Steve Robertson/

Shaking Off Post-Bama Blues with Bulldog Bowl Stakes to Settle

Well. It wasn’t a high hope. Certainly not as high as a year ago in Tuscaloosa. That 2014 day truly had potential to send Mississippi State, and thus me, the other direction down I-59. It didn’t happen then, and now I know I won’t be covering a Bulldog Sugar Bowl yet again.

I’m running out of chances, too. For that matter so are some of you fans. Not just to see a Mississippi State team achieve what has forever been our Ultimate Ambition. But to see our promised DB staff wardrobe swap. As in, were the Dogs ever to take the Super Dome field for a Sugar Bowl, we have a deal: Steve Robertson will appear in button-down and tie, and I in a sleeveless black metal band tee shirt and ripped jeans. Now isn’t that something worth living for?

Back to present reality, the 2015 season isn’t dead either. We merely, and without huge surprise, dial-back the ambitions to what remains within Bulldog grasp.

Yes. I figured, and have campus witnesses to attest, State was not going to win yesterday. My 20-7 forecast figured the Dogs would throw it about 60 times and hit at least one home run; while Alabama would pound away, eat ground and clock, and take a routine win. Because, they are that good right now. Stress on the right now because if this season has proved anything college football is utterly volatile everywhere and coaches have no clue if their teams are going to ‘show up’ any Saturday.

The surprise was Alabama hitting the longballs, never mustering a true ‘drive’ to score six. To transpose sports, State’s defense pitched a pretty solid game but hung a couple of fat ones to drive deep. And, committed one glaring and one less-blatant error in fielding, umm, tackling.

But I remind myself that was a true freshman missing the receiver who broke it for the game’s (to me) decisive play. Oh, wait, that was also a true freshman catching the ball…and by the way I just noticed Calvin Ridley is not in the SEC media guide Alabama roster? Which is a reminder that not all true frosh are equal. Which is a reminder that recruiting still trumps all. More on this in the future.

State as it turned out didn’t knock anything out. Nor quite throw 60 passes though obviously with nine sacks and many more scrambles it was much closer than the stat sheet shows. For that matter the final ‘drive’ when Nick Fitzgerald settled for keepers and handoffs would normally have pushed the pass count over 60, if State were trying anything other than get the heck off Scott Field with nobody else hurt.

Wise call, to literally run out the clock after that terrific scare on the interception. We don’t have official word but post-game impressions were much more positive about De’Runnya Wilson and Justin Senior’s status for this week probably and the Egg Bowl certainly. And while Dak Prescott will likely be prune-wrinkled from hours in the hot and/or cold tubs to soothe bruises he didn’t seem too damaged afterwards.

Other than in pride, which goes for the whole program. Those bruises will take a while to fade.

Again, I did not report to campus (10:15 am if you care) expecting to cover a victory. Not after watching Alabama pound LSU into furry bits, and did we ever see a hang-over last night from Baton Rouge. Which is not a comfortable thought for State this week, of course, but I’m rather more optimistic about that matchup if every Dog is available. Positive, no, just optimistic.

What aches more is admitting reality, how Mississippi State remains a level-below elite. OK, so most of us figured this back in spring and certainly after the LSU loss. And before this is read as gloom-and-doom, any sane Sunday State fan will acknowledge, even celebrate, that the level Bulldog Football occupies is an infinitely finer place to live than…ever? Yeah, I think so. No, I know so.

Even an Alabama-based media man mentioned it to me pre-game, how far State has come from perennial bottom-feeder to steady winner, annual bowl participant, and SEC contender. Not champion, not yet and not for a while unless (here we go again) recruiting gets really upgraded. Really, really upgraded.

That’s where our angst lies right now. Dan Mullen has made this a truly respectable program, at last and for an extended stretch. Need I really remind that it was not that long ago hopes of yearly six-win seasons was the Promised Land? Now, we (I mean me) grump about missing out on New Orleans. This after I went to the FREAKING ORANGE BOWL last winter!!!

Ahhh, but this is why. Getting close enough to smell serious success whets the appetite. Mullen knows this I’m confident. He’s stood on the highest of college stages himself and if anyone imagines he doesn’t care if it happens again, with a team of his ownest own, then you have no clue about coaches.

That said. There is still just something missing, or not quite developed, or whatever, stopping Mullen and MSU shy of that last and longest step. The step from contender to champion.

OK we know what one thing is: we play in the SEC. The West specifically, and if not as almighty as in recent years it is still a brutal zip code to call home. Having watched East teams this fall, this Bulldog team could win that side or at least come in second.

None who know this program and this sport doubt that Mullen is the most effective preparation coach and play-picker to stalk a State sideline. I’ve seen enough of the breed to recognize, Mullen seems to have the best grasp of what his individuals and lineups are capable of than any of his predecessors. Up until one particular opponent takes the other sideline. I don’t buy into specific ‘hexes’ or ‘holds’ between coaches, but it’s also impossible to overlook just how firm a psychic grip Alabama has on State’s staff.

