Miami certainly has become Mississippi State’s first choice of holiday destination. The #7-ranked Bulldogs are South Florida-bound for a date with #12 Georgia Tech in this year’s edition of the Capital One Orange Bowl. Game time from Sun Life Stadium is 8:00et.
For Mullen’s Bulldogs, this assignment by the College Football Playoff committee is next-best thing to a place in the four-team national playoffs.
“We’re so excited as a program. I know this is the first time since 1941 we’ve been involved in this game. The opportunity to play, the history involved, playing New Years Eve as the only game on TV with the nation watching is real special.”
Bowling in and of itself has become routine at State. Last year’s appearance in the Liberty Bowl set a program-record for four-straight bowl games, so that standard now extends to five. Mullen’s 3-1 record in post-season gives him the most bowl victories by a Bulldog coach.
Of more immediate meaning is ringing out 2014 with one more Mississippi State victory. The season already has written program history with ten regular-season wins. Eleven? That’s something serious to play for, along with the first top-ten ranking at the end of a season since that last Orange Bowl trip.
Or as athletic director Scott Stricklin said, “Mississippi State has been there before, but it’s been a few years. Like, 74 of them.”
Mullen for his part has somewhat more recent experience with the bowl, though it was as a graduate assistant with the 1998 Syracuse team which lost to—ironically—Florida. The Bulldog head coach was Gators offensive coordinator in 2008 when Florida beat Oklahoma in the 2009 BCS championship game played in the same venue.
“This will be my third trip to the Orange Bowl as a coach. The people, what they do and how they run the bowl, is first-class,” said Mullen. “It will be an unbelievable experience for our guys.”
For fans, too. Mississippi State took pre-orders from Bulldog Club members for all possible bowls back in November and the 12,500 base allotment for the Orange Bowl was spoken-for by the deadline. With the specific bowl now settled, State has 3,000 more tickets for the selling and Bulldog Club members have until midnight Monday to get orders in. Afterwards anything remaining is for general sale. The Bowl lists ticket prices from $75 to $235. State will have a portion set aside for student orders as well.
Miami might be a bit farther than Bulldog fans are used to bowl-trekking to be sure, but 2014 has already been a different sort of season in so many ways Stricklin is confident the team will be well-supported in south Florida. “In past years Mississippi State has taken over Jacksonville; they took over Nashville two years ago; last year we covered up Beale Street (in Memphis),” the AD said. “I know we’ll have a great crowd there.”
Mississippi State is lodged at the Trump National Doral Miami. The team will have its bowl-site practices at Barry University.
Mullen has already put the Bulldogs on their own practice field, as is permitted for teams playing post-season. State held a Saturday session before the players had to turn entire attention to this week’s final fall semester exams. Though they didn’t even know the destination yet, the Dogs showed no signs of Egg Bowl hangover.
”It was a great energy going on the field, guys pretty fired-up to get back out there,” Mullen reported. “I think it will be even bigger next time we get on the field.” Tentatively that will be Friday with practices running through the 20th, as the campus camp calendar is finalized tonight. Mullen said there should be several practices open for public viewing much like previous Decembers.
Also in keeping with those bowl camps, “We’re going to be very protective of a lot of guys. “And we’ll treat it as the first five practices will be like spring ball where we protect a lot of guys.” Not until serious gameplan installation will the starters and regulars get into anything heavy, and that just a couple of days here on campus.
State arrives in Miami on the 26th for a week of direct Georgia Tech preparation. Because he was occupied with the Mississippi High School championship games played this weekend, Mullen did not watch all of the Georgia Tech loss to Florida State. “My son told me this morning we’ve got to do a better job tackling the fullback,” Mullen related, as five-year-old Canon provided this early scouting report.
The Yellow Jackets (10-3) are familiar to football fans for their un-familiar offense, a true triple option approach few programs operate these days. And “Paul (Johnson) is the master of the triple option right now,” Mullen said. “Their guys are going to run it at such a high level and it’s coached by a coach who knows every adjustment he wants to make. We have to do a good job simulating that to the best of our ability to be prepared for what we’re about to face.”
Easier said than schemed, since the last time State saw a true triple option was…from Georgia Tech. In 2009, Mullen’s first season as head coach, the Bulldogs lost to #25 Tech 42-31. Ironically, “We ran for more yards than they did, and they passed for more yards than we did!” Mullen reminded. “But it’s obviously a unique challenge for us.” Mullen said redshirted freshman Nick Fitzgerald, who ran a veer option in high school, will likely get first shot at scout-quarterbacking. As far as bowl health only safety Kendrick Market is out for the game.
Mullen may be protecting some players in the early practices physically. Mentally and emotionally? Everyone is held to the same standard. Because, “Our next practice is the first of 40 we have until game week against Southern Mississippi” which is the 2015 season opener. “That’s the focus of these practices.”
The Orange Bowl itself? That’s all about the 2014 Bulldogs, who have earned their way onto the big stage. As have MSU fans who set more records of their own this season during an undefeated home schedule and the program’s first-ever climb to a #1 national ranking.
“This is a special group of young men,” Stricklin said. “They deserve to have a great crowd there and a great bowl experience. And our fans are a huge part of our success.” Record setting success, too, with even more history within reach on New Years Eve. “Obviously you’ve had a special season. You’d love to finish it off with that win,” said Mullen.
A win, and a celebration too. Or as Mullen quipped, “We’re going to party like its 1941 down there!”