Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

St. Pete Bowl Builds Bulldog Momentum into 2017

ST. PETERSBURG -- Maybe this one doesn’t bring the same buzz as recent Bulldog bowls. Not quite the same do-or-die relief of 2013’s Liberty Bowl; or the modern high-water mark of New Years Eve 2014 in Miami. Nor is there anything like the end-of-era feel as last December in Charlotte.

Yet. The real point to this St. Petersburg Bowl is something even larger and better about the program. Mississippi State football has achieved a degree of post-season consistency to where Bulldog folk take bowling for granted.

Monday morning brings the seventh-straight Bulldog bowl game, with a 11:00et kickoff against Miami-Ohio. ESPN has the broadcast and many more MSU eyes will be watching a screen than Tropicana Field. The combination of day-after-Christmas, a Monday, and for that matter surprise State is bowling at all will inevitably limit turnout.

Though those not using vacation days to make this unexpected trip will miss some things. Such as beautiful Florida weather for one. Then there is experiencing the next phase of a team resurgence which began in late October and brought invigorating victories over Texas A&M and Ole Miss in November.

Those two key wins would have been seen as setting the stage for 2017 even without a post-season game. Certainly bringing back the Golden Egg with a romp over stunned Rebels has restored lots of swagger to Dan Mullen’s current and future teams. It simply cannot be over-Stated how crucial that one win was under year-eight circumstances, after concerns about program direction dominated all fall.

Now all seems back on track in Bulldog Country. Including the bowling track. Maybe Mississippi State has become a touch spoiled in that aspect though. So for perspective, not only is seven-straight bowl games an extension of the record set at just four in 2010-13.

This is over one-third of all Bulldog bowl teams, ever. Monday will be the 20th such game since New Years Day 1937. And while allowing that post-season proliferation makes bowling an easier achievement than before…it remains an achievement none the less. Just as the 4-2, and counting, record by Mullen’s teams give him twice as many wins as the next-nearest State coach.

Besides, this Bulldog bowl berth is undeniably unique. A 5-7 team was awarded, no make that rewarded for a strong academic progress rating by the program over the previous years. Football folk can and do chatter about too many bowl games…but they are going to be played and teams needed.

Mississippi State certainly was never going to turn down another opportunity to keep the streak. More important though has been the chance to keep this club practicing, to resume the late-season momentum and take it on into the next Mullen off-season.

Many of the same bowl system cynics downplay its strongest selling point to college coaches. They joke that if the extra practice matters so much why do bowling teams not automatically thrive the next year. The obvious answer is not all teams go bowling on equal terms. Mississippi State can serve as an example of how much motivation can matter.

The 2012 Dogs for instance, struggled through the final month and were not sharp for a second Gator Bowl. The Orange Bowl pitted a State squad disappointed over losing both the #1 ranking and SEC title shot against a sizzling Georgia Tech team that would have beaten almost anyone that evening.

By contrast, the 2013 Bulldogs were still riding the high of winning its way into the Liberty Bowl with two beyond-dramatic victories. That team destroyed a group-of-five conference champion and went on to the glories of 2014 and ’15 under Dak Prescott’s direction. Prescott also was able to take his curtain call in a Belk Bowl romp two winters later.

So circumstances and squads vary as much as the matchup. These factors are also why this St. Pete Bowl demands close attention. It can and likely should be treated as another starting-point much like three years ago.

That isn’t just because of the easy-to-see comparisons at quarterback. Though these do dominate discussion. Nick Fitzgerald is also a third-year sophomore as was Prescott, and only now coming into full powers as Mullen once again adapts his offense to the triggerman.

A better measure is provided by the depth chart. Officially six offensive starters (realistically eight since Aeris Williams is the main running back and guard Deion Calhoun will sit this one out) are underclassmen. The second team has just two seniors and neither play major roles now.

The defense, that has more parts to replace with six regular starters plus the injured end A.J. Jefferson graduating. At the same time, 2016 was transition requiring an entire calendar what with an entirely-new staff and sort-of-new system. The job isn’t finished at all, either.

But this made bowl camp, the first week on campus most of all, that much more critical. It slights no senior to state that some departing starters just were not as smooth a fit in a 3-4 scheme’s positioning as they were in the former 4-3.

And, by same token, that a number of the underclassmen and redshirts moving up for 2017 seem to suit the system more efficiently. Only spring ball and the real season can verify this opinion and it is just that, an opinion. What is more objective is experience counts as much for young coaches as for young players.

Bowl practicing and play adds to the account. It certainly offers a longer evaluation of what works, what doesn’t or doesn’t yet, and who works within it all to begin spring practice planning. Put another way, last January the all-new defensive staff was working off video; and that in a different system.

Now they will have their own first-hand evidence to work off. This presupposes no staff changes of course, which would be a novelty for Mullen’s program to stay intact for consecutive campaigns. At the same time there was a September point all sorts of jobs were in jeopardy.

Winning back the Golden Egg and into bowl play has changed most such talk into encouraging words for 2017 and beyond. It will help if the Bulldogs can take care of Miami-Ohio of course, in a battle of second-half success stories. The Redhawks won’t make it easy and are capable of giving the SEC a bowl blemish.

Regardless of results, Bulldog football appears to have turned another corner and just in time. They will return Monday evening for a real break, a well-earned one not only for regaining an edge in the Egg Bowl rivalry. That mid-year recruiting class should shore-up several spring practice positions, on defense in particular, and make Mississippi State even more underclassman-oriented next year.

Which, if we think about it a bit, should seriously set the State stage for…a senior-dominated 2018? Now that is something else to buzz about here in bowl season.

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