A Fresh Breath Of Rare Air

Rather than brag about halftime adjustments, Dan Mullen’s explanation how he relaxed his team at Kentucky was refreshing. That rather than scheme or scream he ordered they take one deep breath. “That sigh in that room…” Mullen smiled. I can buy that, but suggest another factor. For a few weeks now all us Bulldogs have been breathing the very rarified air at the peak of college football.

The October peak, obviously. In fact the team still standing there in January likely hasn’t played half the necessary games to claim the inaugural playoff championship. And while Mississippi State today is the undisputed top dog of the SEC, West and overall alike, Mullen has coached his club well about such things. To a man they say nothing has been accomplished yet in terms of the ultimate goal(s), beginning with a berth in Atlanta. Hey, we media might eventually stop asking since the answer won’t adjust!

But here is one who dares disagree. Not in 2014 terms, Mullen is right about that. What 7-0 and 4-0 SEC mean is the Bulldogs have a step on the rest of the conference pack going into November. What a #1 ranking means is everybody in the free world, and probably even in Commiefornia and D.C., too is watching for a stumble, an upset, or just signs of vulnerability.

By the way, related to that; during the 2012 season when those Dogs were climbing the second-tier of polls Mullen quipped the only benefit was his son didn’t have to wait as long for Mississippi State’s name to scroll across the TV score reports. These days young Canon needs not wait at all, Dad’s school is always first in line.

And so far, always shaded in winner’s yellow. Or gold if you prefer and I certainly do.

Anyway, back to my own difference of opinion. Actually it is more differing perspective as you’d expect from any of us who’ve spent more than a couple decades following Bulldog football. And speaking of following, State fans done themselves and the program proud yesterday. I couldn’t see an empty seat in that corner of Commonwealth Stadium. It amplifies something else Mullen has mentioned and which we all agree with entirely, about fan support. Selling-out the home stadium is one standard; buying up all ducats in a venue over 500 miles (by my rental Nissan’s odo) away? Yes, the players noticed. They’ll tell future Dogs about it, too.

Wait, where was I…right. Correct as it may be to say this team hasn’t achieved anything as far as locking up the West, then winning the league crown, then etc. & so on, I will state right now yesterday in Lexington I saw at least three things either never seen before by anyone or if so not for a heckuva long time. And the returned on-sides kickoff for touchdown wasn’t even the most memorable to me, though I doubt there is any written record of a Dog doing it. Just like the blocked field goal scooped-and-scored was apparently another program first. Now if only State special teams could return a regular kick for six. Or just kick for three from beyond 30 yards…more on this in a moment.

As for the two aspects which stand out most personally, one is obvious. I am blessed beyond measure and merit that Fate let me see something our forebears couldn’t. We saw a Mississippi State team take to the field ranked the consensus #1 team in the country. Tell you what, if some national scribe stops by in coming weeks to write-up what Mullen has achieved and calls this an ‘overnight success’ in my earshot, I’ll respond yeah, an overnight story 119 years in the writing.

The other item? I have now witnessed a double-digit Bulldog winning streak. Yep, going back to that freezing afternoon of overtime in Little Rock, to walking off the it-ain’t-really-blue grass yesterday, I’ve been present at ten consecutive victories. Don’t bother looking for the last time, I’ll tell you now. The 1942 and ’44 (with a skipped season for war reason) teams scored a lucky-13 straight. But that included Ws against the likes of San Francisco, Jackson Air Force Base, Millsaps, and Arkansas A&M whoever the heck that was. The only ‘stars’ on Jackson AFB’s roster were brass, though Uncle Sam did do their recruiting for them I guess…

I’ll give more historical credence to the 1940-41 run of ten straight wins over pre-draft rosters, and that streak was only ended on a tie that didn’t keep Allyn McKeen’s ’41 club from winning the program’s only SEC Championship.

That is, so far.

