”No, not at all,” agreed Dak Prescott following the 25-20 loss at Alabama. “I still think we’re one of the best four teams in the country. We just played one of the other best four teams in the country. And it’s an early playoff game in my mind.”
A playoff barely begun, if the Bulldog quarterback is to be believed. This round certainly went in favor of Alabama. The #5 (CFP ranking) Crimson Tide built a 19-0 lead midway of the second quarter and held off #1 Mississippi State’s second half resurgence. So when the College Football Playoff committee’s next round of rankings is released Tuesday, expect Alabama to climb into the first four at least.
How far will the Bulldogs fall? Probably not a lot, though room certainly must be made for the new SEC West leader (by a half-game over State) to move into the top four. #2 Oregon was open this week and could inherit the top spot, and #3 Florida State remained the only major-conference unbeaten by surviving Miami.
So it’s conceivable State hangs in among the elite four since their only defeat of the season will have been to the newest member, and at their house. Coach Dan Mullen did a little post-game lobbying, but only because he was asked to.
”I don’t have a vote,” Mullen said. “If I sat in on the meetings… I don’t know what they’re judging off of. I know we’re the only team to play four top-ten teams and we’re 3-1. So if strength of schedule, absolutely not. But I don’t know anybody else that has three top-ten wins and the only loss is on the road to a top-five team.”
Of course all three of those victims who were top-ten at the time also lost Saturday. But LSU, Auburn, and Texas A&M also suffered their setbacks to SEC opponents. So the league’s fratricidal strength ought not hurt State’s separate case. But, speaking of hurt…
…there was a lot of it in the visiting locker room at Tuscaloosa. Confusion, too, for a ball club which had just set the program record with a 9-0 spot, earned the first-ever #1 ranking, and was a staple of national conversation. It had been a long time since Mississippi State players had to deal with defeat. If they looked to the coach for sympathy, sorry. Empathy, maybe, but feeling sorry for themselves?
Don’t say that in Mullen’s hearing. “We should feel awful right now. We lost a football game. Everybody should be awful now. It’s a feeling I can’t explain unless you’ve been out there on the field and played in these games and been a part of it, you have no idea what that sickness is in your stomach. But you should embrace that feeling, because we want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Harsh? Perhaps, but clear. Just as clear as were Bulldog opportunities before kickoff. A win would have cemented State’s control of SEC West fate going into the remaining two games, since one is a reasonably certain home game next week with Vanderbilt. The road to Atlanta literally and figuratively ran through Tuscaloosa for this Dog team.
Then there was continued CFP status and the #1 place in polls. Though, the latter has not been much of a priority within the program since earning it the first-time-ever. According to Josh Robinson, in fact, outsiders “already though we were out of it from day-one. We’ve always been the underdog. So we’re going to have to climb back up to the top.”
The natural question becomes, do the Dogs have the desire to make that climb again? Or a better way to ask is wondering just how much the first loss can take out of State souls? Mullen’s admonition wasn’t necessary to many.
”It hurts. Yeah, it hurts,” repeated Prescott. “We haven’t felt this way in a while and I don’t want to feel this way again. It’s no fun.”
Nor was it fun raising an old specter with the veterans of 2012. That was a team which came to Tuscaloosa 7-0 and if not #1 at least playing a Tide team that had that ranking. Alabama came out swinging, scored touchdowns the first three turns and scarcely slowed in a 38-7 rout. Those Dogs spun out of control with four more losses including Mullen’s only bowl defeat at State to finish 8-5.
Interestingly, the Dogs were ready for that very question with an encouraging answer.
“I believe we will shake this off,” Brown said. “We’ll come in tomorrow and work hard and prepare for Vanderbilt. One loss, like Coach Mullen told us whoever thought we’d be in this situation?” Of still being able to stay in the Playoffs picture, or with Alabama getting upset still winning the West, is the situation Brown referred to.
There might even be some immediate evidence for that case. This team fell behind 19-0 to Alabama and only had a field goal to their first-half credit. Yet in the third quarter it was a 19-13 difference, despite turnovers and penalties and drops and all sorts of self-inflicted issues. Alabama played like the hottest club in the conference should to be sure. But State was not thrashed. “We played hard,” Brown said. “They only beat us by five points.”
The narrow margin may keep committee members and pollsters bullish about the Bulldogs. In fact the suggestion of a rematch in the Playoffs was raised, and not by a MSU media member either. Prescott said yes, indeed, State would welcome another shot on a neutral field. “I think we have a good chance we’ll see them again,” the quarterback continued.
Mullen wasn’t asked about any rematch. He did get to discuss how to keep his club’s chin up and hopes high…something he’d begun minutes before in the locker room. Mullen referred to a pre-season talk when the team was asked, individually, their own ambitions for 2014.
”I think one guy maybe had a goal of being undefeated this year. That was never talked about in meetings. So every other goal is still right there ahead of us. We have to feel sick all night tonight, and then get ready to go play Vanderbilt starting tomorrow.”
Prescott was of similar mind Saturday, agreeing specific goals remain intact and in sight. Such as?
“To win the SEC West and give ourselves a chance in the national title. Of course undefeated would have felt great and everybody would have been happy. But it’s almost impossible to do in this league. So we still have our goals.”
And if the perfect record is gone, that old under-Dog hunger is back. In a big way. Robinson preferred to say State never lost it even when flying in #1-ranked circles. The difference this Sunday won’t be spent studying polls, but Commodores. Then Rebels. Then, pending other results, what is the next game date for Dogs.
Are they really still in the Playoffs picture? “Oh, I know we are,” Robinson said. “We just have to win out, play Mississippi State ball, and we’ll be fine.”