How else to explain that Mullen teams have never scored a first-half touchdown against a Tide team? Check it yourself. 2008 was the last time a State team found an Alabama end zone before halftime. We can agree that Alabama has been very, very good to often great in this timeframe.

But State has been its best-ever, measured by consistency year to year, in the same frame. Most obviously on offense. Yet, no halftime touchdowns in seven chances? That’s not matchup on the field, that’s sideline vs. sideline. Or maybe just getting inside a guy’s head during prep-week?

Now, know this. Having worked around State football since before that I Was There Game in ’80, I’ve learned maybe the most important fact a sportswriter ought realize. We don’t know the real game being played out there. Nor do fans. OK, I apologize to YOU, the Bulldog fan who sees and knows all that should be done on every State snap. To paraphrase the old Jim Croce line, in the stands of Scott Field or more likely hours away camped in front of the big screen sits that “undiscovered” gridiron genius who has the Answer. And you’d do it for a bargain price, too.

For the rest of us, me most of all, I operate on the practical principle that there is a Reason for everything that happens in practice, in scheming, in sideline calls and final translation by players on the field. Which by the way happens so infinitely more often than any of us know. As I’ve often said in all sports, if we really knew how little of what a coach ‘calls’ actually comes to pass—or run, or shoot, or swing—on the field we’d wonder again why exactly paychecks today approach Monopoly money levels.

I’ll tell you why. Sunday-through-Friday. Or more accurately from the moment the head coach ends one post-game locker room talk, up to when he ends the next pre-game locker room talk. What happens in those hours in-between and on-field really is in the hands of players much more than the head(sets) of staff.

At the same time this is no blanket pass on prep-and-play calling. Yesterday’s most infuriating tendency, under those specific circumstances of matchup, time, score, field position…was use of play action passing. Play action? No, seriously?

First, play action implies an offense might actually run the football. And, that the other defense read and react to that possibility. All State did was cost itself a little tick of the quarterback clock that would have been better used looking for anyone open. Alabama did not have to respect the run at all. Heck, they undoubtedly begged the Bulldogs to hand it off. Or maybe they didn’t because that would have meant fewer sack opportunities. Which play-action made even more likely of course.

We will say that PA is a most useful tool in the box for remaining matchups. Just not against Alabama. And that is the point. Yes it’s true, you do what you do and don’t re-write an entire offense, or defense, for one regular season weekend. At some point though wisdom dictates doing exactly what all State coordinators insist they already do: take what the defense gives. Allowing that that defense gives darned little of anything, too many plays flew in the face of self-proclaimed plan.

The real theme is not that Alabama was a much better team Saturday. It is, why were they THAT much better, this year-seven of a coaching tenure? Not that they can’t blow-up, as the 2000s proved, but barring pure incompetence Alabama will always be very good-to-great. But, that much great-er than a program which has reached its own all-time level of consistency…and can’t put a few more pieces in places to take on the real elite on even terms at least now and then?

Or let’s simplify for specifically November 2015. How is it Mississippi State cannot effectively run a football? Maybe we didn’t expect a great ground game this year, though I confess to over-selling myself on the four backs in spring ball. Make that four-plus-one assuming Malik Dear would get more use. No, he would not have made any difference yesterday. Nor would Dontavian Lee. Alabama would still have won.

This week? And all the more next week? Yeah. They have to make a difference then.

One possible benefit, if we dare use the word, of yesterday might, repeat might be State admitting defeat on running rotations and going with the better backs. Yes I understand, practice results count first. Coaches see who executes in drills and scout matchups with right timing and steps and angles and such. Oh, and ball security, which I have to think is why State has stuck with the two veteran backs for so long. After that first quarter fumble yesterday, maybe such excuses evaporate?

Or maybe not. It’s probably stretching things to toss around words like ‘stubborn’ as we can’t know all the facts. We only know what is seen on-field and in-games. When it counts. And while the tweet was possibly intemperate, I can’t take it back, commenting how the safest job in American sports is starting kickoff return man at Mississippi State.

Ahhh, you noticed…not a single sour line on the offensive line today. There won’t be any. My thinking on that group has shifted. No, they are not a first-class line and none thought they would be. It’s a bit better front-five-plus-two than they have a chance to show, though. Or as a football-wise friend says, a really good running back makes his offensive line look much better. Dak Prescott is State’s best back of course, he just has better things to do with the football than run it.

Or does he? The Heisman is out but All-SEC repeat remains viable, because ahead are two matchups where Prescott really can run wild against defense that A) won’t attack full-time, and B) aren’t first-class cover clubs.

And if Mississippi State is to keep any Florida bowl hopes alive the Dogs have to win-out. We really could have used help yesterday from Auburn, and LSU’s flop means the order of selection just got more clogged. This is getting too long already so we’ll come back to the bowl projections later.

For now, tomorrow should provide some sort of health updates. I’ll be more interested in trying to read the emotional state of State. Getting beat by Bama bruises more than bodies, after all. This is when Mullen must snap everyone, including himself if necessary, out of any mid-month funk and rouse these Dogs for two games that can and really must be won.

Especially the last one, or else 2015 will have been a waste all along.

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