These Bulldogs don’t know who they are.
Nor do they seem any closer after a crushing, worse-than-scoreboard defeat. By the way, a tip of the topper to fans who made morning kickoff and stayed to and many through halftime. Maybe it was out of stunned shock. Maybe it was train-wreck fascination. Maybe it was too early to exit for afternoon tailgating. Whatever, fans did the program proud.
The team, not so much. But not because they ‘quit’ or ‘weren’t ready’ or all the snap-judgement clichés social and even perfeshunal media are prone to pull out. First, State was blitzed by a better-than-expected Tiger team. Not a great Tiger team, ain’t saying that.
Against a State squad lacking cohesion and confidence, though… What stood out most was how, by Auburn standards, simple their attack turned with little eye candy and window dressing. They just bowled-over the Bulldogs on both sides of the ball for a whole half and dialed it back after intermission. As if the 1980s had returned to Scott Field.
With this critical and sorta encouraging difference. State has personnel and coaching now compared to then. Auburn is better overall but the margins aren’t anything at all like three dismal decades ago. Except in two obvious areas.
Confidence is one and chiefest reason for a blowout on the home field. In a game which all understood would likely settle whether State’s bowling streak extends. These Bulldogs haven’t figured themselves out yet, don’t know who they are, and that makes everyone a couple-tenths slower in anything they do. And don’t do.
They definitely know who they aren’t. It took a freshman of all folk, who as prospect and redshirt watched 2014 and ’15 combine for the best consecutive records ever at Mississippi State, to say it. Keith Mixon was following up on Mullen’s controversial theme of a ‘young team’ when he got right to the heart of things.
“The team before us was #1, and we’re used to winning. But we’re not that team no more. We have to step up and fill those shoes of last year’s team and the team before that.”
Mixon by the way is one of several Dogs who exemplify why, today’s gloom-and-doom notwithstanding, I don’t foresee any return to ‘80s awfulness. (And by the way kids, if you didn’t first-hand experience Tech-and-10, then you have nooooooo clue how bad bad can be.)
Back to Mixon and others, there’s talent on this roster. Hard as it is to accept today, and it SHOULD be hard to accept, there’s plenty Bulldogs who could’ve swapped uniforms and sidelines yesterday and played well on the visiting team. Not quite enough of ‘em but there is no huge void in talent here. Except…where it matters most in football at any level.
Confession. I really did believe the offensive line would be better. Not great, not particularly good even. Just, better than last year’s line, which only the awesomeness of Dak Prescott made not-awful. I was wrong. Three seniors, a redshirt junior of large juco recruiting rep, a couple other guys with real experience, how could it not improve?
Here’s how. It’s just not an overall talented line roster. The ultra-frustrating twist is whatever one thinks or hears about personality, this is a well-instructed and well-practiced unit. Bulldog blocking has generally over-achieved. 2010 was the exception because there were truly talented linemen starting.
Those were also inherited, which gets to the real rub. Line recruiting by Mississippi State lags behind all other areas. I know, I know. Truly talented blockers are the true prize prospects, even more than quarterbacks. Spread schemes adapt much easier to the quarterback of choice. Blocking is blocking whatever the system. Better blockers win more games.
Yesterday was just tragic on that, no pun intended, front. I mentioned confused identity earlier, this is where it shows most. Linemen moved as if mired in molasses, uncertain of every- and anything. By the way, the most egregious play where that touted juco tackle stood staring at one Tiger a couple yards across the line while another raced around untouched for a sack and strip?
We were told later, and it makes sense, that a snap mistake in the middle left the outside guys flat-footed in surprise. So it’s not always how it looks.
Except when the entire act looks awful. Even when communication and cadence and all were correct, blocking wasn’t there. This is why we can forget debating what running backs get used when and how. It doesn’t matter who has the ball if there’s no room to run. For that matter legitimate critiques of the defense also must be kept in context of offensive issues. And we don’t have time or space to explore it anyway.
Maybe, maybe, there is a short-term chance to offset a little of the line woes. Watching in-person at Foxboro as up-tempo offense got State ahead and in control, the impression is this might be the way to play. Yes, UMass is bad, I’m not saying what worked then is certain to succeed against real defenses. But lengthy at-line reads and play changes, and long-developing runs and passes, isn’t working enough either.
To be sure pushing the pedal and pace risks more one-minute series and punt and increases stress on the defense. This would be a lot like spending all game swinging for fences instead of single-and-sacrifice and so on. All or nothing and odds are nothing would win more often than not. But tempo reduces demands on bad blocking, certainly lessens blind-side sacks, and could play to this offense’s skill personnel. And it’s not like State is running a whole lot of receiver routes longer than 10, 15 yards as it is.
Then again all that might just be re-arranging deck furniture on a sinking season, to mangle the metaphor. It isn’t helping that most remaining opponents are playing better, in some cases far better, than we or they expected. Put another way, my summer forecast of 7-5 was made figuring State played ‘swing’ games with Auburn, A&M, and Arkansas, as well as the non-A of BYU. All turn out to be superior squads.
Yet…State still is better than it is playing. Not a particularly good team, now not likely a break-even and bowling team. But it is better than yesterday or any other so-far game. So what’s wrong?
Again, they don’t know who they are, other than they aren’t the collection of players that suddenly became a program again on a cold afternoon in Little Rock and went on to win 22 of 29 games through the Belk Bowl. It wasn’t all Dak. Those teams defined their identities.
This one doesn’t, nor show signs. That’s not a criticism by the way. Never blame a person, a team, a staff for not being what it just isn’t. Any more than I want you to think I’m blaming Bulldog for not being able to block elite SEC defensive ends. Few folk can. If a player isn’t capable of doing something, don’t blame him/her when they can’t. Blame the lack of players who can. That’s recruiting, rather lack thereof.
