12-0? It'd be nice to think about. But I'm here to offer a dose of reality, along with a little of my wishful thinking/semi-delusion.
I don't know how tuned into the internet the coaches are, but if any of them read this, there might be a few helpful tips below.
Now, on to the schedule before I start rambling.
And so it begins ...
vs. South Carolina, August 31: The Gamecocks are favored, and while you can't dismiss the oddsmakers' pick, it would not be an upset if MSU wins. It might be the tactful thing to say that all 12 games carry the same importance, but come on. Let's be real here. It's the season opener, it's at home, and MSU's supposed to be putting a better, improved product out on the field to showcase in front of a nationwide audience. A win here could be a jumpstart to a successful season. A loss wouldn't be demoralizing, but does anyone want to even think about losing? Exactly. That's a rhetorical question, but if you answered aloud or nodded in agreement, it's a-okay.
Offensively, there's an opportunity to open it up in a big way, and early. USC is starting three newbies in the secondary, and that should be taken advantage of early on. But going to the same well too often can hurt you in the end, so that's where mixing it up comes in. The Gamecock front line also has question marks, so the revamped run game needs to get a good audition. Success with the run will open up the pass, and from there, the possibilities are endless.
Defensively, there's plenty to watch out for. QB Blake Mitchell is experienced, and Steve Spurrier's track record with quarterbacks can't be forgotten. With time and protection, Mitchell could be dangerous. The defensive front is going to need to bear down on him. There's a solid 1-2 punch at RB that must be contained as well. But the man to watch out for is Sidney Rice, the sensational sophomore wideout. If the boys at the back can execute Operation Shutdown Sidney with success, that will cut off their biggest big-play threat.
Because this game is not only the season opener, but also the SEC opener, the stakes are doubly magnified. 1-0 overall equals 1-0 in the SEC, and that's the best start you could hope for. Forget cliches, it's all about winning and nothing else.
vs. Auburn, September 9: The Tigers are a national title contender, and the last time they came to Starkville, they left with a 43-14 victory, on the way to a 13-0 season in 2004. They'll be expected to take care of business again, but it won't be as much of a cakewalk.
If the defense can hold out as well as it did last year in Jordan-Hare, the 'Dogs could be in it with a shout. Lest you forget, MSU drove into Auburn territory four times during that game and came up empty. And the Tigers were also gifted great field position multiple times and recorded a defensive touchdown. Take into consideration that the offense also had some early success before sputtering for the last three quarters, and 28-0 looks a lot less convincing.
Auburn's better, yes, but so is MSU. A victory against USC would generate great momentum and confidence coming into this matchup with the Tigers. If the defense can do the job against Brandon Cox, Kenny Irons, and the rest of the Auburn offense, and the MSU offense minimizes its mistakes and establishes some sort of efficiency, this game could be very, very interesting.
vs. Tulane, September 16: The season-opening homestand comes to a close with a game against the Green Wave, who've become a perennial opponent for the Bulldogs in recent years. Tulane is a far inferior opponent than the first two, but labelling this game as an automatic win and looking ahead would be a dumb, dumb thing to do. MSU has no room for look-ahead games. The Maine loss taught a cruel lesson about underestimation.
But the game and the next one against UAB will give MSU a break from the rigors of SEC play, and if it indeed is a relative breeze, then there'll be the chance to rest some key guys early. Tulane has some talent and experience on offense and at the skill positions that could be dangerous. QB Lester Ricard threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 16 TDs last season, and the Green Wave also return their top two RBs (Matt Forte and Jovon Jackson) and a solid receiving corps led by senior Preston Brown (47 catches, 720 yards, 6 TDs in '05).
Their pass defense was ranked in the top 15 in the country, giving up less than 180 yards a game through the air. However, the Tulane rush defense was one of the worst in the country last season, allowing an average of over 190 rush yards a game, so the MSU run game could be primed for a big day. With at least three backs in the rotation, it'd be a chance to showcase their talents equally and give one of the youngsters a chance to have a breakout game.
Tripping up here would not be a good thing, especially if the first two games have seen solid outcomes. If you'd like to play the storyline angle, Ducre could get to show off his skills against a school that never got the chance to see them displayed on the field before he headed up north to Starkville and SEC football.
at UAB, September 23: This game was originally scheduled to be the season opener, but it was switched with the South Carolina game so that the latter could get national exposure.
The last time MSU met the Blazers was two years ago, and the 'Dogs went down 27-13. They aren't the same team that went to a bowl that year, but they won't be an easy off. Quarterback Darnell Hackney terrorized the MSU defense two years ago, and thankfully, he's taken his talents to the NFL.
