From The (Frozen) Dawghouse

One would think by now burnout would have set in. It has been a long, wearing and wearying run since SEC Media Days. Heck, starting at return from the Gator Bowl, with June baseball and football season, I drove nearly 11,000 miles last calendar year. And yet I'll watch closing ceremonies on this football season tonight, same as last night's bottom-rung bowl. Addiction, that's what it is.

I and likely you as well will also watch proceedings from Pasadena and ponder a particular fourth quarter waaaaay back on September 14, and wonder. What would tonight's matchup look like had a young Mississippi State quarterback, thrust into unexpected but not unwelcome responsibility, been able to fall forward just his own length on third down? Seriously, that single play now looms astoundingly large for both a SEC West team playing for a title, and a Division program coming off a whole campaign of what ifs. Please understand I'm not blaming anyone for not making a play in that game or any other, that isn't the point here other than the what if factor. Make a field goal or take the one point rather than try for two, are better second-guesses from that game anyway.

No, the point today is larger and happier. I offer that Auburn event as just one, one example of all things which could have and maybe should have derailed an entire season…yet did not. Just the opposite and contrary to all expectations at the time(s), those wrenching turns and twists in the first two months of 2013 are why these Bulldogs were able to finish the year on such an inspiring note. And why the 2014 that, to use Dan Mullen's term, is ‘born' this week, assembles for its first formal meeting with as much emotional momentum than seen at State in a while.

We're not about to recount those WT&Ts referred to; you know them as well as I, beginning with the first injury of August camp to the November overtime heroics. It would take too long for even Yer Editor to write and that's saying something. Today is for generalizing why we ought look back on 2013 as a turning (and twisting too) point for Mullen's program that bodes better for '14 and beyond.

Leaving the womens game yesterday, an admin commented on the Liberty Bowl win was such a perfect end to one season and spark for the next. He's right. He and his staff were also a bit prescient mailing out those notices last month about 2014 priority deadlines; March 1 for season tickets, and April for seating assignments in the splendidly-renovated and expanded stadium. I route my couple-times-weekly walks past the construction zone just to look and yow, high-angle photos don't do justice to what is taking shape here. Of course my route might have to adapt again soon when ground for the new building/parking structure behind the Post Office is broken. Gonna miss that fine old tree in the holler, and future students won't know the reckless joys of snow-days sliding down that hill.

Anyway, ticket re-orders ought to be rolling in asap, inspired by a strong finish and more-promising forecast. Look at the team which won the Liberty Bowl, as well as those beyond-dramatic duels to end the regular season; check-off the returning starters and rotation Dogs as well as what we've written about some redshirts here; compare it to the 2014 schedule; and try not to smile too big too soon.

Last week a poster requested we break down percentages of losses and returnings on both sides of ball. I understand the annual idea, but suggest in this taking-shape team's case it does not apply well. If at all. And that's a good thing. Why?

Because, the team that rose to do-or-die demands in November was a pretty different Dog squad than the one which kicked it off in Houston. I'm a little careful playing the injury card, at least compared to Georgia and Florida teams that were literally ravaged. On paper State wasn't overly devastated…but intangibly the team took some serious blows that rippled-through two entire months. Two of which weren't even appreciated, in fact, as Nickoe Whitley and Charles Siddoway ought not have been playing period. Imagine how '13 would have ended without them though? Those are two true hero stories. And if Tyler Russell and LaDarius Perkins weren't damaged to the same degree, at least not until Tyler took that last shot at Little Rock, they were so far from full-speed.

OK, getting bogged-down in details again. The larger point is if we dial-back to August's anticipations for how this team would and should play, those and other injuries (Jay Hughes, Justin Malone, etc.) would have been seen as crippling. And it was indeed cut awfully close in winning-season terms. But the Bulldogs still got it done and in a fashion both on and off the field which is the truest indication of why '14 can be great.

The on-field, all could see. Dogs took on larger roles and responsibilities to more than fill gaps; the team got better. Yes, it did. Mullen calls this a ‘development' program and boy did we see that accelerated in so many instances. Which, as our Steve Robertson noted well in a post last week by the way, puts the coach's recruiting results of 2011-12-13 in a much, much brighter light, eh? Recruitniks grumpy about lack of perceived signing-stars power those three years are now free to apologize to this staff. Not that they will, they're already fretting this coming class' ranking or lack thereof, bless them. I'll summarize what another net-site peers said yesterday at the game on this, wisely so; while others recruiting for signing day splash, Mullen and staff sign players to fit gameplans. Good call there, Robbie.

The off-field? This is kinda-sorta guesswork on my part, admittedly, since media doesn't get to watch in-season practicing or have a lot of direct contact beyond post-games. But even that limited window-opening gave sufficient insight into how this team ticked under such stress. I told one of the coach, no need to say which, yesterday that just to our outside eye there was little to no crisis within the club; no woe-is-us when things were rough, no public finger-pointing, no grousing about bad luck and playing time and depth charts and the like. Well, maybe there was one high-profile, non-playing example, but that seems about to resolve itself and with everyone else uninfected.

