Finishing the 2016 regular schedule with a dominating victory, and possession of the Golden Egg, was a heck of an ending. Except…it wasn’t over. Mississippi State has more football to play at the St. Petersburg Bowl.
“Obviously, it’s huge,” Mullen said today. “The opportunity not just to go to a bowl game, but come to Florida, to a beautiful city, play in a bowl game, there’s a lot of excitement.”
Mullen was speaking from said city, or rather from Westin balcony overlooking the Tampa-St. Petersburg Bay area. He and upcoming opponent Miami-Ohio coach Chuck Martin appeared for the ‘formal’ invitation each program accepted last Sunday. Game day is December 26 at Tropicana Field with a 11:00am Eastern kickoff.
To be clear, when the Bulldogs assembled in August none would have been excited about spending Christmas by this bay. Other of course than maybe senior running back and Tampa native Brandon Holloway. Every other varsity Dog has experienced much higher-profile postseason trips, and the newcomers expected this trend to include them.
Yet as 2016 has played out, Mullen is correct. There really is a sense of excitement simply because the Bulldogs are bowling again and at all. This is a team that stood 2-5 in October and 4-6 with two games left.
“We were at a point where we had to win-out to go to a bowl game,” Mullen reminded. Arkansas ended this typical eligibility option. “Fortunately the last game of the season is the Egg Bowl,” said Mullen. “That’s a very different game, it really doesn’t matter what your record is. So our guys came in extremely motivated to get that trophy back and bring it back to Starkville.”
Which Mississippi State did with a 55-20 rout of Ole Miss. Even as that celebration would-down, Mississippi State was scouring scores from around the country to see if the program’s strong graduation rate of previous years could bring the Bulldogs a bowl berth after all.
It did, it has, and Mississippi State’s record run of post-season play grows to seven winters…and counting.
Mullen said he will count on this example to keep younger and future Bulldogs motivated. “You want a message to go talk to your team? We’re getting an opportunity to play a bowl game because of what you guys have done over the last couple of years in the classroom.”
For the Redhawks of the Mid-American Conference, bowling is more special. Miami hasn’t played post-season since 2010, and when Martin took over for the 2014 season his first team could only manage a 2-10 record. Martin quipped that when he arrived this was not a matter of turning a ship around.
“That ship was at the bottom of the ocean!” Progress was slow in 2015, too. Then his current team opened with six-straight losses, in no small part as injuries left the Redhawks at one point calling on the #4 quarterback.
Getting a triggerman healthy was one key. The other was simple resilience, Martin said. Beating Kent State snapped the skid, then another win followed…and another, and another until Miami was 6-6 and second in their Division. And, bowl eligible, against all odds.
“These guys have been through football hell,” Martin said of seniors still around from the 2013 changeover. “There’s only eight of them left. But I’m probably prouder of them than any kids I’ve coached.” Even so, Martin admitted he’s had to do some proverbial pinching of self to know being in the bowl is reality.
Bulldogs have come to accept bowling as a birthright almost. So maybe the close call of this fall has been a reminder such things mustn’t be taken for granted. Or, as Mullen said, that a bowl of any sort is special. Expected sure, but still special.
“When we got to Mississippi State eight years ago we wanted to build a team that could consistently win and eventually compete for championships,” Mullen said. “Our expectations are very, very different now than eight years ago. They expect to win.
“So for what they’ve been able to accomplish, to me, has really changed the way everybody views Mississippi State football and what type of program we are.”
Mullen was returning Thursday evening ahead of Friday’s official start to campus bowl camp. The Bulldogs have already had some informal sessions ahead of or around fall final exams. As usual the first few official days will focus on underclassmen before any real gameplanning.
Campus practices end on the 17th, with the team reporting to Tampa-St. Pete on the 22nd.