Fortunately, while Mississippi State had to step down from that regular-season seat atop all the national rankings, they didn’t step too far away. The College Football Playoff committee followed the lead of pollsters by booking the Bulldogs #4 in this week’s updated rankings. So State (9-1, 5-1 SEC) didn’t pay too terrible a price for losing at Alabama.
They did however give away lots of late-season margin in both conference and playoff calculations. Which is not good news for weekend visitor Vanderbilt, if they thought to catch the home team relaxed and unready.
“Everybody is kind of re-focused on the next game, against Vanderbilt,” defensive end Smith said Tuesday. “Everybody is more focused on coming back and trying to play hard and come out with the win this weekend.”
It needs stressing that Mississippi State was not a cocky club last week. Reviewing the afternoon in Tuscaloosa did point up a few issues though. Most were involved with falling behind 19-0 in the second quarter and then, after cutting the deficit to six points, giving up the other Tide touchdown.
Smith now says the pre-game focus was not as sharp as expected, for whatever reason. Now, it is…or it certainly must be with two upcoming conference contests. “We just have to eliminate all the mistakes and keep on playing hard. Try to play as perfect as we can, try to play the best game we can.”
There is one positive takeaway from Tuscaloosa. If the focus wasn’t razor-sharp, the effort was consistent. Otherwise the Bulldogs would have been blown out as in losses of previous years against top-tier competition. So Coach Dan Mullen and staff won’t have to inspire greater efforts against the Commodores. Or for that matter a week from now when Mississippi State faces the season’s true showdown, in Oxford…a game which in some quarters attracts more talk than this week, something Mullen is carefully monitoring.
One obvious reason is that Vanderbilt’s record (3-7, 0-6) doesn’t demand the same degree of attention. So coming off a humbling loss presumably cures that. Smith has the advantage too of scouting the Commodores, who after a horrible start under a new regime has shown signs of life lately.
Most obviously at quarterback, where the fourth starter of the season has apparently taken over the job. Johnny McCrary even earned SEC Freshman of the Week in his second start, and has revived the air attack greatly. Smith said State’s defense isn’t focusing entirely on the newest kid though.
“I know they have one quarterback who likes to run the ball. Like on most play-action plays, most zone read plays he’s going to try to keep the ball. The other quarterback likes to throw it, he probably won’t even leave the pocket. But we study film each and every day for a long time and we know which quarterback is going to be which threat, what kind of threat he can hold when he steps on the field.”
It’s an area senior Smith specializes in. He was a brighter spot in State’s struggles last Saturday with the team’s only sack and another hurry, giving him 8.0 and 15 respectively for the season; both are tops on the Dog defense. If Smith hasn’t been able to reprise his early-season stretch when three times the SEC tabbed him Defensive Lineman of the Week, it’s only because those awards earned him extra blocking attention.
Now he has two more regular season games and at least one more post-season contest to score more sacks and raise his profile for next year’s NFL draft. What Smith is running short of, though, are home games. Saturday is his last appearance on Scott Field, and yes that is much on the fourth-year senior’s mind.
“It came real fast. I would never have thought about this early in the season, thought about playing my last game at Davis Wade Stadium.” In Smith’s case it came faster than usual because he was activated as a true 2011 freshman. Last Dog Walk, last warm-up on the field and—hopefully—last time to sing the alma mater to the home crowd after a win. It can get to a guy, even a hard-bitten SEC defensive line Dog.
“It kind of feels sad, playing amongst these fans knowing this is my last home game. We’ve got the best fans, the family-base here at Mississippi State. And this is my last chance to play in front of them.”
Any sadness is muted though by what Smith and squad have done over their combined Mississippi State tenures and this 2014 season in particular. Smith could not have written a happier career script, he figures.
“It feels great being a senior, having this Cinderella year. A lot of people can’t say they started off 9-0, they were ranked #1 at no point in their career here at Mississippi State besides our senior class and the guys on our team. It’s going to feel great ending the season out and hopefully going to the college playoff if we finish out strong.”
Right. The Playoffs again. Smith was speaking right after the updated rankings dropped the Dogs from first to fourth. There was a degree of relief about staying in the four semifinalists if the Playoffs began now. Which they don’t. The rankings are in a large part meaningless since only the quartet picked on December 7 matter, and the committee does not seem to be tying itself to any program or position.
What #4 really means to Mississippi State is a sign of respect by the dozen-member committee as of today…and a reminder respect has to be maintained with more wins against one unranked opponent and another listed #8 this week. Interestingly, Smith said the squad doesn’t race home after practices and compare rankings and standings and such.
This respect comes as much from playing in the SEC, in fact, which brings obvious risks. “So any week anybody can flip from being #1 to #4 like we did, or move up in the rankings,” Smith said. So as far as focusing on rankings, “We don’t really. We hope we’re favored by those 12 people and they give us a chance to go to the College Playoff and prove ourselves.”
First though the Bulldogs must prove themselves still worthy of four finalist inclusion. Meaning, no more slip-ups or slack in focus.
Because, cautions Smith, “Somebody can come in any moment and slap us in the face and bring us to reality.”