Of course ESPN’s massively-popular show won’t expend half its timeslot on the Tigers-Bulldogs brawl on Scott Field. Nor need to. The mere presence of College Gameday on the Mississippi State campus says enough about this game, this matchup, and the implications for the rest of the entire 2014 football season.
As producer Lee Fitting said, “It’s 2 vs 3, it’s a perfect storm.”
Certainly campus and for that matter Starkville has been taken by storm since ESPN announced CGD would broadcast from the Junction. Fowler, ringmaster of this weekly football-fest, has been to practically every other FBS venue of note. It never hurts though for even veteran broadcasters to be reminded how special the sport can still be for the first-time hosts.
“It’s flattering,” Fowler said of the reception. “You get to capture the excitement, and how people see our appearance here as some sort of validation of the bigness of the program and the game.”
Regular season home games don’t get bigger for Mississippi State than this one. Coach Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs have gone from outside all polls three weeks ago, to the program’s highest-ever ranking in 115 seasons. MSU’s meteoric climb has surprised much of the country and even some of the conference.
One ESPN observer isn’t overly surprised. Former Georgia defensive lineman David Pollack worked two 2013 games at Scott Field. “I remember coming late in the season and calling the Egg Bowl,” he said of State’s overtime victory. “Looking at y’all’s two-deep on defense and those dudes, because they are some dudes!; and Dak Prescott, and thinking this could be a big year.”
So far, it is. This is just the fourth Bulldog team ever to start a season 5-0; they show up tomorrow on the home field 2-0 in the SEC with a pair of West victories. State’s offense has produced at an all-time record pace so far, and the defense has continued to develop those ‘dudes’ which so impressed Pollack last November.
In fact, “This is the best defensive front-seven in the SEC,” Pollack said, noting how linebacker Benardrick McKinney catches attention. “I love watching him play football. He’s instinctive, he’s massive and takes on guys very well.”
But his player’s eye for muscle-men has also fallen on the other side. What Ben Beckwith did the last two SEC games, starting at guard then center and winning league Lineman of the Week each time spoke to “Just being a football player, able to roll with the punches and do different spots.” At the same time Pollack is happy regular State center Dillon Day is available again. Former d-lineman Pollack doesn’t begrudge Day’s, ahem, aggressive play at LSU that earned the one-game suspension. Not, he added, that he promotes stomping on opposing linemen…too much.
“I’m a big Dillon Day fan, I love people who play with a little chip on their shoulder.”
The largest love though goes to quarterback Dak Prescott, who already was high in mid-season Heisman Trophy talk. Now with Georgia back Todd Gurley suddenly sidelined for an undetermined stretch, “As of right this moment he’s the favorite,” Fowler said. “Now that can change real fast.” But tomorrow is Prescott’s chance to really grab the high ground in this competition. “It’s another big national showcase for him,” Fowler said. “It’s about the whole team obviously, but it’s about the two quarterbacks under-center.” Because at this point Auburn’s Nick Marshall must also be a front-runner with Heisman voters.
Marshall naturally has the higher profile based on a SEC title and great performance in the national championship game. Prescott’s case is getting stronger with each win, and each review of those wins per Fowler. “When they see State on tape it’s not possible to overstate what 15 has done.”
Or more simply, “Dak has it,” said Pollack. Even better, he has more and better weapons around him. Such as running back Josh Robinson who Pollack jokes “The Bowling Ball nickname is apropos, it’s like tackling a tree stump!”
Speaking of timber… The Gameday set is on Creelman Street (in front of Dorman Hall) and nicely nestled into that edge of the Junction. Producer Fitting loves how the massive stage is placed within a bracket of trees but with enough open space for the expected huge Saturday morning crowd. Which by the way was already building Friday morning and not just with students skipping classes.
About the general look, “It’s awesome, it’s perfect. It’s cozy but good-sized enough.” Now as to how things will sound, Fitting has been planning for Mississippi State’s legendary (or notorious, or both) cowbell-wielding fans. “I’ve been asked if we’d let cowbells into the ‘pit’,” Fitting said. “My response was why wouldn’t we? I’m sure it work out, it will be loud and obnoxious but that’s the purpose of cowbells. It’s good.”
Fowler isn’t worried about getting his job done on the stage. “We have noise-cancelling earbuds,” he said. “But the cowbell sound comes through.” And that’s fine by him. “If you can call cadence and run an offense with that, you can certainly do a TV show!”
For College Gameday it has been a ground-breaking as well as sound-breaking two weeks, having made another first-ever visit for the Alabama-Ole Miss game. So shipping the stage and set was a simple matter for the working crew. As for the on-air talent and their support team, the complexities of creating another new show don’t change. “We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to put on the air, what to feature, how to explain the many facets of the game, the rivalry.” And of course even the central theme of CGD only accounts for a portion of the whole three hours.
Still, as Fowler agreed, this weekend and for that matter the full two weeks has been something out of their ordinary. “We had a blast last week. And I’m looking for an equally cool experience tomorrow.”
“This is the state of Mississippi’s moment. We’ll try to show everything that Mississippi State home games are about, and it’s a historical time.”
College Gameday goes on-air at 8:00ct.