So you see what I mean by rarified air? Mississippi State today is operating at an altitude we all longed for but, if we’re honest, shoved into the ‘nice dream’ file. That is no shame. Decades after decades of dashed dreams cultivated an inherently cautious outlook. Yet suddenly and almost without warning here are the Bulldogs perched on the peak, with the clearest possible view of the rainbow’s far end.

What ain’t at all metaphorical is State’s roadmap to Atlanta and beyond. As one who’s done his share of swearing while trying to unfold Rand McNally’s publications at interstate speeds, I’ll attest a map is essential. So is the vehicle. From the day he arrived Mullen unfolded his proposed path to title status and how he has a team capable of carrying the freight.

If that is they can carry the mental and emotional load that comes with being #1 in both polls and SEC standings. Much like that mentioned mountain, once at the top movement only goes downwards, and everyone else has a clear field of fire. Egad, what is it in Barqs ‘n smoked almonds that’s made me a metaphor-mangling machine today?

I haven’t scanned the boards today, having filed the last feature (and mercy was it fun writing-up Josh Robinson and Turtle Holmes!) about 1:ayem in Lexington and driving back and all. I can guess a few topics; anger over deep-pass coverage, frustration with placekicking, and just plain worry how top-ranked State let Kentucky keep it so tense, so long. That’s the advantage of having been there, as well as seeing this series play out. There are just some intra-SEC matchups that don’t become blowouts either way and this is one. Though, the Dogs do always win it in the end…and give the Kats credit for being a greatly-improved operation. Give them a couple of linebackers who can tackle, and a running back to complement Patrick Towles, and they can take the East next season.

Oh, and I’ll interject this also. Reading the local paper and listening to the morning chatter shows, it is still so, so hard for the locals to consider Mississippi State an annual favorite in the series. Never mind the six-year win streak is the longest by MSU over any SEC (at the time) team since Auburn in the ‘40s. Ahh, well, they don’t have a vote on the playoff committee either.

My take-away from Saturday is positive. The Dogs needed reminding that nothing is taken for granted in this here league, even against an annual victim. They’ve said all the right things but one still wonders if beating LSU, A&M, and Auburn in succession created some sort of complacency much more than the number-one ranking did? Oh, and along that line: remember when Mullen was a subject for snipers about not beating anyone in the West other than Them? I haven’t heard that noise in a while, have you?

Yes, there are legitimate concerns going forward. A confident red-zone defense is a fine thing but life is so much simpler when making the stop on the other side of midfield. Fortunately there aren’t too many home-run hitters in the remaining schedule. I’d expect most of the November foes to try the Aggie attack of throwing bubbles and outs and such. Still downfield coverage is going to get, ahem, covered in this week’s practices until further notice.

And I know, I know, it’s harped on here too often and too easily. But I must say this, and as kindly as possible: it is very difficult to envision a team staying first in the polls which cannot make what everywhere else is a ‘routine’ field goal. We joked about it post-spring remember, that maybe the fall gameplan should be written with third- and fourth-downs in mind. Nobody is joking now. Simply, at some point a SEC or post-season game will come down to confidence in making three points. Not necessarily at the end, either. A first-quarter kick can loom just as large in the final score, can affect how defense scheme for State right up to the ten-yard line or thereabouts. There, enough said for now.

Besides, the real question for Monday isn’t about a placekicker’s foot but a quarterback’s ankle. Or leg, or whatever it was Dak Prescott had to protect in post-game. It doesn’t seem reason for panic, he’s worn one before as have most teammates one time or another. That is just the physical price football extracts March-to-bowl trip and honestly I wonder if someday coaches don’t require all players to sport special footwear around campus full-time. Hey, did I just come up with a marketing idea for adidas?

What State’s ultra-accommodating equipper might also begin providing are personal O2 tanks at DWS. Certainly Bulldog fans benefitted from both the open date and road game to catch their own collective breath, because the first half of this season absolutely took it away. Yet here’s the best bit. Even greater things are ahead for Mississippi State to achieve, larger games to win, more ‘firsts’ to experience.

So maybe Saturday’s sigh of relief was really just the Bulldogs catching their season second-half wind?

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