Steve Robertson - Genespage.com

Looking Ahead to What 2017 Can Bring Bulldog Country

“What’s past is prologue,” as Billy S said so well…and a heckuva sportswriter he’d have made even if the main game of his Elizabethan Days was tormenting helpless bears with hungry dogs. Hmmm…come to think of it, sounds lots like the 2016 Egg Bowl?

But enough bear-baiting for the moment. Our colleague Steve Robertson has done a fine job reviewing the 2016 that was. Now. What of the 2017 to be?

Well, we must provide brief prologue with an obvious observation. November 26 may well, hope so, fingers crossed be reviewed a year from now as a turning point for Bulldog football. A re-turning point, rather, as we’ve been here before. Specifically November 2009 when Dan Mullen’s first team surprised both sides—their coach included as he’s since admitted—by knocking off the favored rivals.

That began a four-year fun run of dominating the Egg Bowl and Mississippi State working its way into national attention. If the rivalry turned sour for a few years that merely reminded these things change. Current trends have turned back for the better and, based on State’s proofs of progress as well as gathering storms to the northwest, it should stay this way a while.

Repeat, should. If Mississippi State and moreso Mullen ought have learned anything from the ups, downs, and again ups…it is keep your foot on the gas. Or on the throat. Or something.

I really believe the opportunity is actually greater here 2017 than in 2010-11-12, when State relaxed a little, assumed too much, and paid the price. There haven’t been many chances for y’all to see it first-hand, but trust this: there is a freshly aggressive edge to both University and athletic administration now. I don’t want this taken as criticism of previous attitudes, implying they thought all heavy lifting had been done and football was assured of success.

I do mean that Mississippi State learned, bitterly, such success simply is a fragile thing and never to be taken for granted. Or maybe we ought quote some Japanese Shakespeare, who said “after victory, tighten your helmet”.

Meaning, after a faster finish to 2016 the Bulldogs are back in the crosshairs for 2017. That likely includes being targeted off-the-field by a very, very unhappy rival which just had their helmets shoved up their…snouts, by an Egg Bowl outcome more upsetting than upset. Social media sputter isn’t the best indicator of most things but it’s clear if they can’t stop their program’s spiral they can try to kick out a few of this program’s props. Try to.

Our challenge is not to enjoy their forty-rental car (the NCAA may count more) pileup at expense of taking care of Bulldog business. So, turning entirely to 2017, what is ahead for the headline sports? Which by the way counts four.

 

Because the top-five Lady Bulldogs are taking their shot at what has been impossible since coed hoops began four decades ago. I just covered a dominating SEC opener that was a well-rounded a January win as could be asked. Play that way at both Tennessee and South Carolina and the conference crown is realistic. So is a Final Four run.

Considering I was publicist for a program that went four years in the early ‘80s without winning a single regular-season league game, consider my mind beautifully boggled. There is also a now-or-never feel for a senior/junior run squad adding to the intensity. Come catch ‘em, folk, tickets are available and affordable for the best winter show on campus.

 

This is no insult to the team sharing Humphrey Coliseum. Ben Howland’s guys enjoy hanging around after their own practices to catch their counterparts. Hopefully they can draw some inspiration and more so comparisons regarding their own future.

It has been a painful prologue of course. Give Howland credit for doing things deliberately as possible in transforming an entire roster, and the less said of inherited pieces the better. I also must remind how well this old coaching dog handled another impossible situation, easing out Malik Newman without too much needless fuss save in the press corps and with no damage to the rebuilding job.

That merely made official what all could see taking shape as Quinndary Weatherspoon becomes the face of Bulldog basketball. You can draw your own former-greats comparisons, I’m going in a direction never imagined. Ray White. There, I said it. At least I said enough for those who recall ‘Silk’ to understand there is only one higher-praise possible for a State swingman, and that was a certain NBA all-star of the 80s.

Tyson Carter and Lamar Peters can write their own stories over time as shooter/scorers, and a healthy Xavian Stapleton adds yet another dimension. Yeah, Mario Kegler is the most gifted of the freshmen, even playing largely out of natural position both from frontcourt necessity and backcourt depth. I have an idea of who this kid could, should eventually be seen as second-coming of but will keep it quiet for now.

What will likely keep the club from getting State back in NCAA play for the first time since, sheesh, 2009 is nobody’s fault. Schnider Herard and E.J. Datcher are just too raw right now, too mechanical in the paint to really mesh well with a fluid group of guards. Again it’s not their fault; we understood they’d take time to develop. When they do, it will be at the right time to round out a really competitive roster.

Because if Abdul Ado were eligible this year, I daresay the post-season would be a given. He isn’t. Nothing to do about it but let him help his eligible classmates improve in practice and hone his own game for big things in 2017-18. Only Howland knows if he envisioned a three-winter project. Doesn’t matter. There are enough rough pieces in places right now to have fun the next ten weeks and maybe, just maybe nudge up against some sort of bubble? Or to say it another way, we can see a future for Bulldog basketball. At long last.