Now. I truly didn’t want to go long today. But multiple events mean there is a lot, a lot of ground to cover beyond the game and team. I’ll try to be as concise as practical and still make the point on two must-address issues which are related.
First, this. There is no sign Mississippi State is considering, much less planning for coaching change. I get it, I really do. Twitter turned awesomely toxic about noon-ish Saturday and stayed that way with demands, predictions that change is coming this winter. It makes one wonder what many folk did during games before social media, with only surrounding fans or trapped family to hear them rage?
Things seem calmer today but no more objective. So repeat, administrators of athletics and University alike are for now operating by business-as-usual even as 2016 becomes unusual compared to 2009-15. That, in fact, is the largest reason why a seat should be safe. This is the first bad season of Mullen’s entire tenure. Bad it is, but exception it is, too.
Now I also get it, that because of lost Egg Bowls a fair portion of the fan base don’t see 2014-15 as the consecutive-seasons success streak they are. 19 wins, people. 19 wins. Do you really want me to recite all the previous stretches where State didn’t win 19 games in half-a-decade? No, you don’t.
Besides, if a Mississippi State-level program were to panic after just one bad year, on the heels of record success, college football folk would know we’d lost our collective minds. Or that job security here was a joke. Yes, the $6-or-so-million buyout State would owe making a change this winter is a legitimate factor. But not the largest factor.
The fact is, the best six-year run ever by Bulldog football has earned a great big mulligan. Which 2016 is turning into fast, but it’s still that. And as said, there is young (no, I shall not get into coach definitions of ‘young team’) talent here. Just not enough where it counts most, which is why I’d expect a sudden shift to finding any juco blocker available never mind recent experiences. Ironic, eh, that Randy Thomas was honorary captain yesterday? Big Randy epitomized why juco line recruiting worked in the 1990s…but doesn’t today, if only because the Thomases and Smoots and Beans and Davises and Coopers mostly get eligible out of high school now.
A week ago we got word Mullen had not only changed agents, he’d finally been contracted by the big dog of the business in this neck of the woods. Read into that what one wishes. Me, I call it a smart and over-due change. Good timing to, not that Mullen is likely to be seriously considered for all the top-tier jobs coming open this winter. But those TTJs will almost certainly hire head coaches, leaving second-tier vacancies to re-fill.
Secondly, and related to firstly. There will be a new athletic director by the end of the month. Presenting him (I guess politically I should add /her) at halftime of the next home game would seem fitting, perhaps? Every indication is Mississippi State wants an active AD, someone experienced in hirings and contracts, dealings with donors individual and corporate, who knows the business and knows people. That necessarily means going outside State and I’m fine with that. There’s some really good staff on the jobs here and we need them to stay at said jobs uninterrupted.
I said on air the last couple of weeks, before and after Scott Stricklin took Florida’s offer, that the Mississippi State AD job is not just attractive now. It’s a sought spot and word is lots of qualified as well as the obviously-not-so folk have reached out to State. State in turn has been able to stay very, very selective in who they reach back at. I’m not free yet to say more on the process, please understand.
What we can state is the new AD walks into a great situation. Most of the heavy lifting has been done in the last dozen years by three predecessors, especially football scheduling which is the single toughest task for an AD here. Barring the unforeseen, as in a major off-field incident or Dan Mullen going for another job on his own accord, there is a year grace-period to evaluate football. And were the new AD to walk right in and try to make some sort of “I’m Boss” statement, that’d be a very very bad sign.
Both basketballs are in fine shape and getting better, with some preliminary work done already on possible upgrades of the Hump in coming years. No hurry there. Davis Wade Stadium is pretty much a finished product for foreseeable future, though word also is the 2014 renovations now are in need of greater maintenance investment. Y’all would be surprised how fast such things can show wear and tear, and expense there is often invisible but necessary.
No, the biggest challenge is finishing funding and then setting scope-and-schedule for the baseball stadium project. It’s a biggie sure, and I’m told private funding is about 55-60% of the goal as of now. If the new boss has some good corporate contacts who might be interested in naming rights, that’d be a resume plus reckon? OK, I jest. A little.
It’s no joke though any new AD must understand he’s stepping up into a situation where fan attitudes on football are falling fast. Fortunately he won’t be hired with the intention to fire, not this winter again barring the utterly unexpected. And 4-8 or 3-9 is no longer unexpected. So, what would we tell the new boss?
This. Every AD job is unique, and Mississippi State more so than most. Outsiders almost certainly know the small-state, medium-resources, humungous-league situation. Or that Mississippi State is a comfortable middle-class operation in a filthy-rich neighborhood, and that this need not dictate doom. Success comes harder here, and judging by overwrought fan fury isn’t as appreciated as should be. But it’s possible and even practical…if everyone gets it right in every way.
MSU margins are narrow to non-existent. Understand that, accept it, even embrace it as the challenge of a career, and welcome aboard. If the best candidate should see this as a stepping stone? I’m fine with that, too. Nobody is stepping up from here without doing a bang-up job making MSU better.
The last and often worst thing at Mississippi State is a comfortable coach and/or AD. I don’t mean uncomfortable in the sense of job security concerns, though sometimes it’s necessary and we might be there with football soon. I mean uncomfortable in the sense of itching to do more, do better.
Mullen came here with that attitude. Maybe he still has it. Maybe the change of agents is a signal he wants to start over elsewhere. And maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t matter how anyone handles this particular team.
To work way back to the original premise, it’s not the coach who defines a team’s identity. The team does it for itself. Or, doesn’t.