They have indeed. The upperclassmen of 2014 haven’t just taken Mississippi State football to a higher level. These Bulldogs have pushed the program into entirely-new territory, not least this season-ending appearance in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Playing in one of bowldom’s foundational events, as part of the inaugural College Football Playoff system, completes a campaign of firsts and mosts and bests for these Bulldogs. They’ve already made history, having achieved #1 ranking (polls and Playoffs alike) for the first time ever at MSU. The ten regular-season victories are also a most-ever, and should State come out ahead of Georgia Tech tomorrow evening the 11th victory will set yet another record.
With a day left to prepare for this bowl game, Mullen can’t help recalling and comparing where things stood four Decembers ago.
“A lot of it to me goes back to the first bowl game I had here at Mississippi State, we played Michigan in the Gator Bowl. That was the first New Years Day bowl game in a long time for the program and for the University, and kind of had a special feel to it.
”Obviously we haven’t been in the Orange Bowl since 1941 so I think it kind of does feel as another first. A new step, a new standard set within the program.”
There are 18 seniors who have been setting standards. Even with all the on-field achievements the group stands out in one really unique aspect: all came straight from high school. There are no junior college products in the senior bow-Dogs class of 2014, since defensive back Justin Cox was removed from the team in November.
So, Mullen reminded, “The guys that are seniors this year, they were recruited after we finished 15th in the country and won the Gator Bowl.” Or in lots of cases were redshirting while the varsity thrashed Michigan in Jacksonville, hoping to do as well in future seasons. By playing in the Orange Bowl, they’ve done much better and much bigger.
But the real difference all the falls since New Years Day 2011 have made is in the mindset. Sure, blazing a trail is something special the players Mullen hastily recruited or inherited can be proud of. Today’s Dogs? “Everybody in our program, that’s what they know,” Mullen said. “That’s what the standard is. They expect to go to bowl games. They expect to do this and they wanted to take it to a whole other level before they left. Which I think they have.”
Indeed, bowling is now the norm for Mississippi State players of all classes. So is winning the holiday game, though losing the 2012 return-trip to Jacksonville reminded that bowl games can’t be taken for granted. There seems no similar danger this time around. Georgia Tech is ranked #12 after all, easily the best bowl-foe of Mullen’s five trips. These #7-ranked Dogs are giving due respect in scouting and practicing.
Because they not only want to get that record 11th victory. They want to cap an epochal sort of season by showing off on the undisputed national stage. It’s exactly the way a program-defining senior class should conclude careers, after all.
The great irony is that when Mullen presented those classes of 2010 and ’11 to the public, reviews were far from rave. They were respectively ranked 40th and 45th in the nation, and 10th and 11th in the SEC. Yet here they are playing in the Orange Bowl after 33 victories (so far), being ranked tops as a varsity team, and right up to the end in contention for a College Football Playoff semifinal berth.
By entertaining contrast, most of the higher-rated classes are already done with their seasons today. But did Mullen himself have any true clues just what he’d brought to Bulldog Country at the time?
Well, maybe, sort of. “It’s hard to say,” the coach admits now. “You know what, my wife usually gets to judge. We have a freshman pool party at my house in the middle of July. When they’re all homesick and been running sprints and are sad and miserable. We have them all over at my house. You can kind of tell the personalities of the guys and how they’re going to fit and how they’re going to do.
”We thought, and she’d tell you that’s when I knew. I just think you saw it with the development of those guys. We’re not always perfect in our recruiting, there’s some guys in those classes that haven’t panned-out maybe the way other people have. A lot have, though. I think you saw it in their development and the unselfish play.”
Being unselfish has produced a team capable of re-writing the Mississippi State record book in wins, stats, and scores. And along the way, make record-setters of several individuals as well as All-SEC and All-Americans. This includes a few 2011 signees who redshirted of course but are seen practically as seniors, such as Dak Prescott, Benardrick McKinney, Josh Robinson, and more.
Meaning, those pool-party pups of 2010 and ’11 have make a great big splash at Mississippi State and on the SEC. On the national scene, for that matter, where the seniors cap careers Wednesday. It will make for a more emotional locker room than usual, Mullen expects. Counts on, even.
“We’re going to tell them this is it. This is one last time and that this group, this team gets to go take the field. They’ve done so much for the program, have had such a special year, and we’d love to finish it out the right way. After the game every one of the seniors will get up and say their goodbye.”
The feeling will be most mutual of course. After all, “They’ve done so much not just for our football program but for our University and for the state of Mississippi. You know, we’ve been playing football for over 100 years and never been ranked #1 before. Now Bulldog fans can say, we’ve done that. In fifty years only 27 teams have ever been ranked #1 in an AP poll for even one week; we’ve been one of those 27 teams. There won’t be any new ones this year.
”You know, they’ve done so much for our University. One of the things I’m even more proud of is almost every one of those guys you named has already earned their degree. They’re actually alums of the University as well as great football players, and I think that’s very special.”
Special? Try unique. Even a benchmark bunch in Bulldog football history. The thing about benchmarks though, is they aren’t a place to pause. Not to stop. Because Dan Mullen is already looking past midnight Wednesday.
“You know what? I’m going to wake up after the game and try to make sure our 2015 team has a higher GPA, has even more graduates, and has an even better record next year.”