 

Speaking of long last. State’s top story of 2016 was an unforeseen and unforgettable SEC Championship run by a Diamond Dog program which hadn’t claimed that crown since 1989. Back when SEC titles were expected, that is. It wasn’t this past season but John Cohen’s last, as it turned out, team did it. Count this Editor among those who couldn’t see it coming but surely enjoyed watching it play-out.

So, a repeat, right? Welllll…

Simple fact is in aftermath of a brilliant season a record-size and -scope group of Dogs were drafted away. Repeat: a record draft class gone from a program that’s sent a few folk to pro ball before. That alone requires caution.

Now factor in six of the 50-plus-games position starters are being replaced taking 40 of 47 home runs and all those RBI. Not to mention their defensive experience and expertise. And this isn’t even the largest concern, because fall ball showed the makings of a competitive lineup and order. Really. Rebuilding around Jake Mangum and Brent Rooker is a heckuva lot simpler than what Cohen inherited eight seasons ago.

No, it’s the pitching where worries abound. Though not so much in the back-end. There are enough relief innings coming back along with some now-healthy or new arms to solidify a bullpen sooner. The rotation is where 2017 rises or falls. Konnor Pilkington has to break-even on SEC Fridays, with a Keegan James or other in game-two; then who knows about Sundays?

Oh yeah, and there’s a new coach in the clubhouse. Though it took about, ohhhh, I’d say under five minutes for the fall roster to fall for Andy Cannizaro. I’ve teased Cohen with how openly happy returning Dogs were to swap skippers. Guess what? The now-former head coach is happy with the transition too.

I don’t think it has been fully-appreciated locally just how impressive hiring Cannizaro away from LSU really is. National analysts who’ve tracked his short but fast-track career get it. So does his former employer as their recruiting and offensive approaches are going to take the, no pun intended, hit.

And hitting is what Cannizaro likes. Lots. We can put it this way: don’t look for a lot of long plate duels with close pitches taken and counts extended. These Diamond Dogs will attack and games will speed up both on the paths and on the clock. Jim Ellis will approve wholeheartedly.

Unlike the other outdoor game, baseball has so much turnover that comparing schedules isn’t as easy. Still we daresay picking up Tennessee, Kentucky and South Carolina in place of Vanderbilt, Florida, and Missouri is a net-plus (Georgia remains). And if State has to visit what ought be a good Ole Miss team, at least the schedule fittingly ends with a home set against, yep, LSU. There is that return-trip to Oregon as an early testing series.

I’m also sorry State won’t go back to Biloxi, after the fantastic turnover last April. It should become a permanent home-away-from-home date for the Dogs, against either Southern Miss or South Alabama or the like. Just one opinion, understand, one that will be offered to the new athletic director as a suggestion for the future.

About the future. The larger 2017 and beyond question is this. Has Bulldog baseball returned to the status it once enjoyed back in those old SEC-winning days; when it was a reload program rather than a rebuild? It’s a lot to throw at a new and still-young head college coach.

But it’s the challenge he signed on for, and his boss has done a good job setting the stage for.

Oh, and purely for the heck of it, here’s an idea for opening day lineup: 1B Cole Gordon, 2B Hunter Stovall, SS Ryan Gridley, 3B Luke Alexander/Harrison Bragg, C Elih Marrero/Dustin Skelton; RF Brent Rooker, CF Jake Mangum, LF Tanner Poole/Cody Brown. As said, purely for the heck of it and far, far from what it’ll look like on opening day.

 

Thinking back a couple of months there were quite a few folk saying the heck with Bulldog football. OK, it was put in much stronger terms at the time.

Seriously though. Let us recall Labor Day evening and the utterly-sick sense of doom based on State’s own opening day defeat and how the rival was seemingly having its way with Florida State. The whole season seemed over, then and there.

Here and now? My but how things changed. Completely. A bit inexplicably. And a lot hilariously.

How else to describe what transpired between opening and closing weekends? Or how utterly all attitudes on both sides of the state divide have shifted. Hours into this new year and Bulldog football sees brighter days, where our esteemed rivals see the headlight of that oncoming express.

Truly, there is no over-stating how big Mullen’s fifth Egg Bowl victory was for him, for his program, for all Bulldog athletics really, and certainly for my business model. Early-season anxiety turned into end-of-season celebrating because the future gleams again. Heck, even the manner of winning in St. Pete will likely prove a positive even more than had State romped a small-league team.

Why? Well, as Mullen said, returning Dogs who spent most of 2016 watching games get away in all sorts of ways, saw one go their way in an even wilder way. Players remember that sort of thing. So don’t waste air calling the bowl a letdown. I was there to see, it mattered. And will matter more in 2017, just as much though in a different way than those November SEC victories.

By the way. Mullen does it again. One more MSU team projected by SEC media to bring up the West tail escaped the cellar. Remind me, who ended up stuck there? Oh, yeah. Them.

It’s over half-a-calendar before the next Media Days, and believe me I can wait. But I doubt the ’17 Dogs will be tabbed last this time. Maybe just sixth, but that’s progress in the post-Dak era. It could be a slot or so higher even since Mississippi State now has its quarterback. Credit again to Mullen for ignoring critics and questions for six, no make that seven weeks and sticking by Nick Fitzgerald.

