No ordinary experience either, if such can be said of Bulldog bowling anyway. While Mississippi State has played on a few December 31sts before, including the last one, this Eve will be spent in truly exceptional settings. In the Orange Bowl, one of the genuine classic names of college football and where the 2014 Bulldogs are bound.
“That’s going to be a special, special deal,” Mullen says, “to play in such a premier bowl game against a great opponent in Georgia Tech.”
The Orange Bowl certainly has received a great assignment. The most potent offense in the Southeastern Conference will match moves with the most unique attack from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Perhaps Sun Life Stadium can save on fireworks expenses since the respective teams should light up New Years Eve in Miami on their own.
Mississippi State won’t begin preparations for the bowl game until Friday, after fall semester final exams are done and every Dog’s status for post-season play determined. And specific practicing for Georgia Tech will wait a few more days. In the previous four post-seasons Mullen has used the NCAA’s allotted practice dates for bowl games as a head-start on the following year, at least in the early sessions.
This year will be very similar, he said. “We’re going to be protective of a lot of guys early on. And we’ll treat it as the first five practices will be kind of like spring ball where we protect a lot of guys. We’ll open the first five (practices) to the public, to watch a lot of young guys as continue to build for the future. Then we’ll get into a game-week practice where it will be all of our game-planning.”
“Then the 20th everybody will head home and the plan is to arrive in Miami on the 26th and have a week of preparation for the game.”
Mississippi State actually has already begun practicing for present and future. Mullen held a Saturday session, coinciding both with the state high school championship games being played on MSU’s campus as well as a weekend for visiting recruits. Some of whom, naturally, State would like to sign next week as mid-year transfers or at latest summer enrollees. A larger group of prospects is scheduled to visit next weekend, as Steve Robertson will be tracking and reporting.
Mullen had another reason for an isolated practice one week after the schedule ended and another week before bowl camp. He wanted to take this team’s emotional temperature after their rivalry game loss. The reading was all positive, Mullen reported.
“I tell you what, there was great energy out there on the field. Guys were pretty fired-up and excited to get back out there. I think it will be even bigger and better the next time we hit the field.”
It needs to be, most obviously for all Dogs who aren’t being protected per se. When Mullen calls this a sort-of spring camp he’s serious. Every practice snap is recorded for winter and pre-spring evaluation by position coaches and coordinators. Meaning, if a redshirt or underclassman, or for that matter a rising senior who is in a now-or-never 2015 situation, wants to make a good impression this is a great time to do it.
Especially because Mississippi State will be replacing at least six offensive starters and six more defensive starters from the final regular season game who are graduating. And this doesn’t allow for the early departure of draft-eligible juniors. Another half-dozen Dogs were listed second-team in the home-field finale.
So, while these elders are allowed to watch a lot of the action those first five campus camp days, younger Dogs hungry for starting or at least alternate jobs next season can have-at each other as if their careers hinge on it. Because it really does. “I think it’s huge,” Mullen said. “As I said, we use a little bit of it for the future. Guys get a feel for the future.
“There’s guys that were kind of in redshirt mode this year or backup mode, where they’re not involved. This is kind of a reminder. When I pull out the seniors and all up the first and second team defense, offense, or special teams, those guys are now in that rotation. It’s kind of a wake-up call for them, that they might be back on scout team when we get into actual (bowl) game preparation but right now they may be a rotator. That means they’re looking to be a starter next year, or they’re a snap away from being a starter next year. It’s a huge wake-up call for those guys in the sense of urgency they need to have in practice, for preparation for their future.”
If based on this past Saturday, those guys are looking and working in the right directions.
“We had a solid practice,” said Mullen. “As we explained, our next practice is approximately 40 practices away from game week against Southern Miss next year. That’s the focus of these (first) five practices, and then there’s a transition getting ready for this bowl game. But the next five practices are focused on building the program for the future.”
A future that looks as bright as the lights of Miami, which today’s Dogs will be seeing in three weeks. Or as bright as the sun rising out of the Atlantic, if one prefers. Yes, after rising to the #1 ranking for the first time ever Mississippi State ambitions were looking more towards Atlanta and the SEC Championship; then at New Orleans and the College Football Playoffs.
Two November losses stopped the Bulldogs short of those ultimate goals. Still having gotten so close this year, and still being rewarded for a record-setting season with one of the true holiday classic bowls, makes 2014 a success. Mullen is definitely accentuating the positives from his sixth season for this team, future teams, and the program as a whole. Mullen himself will have more time after this recruiting week and getting bowl camp going to talk to athletic director Scott Stricklin about his own contract extension as well as upgrades to the assistant staff.
“I think our program is certainly headed in the right direction,” Mullen said Sunday. “I hope this is more the norm than the every-70-year deal for us as we continue to move forward. We’ve all worked for this type of goal, when we came here, to build a team to compete for championships. We didn’t get to the point we wanted but the opportunity now to play in one of the premier bowl games in all the country is pretty special. And it’s something we want to continue to build to be one of if not the best program in the United States.”
So even as one calendar comes to its end…Mississippi State is getting ready to turn the page to 2015.