No, folks, it has NOT been like this on most State teams I've observed since egad the late 1970s. While in no way claiming all is sweetness-and-light in the locker room (these are college guys after all and I'd worry more if egos and attitudes and ambitions did not cause at least a little competitive friction at times!), the squad we saw handled first adversity and then success with aplomb. Pleasure, too, because they earned very atom of it at the end.

They've also earned the right to feel Dog-goned good about themselves at Friday's first full team meeting, those returning for more and hopefully better. Speaking of which, with the new semester starting this is the time for any transfers to make their moves. Nothing is official but I'd expect a couple of departures, like rumored-ly a running back returning to his home state and that's as far as I care to imply right now. By the way, 2014 brings a new media relations director for football and I would rather not hit Bill Martin, formerly of LSU, with a transfer question on his first day in town!

But a few transfers won't be un-welcome in the recruiting aspect as there aren't a lot of grants left for January offer. In fact, a coach said they are already working as much on 2015's recruiting as the one almost completed for February. Now THAT is impressive progress, hey? As well as a signal how solid the roster increasingly is, save of course in that precious-as-platinum annual area of offensive linemen. That yearly need never changes.

Another by-the-way detour: in November watching a small-group practice while awaiting a football pressure, I commented to John Cohen that what stands out most about the 2014 Diamond Dog roster is how everyone, everyone on it belongs on a SEC roster. Which absolutely wasn't what he inherited you know. Well, while we cannot say that about the football roster just yet, State is a heckuva lot closer to that ideal than any time in my memory. Seriously. Looking quickly at the tentative spring two-deep, there isn't anyone I would not have signed to a scholarship. And of course one who wasn't signed; but boy does Ben Beckwith remind how guys still slip through recruiting-cracks but prove priceless as walk-ons.

Are we to the level of the SEC's best rosters, of course not. But Mullen makes his gains in that direction, and more importantly this staff develops their Dogs. Which is what Mississippi State must always do to gain any conference ground. That development resumes when everyone reports en masse to ‘Balis Mall' for the January-February strength program. We don't have the spring practice schedule yet, stay tuned.

I mentioned the emotional strength shown down the season stretch. Sure, ideally 2013 would have followed the summer script with Russell & Co running and passing in one system. Didn't happen, and I feel for Tyler and classmates that their senior season didn't play out as planned. They still merit a sincere salute for career accomplishments and, in a sense, aiding the transition to this next program-phase. One which should see an offense more in-synch with Mullen's core philosophies from 2009-11 because of Dak Prescott's blossoming abilities. During that frenzied fourth quarter at College Station I happened to be standing by Scott Stricklin on the sideline as the next red-zone snap was setting-up. I commented how good that backfield of Prescott, Josh Robinson, Ashton Shumpert looked already and would with the addition of another to-be-signed prep star back. The A.D. agreed indeed. And that wasn't including the precocious powers of Bear Wilson, or fast-maturing Jameon Lewis and the Johnsons and Joe Morrow, not to mention redshirt Shelby Christy and a rehabbing Fred Ross and…

There I go, bogging-down in details again. So no thumbing-through the defense other than to say man, that bunch could be so, so good. No better measure of how potent that side should be is to be said than, if a certain five-star talent of troubled attitude doesn't straighten himself out, the defensive line won't miss him at all. Seriously, that boggles the long-time Bulldog mind. No, I for now have no fears Benardrick McKinney is leaving.

The only concern is of some program taking a swing at this defensive staff during the coming coaching convention. I believe everyone will return intact as of today, but You Never Know at this crazed stage of the college calendar with staffs shuffling, firings and hirings and all. I think repeat think this staff sees the possibilities to upgrade their own resumes in 2014 with what their players and positions are capable of winning. If I'm gonna praise the chemistry that developed in the locker room under '13 circumstances, let's share some credit with a coaching staff that gelled rather nicely itself.

What I'm getting at overall is this. For all the frustrations of the season-past, every setback somehow contributed to improving the 2014 team. Not by plan, and not by ideal means. Yet the end-result is a squad advanced ahead of their usual schedule. Does that make sense?

We last talked with the top Dog in Memphis, and not very long. There should be some sort of sit-down in the coming weeks. For now though I find fitting a couple of Mullen quotes from November. This was after Arkansas but before the successful recovery of the Golden Egg made Mullen 4-1 in the Rivalry That Counts, or achieving bowl eligibility, or before securing a fourth-straight winning season. Keep that in context.

Mullen was asked about the departing Dogs but used the opening to talk future—something we now can see as significant about the coach's mindset already. "When you look at where we're headed and our young guys, we don't have a real big senior class," Mullen said. "But these guys (underclassmen) are learning what it takes to win under any circumstance." Which is what made the difference, the coach said, at Little Rock which we can now see as a turning-point.

The juniors, sophs, others simply stopped looking to their elders to make the winning plays, was Mullen's summary. And, "It was huge for those guys. It is good to see these figuring out situations. Because next year they're going to be a year older. Time goes fast sometimes, you look back and it's almost gone if you haven't made those plays. The young guys come in and expect to go make good things happen."

If Mullen said that before the Egg and Liberty bowl successes, what must he and team be thinking now? I suspect what fans are thinking here as 2014 dawns. It's about re-opening Davis Wade Stadium with a Bulldog program on the fast track again. Which is addicting indeed.

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