The style, OK maybe that must be proven since the Yellow Jackets feature a unique offense and have their own defensive aspects. But the stature? Coach Dan Mullen only needed refer to #7-ranked Mississippi State’s regular-season schedule to settle any such question.
“We play big games every single week in the SEC West,” Mullen said. “I think we played four top-ten teams already this year, we played five top-25 teams on the schedule.” And this doesn’t count Wednesday’s showdown with #12 (CFP) Georgia Tech.
Even setting aside the fact all those ranked foes so far have been conference opponents, and yes Western Division peers, there ought be no question these Bulldogs have been seasoned for the Orange Bowl prime time.“I think just the experience of playing in big games and on big stages against the top teams in the country week-in and week-out on that side of the league certainly helps you when you get into bowl season,” Mullen said. Not just Orange Bowl season, either. Or when playing with a ranking as well against one.
Take last December’s show at the Liberty Bowl. An unranked Bulldog bunch which only qualified for post-season play on the last day of the schedule destroyed a conference champion Rice 44-7. The 2013 slate took a brutal toll but left Mississippi State better prepared for bowl play.
The Orange Bowl? It is a whole ‘nother degree of game and part of the College Football Playoff system. State didn’t sneak into Miami though, the way was won with a record ten regular-season victories that earned a #1 national ranking (CFP, AP, Coaches) for five weeks. So yes, Mullen’s men ought to be just as ready as a year ago. They have to be, the coach said.
“Everybody that is playing at this level of a bowl game is one of the premier teams in the country. So the fact we’ve been able to play those games before certainly helps getting on this stage.”
SPREAD THE WORD: Enough team and player records were re-written this season that recounting them takes too much e-space. Suffice to say simply, this is easily the most productive and probably the most efficient offense in Mississippi State history. And they still have another evening to pile up more points and yards.
Mullen didn’t predict this sort of explosive offensive season. But he is far from surprised. Six years of recruiting, developing, finding what parts of his hefty playbook apply to particular teams, and a few staff shuffles…and here are the results.
“I believe in the offense we run,” Mullen said Tuesday. Obviously so. Because Mississippi State’s head coach made his professional name as an advocate and installer of what for the last decade has been referred to as a ‘spread’ system. Curiously, he doesn’t necessarily use the popular label.
“I mean, whatever you want to call it, a spread or spread option or whatever nickname.” By any title though, and however he revises the playbook season-by-season (and quarterback-by-quarterback), Mullen’s goal is the same. Put the football in a play-maker’s hands in open space if possible and with a beatable one-on-one matchup if necessary.
Speaking of titles, Mullen noted today that Georgia Tech’s option attack can’t really be labeled a ‘bone’ offense either. What it is, is proof of another coach and program that does what they believe in year to year, team to team, and yes quarterback to quarterback. They just have a few more steps in the process than a typical spread-set.
However, all that said, what matters most is not schemes and sets and such. Those matter to be sure, but not most. Mullen believes in his offensive ideas but he counts on his players. When these distinct aspects can be melded, offenses like the 2014 Bulldogs result.
Just as it should, Mullen said. Even if this has taken time and maybe a few detours and dead ends along the six-season way. “For us, we’ve come in and built a program around the players we can get. And we’ve started to get players in position for us to run the scheme that we want to run.
“We have a quarterback that can beat you with his arm and his legs, a running back that can beat you running or catching. And then on the outside, on the perimeter we have guys that can either jump over you and make plays and beat you one-on-one, or they’re hard to tackle in the open field one-on-one. So we can try to create advantageous matchups.”
RISING STAR: The defensive coordinator’s departure mid-way of campus bowl camp had Mississippi State improvising on the fly that week. Once settled into bowl site practicing, Mullen put cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend in official role of ‘coordinator’ for the Orange Bowl. Picking one of the two sideline defensive staffers—line coach David Turner is the other—made good sense because it keeps safeties coach and assistant head coach Tony Hughes in the booth as usual.
Plus, Hughes and Townsend already operated in close combination since they oversee the secondary. So the fit was natural. Still, outsiders were curious how Townsend got the nod over his elders on the defensive staff.
“Well one, Deshea is an up-and-coming great coach,” Mullen said. “He’s going to be a coordinator within the next couple of years if not a head coach one day. I think it also was the easiest transition for us on that side of the ball, to have him be the one calling the plays.”
Might this unexpected responsibility serve as something of an audition too, whether for State’s open coordinator slot or job openings elsewhere in college or even the NFL where Townsend was hired away from two years ago? Well, why not? Mullen can very easily recall how another ambitious young assistant made the jump a decade ago.
”My first game where I was completely responsible for calling all the plays was the 2004 Fiesta Bowl, at Utah,” Mullen said. “I had some success that day. So hopefully Deshea has success and maybe it’ll lead him into the future, I guess, that I’ve been able to have.”
NOT ALL WORK: The Orange Bowl staff has gone above-and-beyond in giving both teams things to do for their five days. Dinners and excursions, a tour of the local children’s hospital—something Bulldogs do each July as well in Jackson—with other trips, and of course the day at the beach where jet ski legends were made. And everyone reportedly survived, too, along with the machinery.
Now it’s the night before the big and final show of their season. You’d think the coaching staff would want every nose buried in the scouting reports and playbooks and work stuff, right? Wrong. While some Bulldogs are incorrigible grinders—quarterback Dak Prescott comes to immediate mind—others try to tune it down for the evening and not risk burnout.
For those, Mississippi State provides a Friday (yes, this is Tuesday but go with it) night movie. “Usually some sort of action movie,” Mullen said. “So whatever DVD action-filled release will be there.” Still there are those with other unwinding ways.
“The O-line usually has a pretty mean game of Monopoly going. They had a game of Life one week. And there will be a lot of dominos, they play cards and stuff. But everybody gets in their routine.”
As for the coach himself? “I think the Georgia-Louisville game will be on tonight. So that will be on in one room.”