogs to Memphis.

It also toughened the team for any sort of intense situation. Not, Calhoun said, that he hopes the Liberty Bowl requires another overtime. "Yeah, but a win is a win! So I'll take it any way. But, it would take a lot more off my heart if we could just win it in regulation time!"

However Tuesday ends, the New Year dawns on a bunch of Bulldogs eager for 2014. Especially the defensive side of the squadroom, which was coming into its prime just as the '13 schedule wound down. It's easy to forget now that a year ago the '12 team went bowling with two defensive coaches gone already. Coach Dan Mullen was able to adapt quickly, promoting Collins to coordinator and hiring both cornerbacks coach Townsend and line coach David Turner.

A year later results are so encouraging few remember the uncertainties of spring. Calhoun said the additions and adjustments were "perfect" for everyone on the defense.

"I love my coaches. Honestly, I think we have the best coaches in the world. They're all different and all love us and they always working together. So I think we all gelled together perfect, the coaches and the players. I'm not saying we don't have bad times but when it's time to work it's time to work and we all agree on the same thing. We all want to win. I think it's just a perfect mixture of different people."

Yet the defense, and for that matter the team in general, reporting for January's round of off-season strength work won't be too very different. Yes, some familiar faces will have moved on. But this is a small senior class and only four are listed to start Tuesday. Calhoun is among the second and third waves of Mullen recruits now taking charge of Bulldog football's future.

A fine one, too. "I think it is. We've been progressing every year, getting better and better. More people are starting to believe in the program, and we're getting younger and more talented guys coming in. So I think the future is bright for Mississippi State."

There we go again, thinking of the future when there is a big bowl to be played. And besides, nothing springboards a young ball club better into the next season than ending the preceding one with a victory. "We have a standard to live up to, and we don't ever want to drop below that standard," says Calhoun.

"The next game coming up is Rice so we've got to focus on that. And we'll worry about next year next year."


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