We don’t downplay the contributions of Brian Johnson and wish him well going home to Houston. At the same time don’t doubt Mullen is the quarterback ‘whisperer’ in the modern parlance. That has to factor in securing the future triggerman in Keytaon Thompson, who is willing to wait his turn and develop along the same track that sent Prescott to fast pro fame and has Fitzgerald on an even faster statistical track half-way, note that, just half-way through his State career.

Along similar lines the at-last settling on Aeris Williams provides a proven 1-2 ground game punch. Fred Ross is a loss, no doubt. Yet there’s plenty of talent and variety in the receiver corps including redshirts ready to run routes based on bowl camp observation. Think of it a moment. When was the last time Mississippi State football had to endure only a single year of a ‘down’ offense after a successful stretch? I’ll answer for you: never. Or not in my experience. Rebuilding offense here was usually a matter of many years. Now, it’s a quick blip.

OK, about the defense… Without excusing anyone or anything, we had to expect at least some issues from an entirely-new staff and first-time coordinator, all installing a different system. By no measure was it a successful transition, and only coming days will show if Mullen wants to keep the four-man band together for year-two.

Yet. If not excusing, maybe we can make allowances. For one thing, maybe the biggest thing even, there was a sense that several seniors just weren’t comfortable fitting into a new overall scheme. Or that their skills suited it either. This is not pointing fingers. They did what they could as best they could, and a few of them weren’t 100% healthy all fall too. Let’s remember all the games they won and that they went out in fine style after a rough final season.

Then let’s look ahead to this hopeful thought, that again based on bowl camp the Dogs being promoted will suit the system better. Certainly the staff should better know what doesn’t work with this roster and that’s always a Good Thing. It ought make for a more efficient off-season and spring, for sure.

Plus there is the fresh influx of juco defensive blood ‘n bodies. Mullen has been picky with such recruiting in the past (see the story with lists posted in December about his JC track record). This winter was something of a fluke, a good fluke. A very good fluke potentially as the right personnel was available and eligible for spring enrollment, and nicely fitted existing roster and depth slots.

I was asked in St. Pete if, and this question was rooted in the large mid-year signing class, if I thought Mullen was staking his career possibilities on a big 2017. It is a tempting thought and make some sense…but upon further review I don’t think so.

This doesn’t mean Mullen is a lifer. It certainly won’t stop his name from bouncing around again in coming days as NFL jobs open up. Not because I would consider him a top-tier candidate since he has no NFL experience. And because Spurrier, Saban, now Kelly and others have burned owners who thought a college coach could immediately win in the biggest league.

It’s because he has a good agent now, and good agents get the name out there even when there’s nothing to it. Repeat a name often enough and eventually somebody, somewhere, will bite, right? I’ve no problems with it and fully expect to hear soon, possibly even before this week is out, that Mississippi State and Dan Mullen have agreed to a revised contract for the coming years.

Assistants? Yeah, a couple of them have NFL ties and one never knows when a friend getting a new job will call. So stay tuned. But don’t stay concerned. The program’s resurgence should make securing quality replacements simpler than what we were fretting back in September.

Back to the upcoming team. The offense will score, the defense has to be better (right?), and goodness knows special teams can’t be any worse. Just somehow, someway upgrade the offensive line and it’s good times again at Scott Field. Where, remember, we not only get all three of the ‘big’ games in 2017 but also entertain Brigham Young. Remind me to check with the Bulldog Club on when to expect season ticket information, will y'all?

 

Well, that’s a quick glance at what could be in 2017 store. A month from this week is signing day and while half the class is secured there will be enough remaining drama to keep y’all going. Just don’t plan on attending any announcement parties, not that rational adults do so, right? Oh, right…

Between now and then any staff changes will and mostly won’t happen, otherwise we will watch for other players stuck down depth charts opting to go elsewhere before the spring semester begins. Which if so says something about the quality of both the veterans ahead and redshirts/rookies behind, further evidence of a developed program.

And inevitably, somebody will do something stupid that makes the media bark. Their bite is much diminished though, a topic worth a future column in slower times.

For me, slowing down sounds good. When I turned the key to off last Tuesday evening, after the long drive back from the Bay area, 2016 officially ended. It also completed my 20th consecutive season attending every Bulldog game, from Ft. Lauderdale to Eugene and plenty points in between, since returning to D.B. for 1997.

No. I have not and will not count up my career total of games worked going back to 1980. I do not want to know. Sure as heck I don’t want to know State’s record in those games.

What I do know is enough. Bulldog football is trending upwards again and after a single-year lapse. Basketball is on a better track too, and women’s hoops is doing things never, ever envisioned. These Diamond Dogs might need a quick rebuild but it won’t take long and should be fun to watch. Plus, come June, ground will be broken for what by 2019 will be an unparalleled baseball palace. Adding a little icing is the ongoing saga up the road, and I sure as hades don’t think it’s made of yellow bricks. Unless that’s what got them in trouble in the first place, I mean.

So, as Billy Shakespeare would say, a Happy New Year to you and yours in Bulldog Country. And buckle that chinstrap tighter.


Gene's Page Top Stories