MSU will be the third high-profile opponent the Blazers will have faced in their first four games, after facing Oklahoma in the opener and Georgia the week before MSU comes to town. So, they'll likely have taken their lumps pretty well and will be prepared for the visit. Considering LSU is the next week, taking the foot off the gas might cross some minds, but there is no reason why MSU shouldn't be looking at least at a 3-1 record a third of the way through the season. And for a program that's won no more than three games in an entire season over the past five seasons, it'd be a big, big step in the right direction.
at LSU, September 30: To say that LSU has dominated this series in the last several years would be nothing short of polite. In the last five meetings, all convincing Tiger victories, the purple and gold have outscored MSU 202-26, including shutouts in 2001 and 2004. In last year's game in Starkville, the Bulldogs took an early lead on a long TD pass play, but any hopes for an unlikely upset were sunken by the third quarter. LSU reeled off 37 unanswered points from that opening shock to rack up another easy win over their 'rivals.'
The Tigers are nearly unbeatable at home, so, I'm not going to lose my mind here. This is one of those games where you just hope to stay competitive. A blowout wouldn't be helpful, considering the next opponent on the schedule.
vs. West Virginia, October 7: Regardless of the way the team fares in the opening five games, this is a huge, huge game. If they are riding the wave of a good start, this game is even further magnified. West Virginia stands to be unbeaten and in the top three or four when they roll into Starkville. The Mountaineers have an outside shot at making it to the national championship game. Rich Rodriguez is one of the top offensive minds in the country, and his run-first, run-second, pass only when you have to attack led by QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton is explosive. They're expected to come into Starkville and leave with an easy win.
But wait just a second before you mark it down as an automatic W.
The Bulldogs have nothing to lose here. West Virginia has a top five ranking and a shot at a national championship on the line. Plus, there's a certain amount of credibility that comes with going into an SEC team's house and wiping the floor with them. And this actually rates as one of the tougher games on their schedule, after an early slate that sees them go up against Marshall, Eastern Washington, Maryland, and East Carolina.
If the defense can contain White and Slaton, that's a big step in at least making the game close. White will be an improved passer this season, but if he's forced to put the ball up more than a dozen times in the game, that could be a bad sign for the Mountaineers. Forcing third and long situations where the option attack loses its effectiveness will turn the ball over to the MSU offense to go to work.
If the defensive coaches need any tips on what to do and what not to do, watching last season's Sugar Bowl from start to finish would be beneficial. Georgia gave up 31 first half points, but held West Virginia to only seven in the second half. Is MSU's defense as good as Georgia's was? Maybe not, but with a (hopeful) sellout crowd behind them, cowbells clanging, adrenaline rushing, and absolutely no pressure to distract them, the D could step up.
The West Virginia defense is very experienced, with all of its projected starters at least juniors. It has a weakness, however, in its secondary, which gave up an average of over 200 passing yards a game in 2005. If Henig and his receivers have meshed by the time this game rolls around, there should be no hesitation to go to the air often.
Nothing to lose, but so much to gain. Play like that, and October 7, 2006 could go down as one of the most monumental days in Mississippi State football history.
vs. Jacksonville State, October 14: The last time the Gamecocks from Alabama came to Starkville, Kevin Fant threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns in a 51-13 rout in MSU's 2002 home opener. This game'll provide a nice little break after one tough game and before another. MSU's first bye-week won't come until after the Alabama game in the first week of Novemeber, so wrapping up a blowout win early will give the starters a chance to rest, and maybe a few key guys could stand to miss this game, if they need to heal or just rest.
The second half of the schedule isn't as brutal as the first, but to keep a possible run towards a bowl and a winning season going, injuries and fatigue are going to have to be at a minimum. The 12-game season offers an extra chance to pick up an easy win, against an opponent like the Gamecocks, and it's key to get through this one unscathed, with the home stretch getting ready to kick into gear.
at Georgia, October 21: The last time MSU made a trip into Athens was 1997, when the Mike Bobo-led 'Dawgs sent the 'Dogs back to Starkville with their tails hidden well between their legs, after a 47-0 walloping. As it happens, MSU rolled off four wins in a row after that loss.
This isn't an instruction for the guys to go into Athens and lie down, then come back home and get on a roll to finish the season, so get that thought out of your heads right now.
Georgia won in Starkville 23-10 last year, and it wasn't a pretty game. The weather was terrible, and there was the unforgettable moment when Leonard Pope dragged poor Demario Bobo into the end zone. D.J. Shockley threw for over 300 yards, and UGA converted a number of third down situations that kept MSU out of it.
Shockley's gone, and so is Pope, but the Bulldogs from Athens will still be a force. By the time this game rolls around, Mark Richt will likely have sorted out that quarterback situation, and whoever is under center will be hoping to have a repeat of Shockley's performance. The key to at least keeping it close will be to make stops on those third and fourth downs, unlike in last year's loss. Coach Croom and staff need to stay tuned into the Weather Channel, so that if it's a rainy day in Athens, the team will be prepared. There were a number of overthrows and drops in last year's game that could've had an impact on the outcome, and the running game came up against a brick wall time and again.
Georgia's strength is their defensive front, and with big Quentin Moses leading the way for the D-line, expectations for a big day on the ground might be a little much. That's where the quickness of the offensive system and of Mike Henig's cannon must work to take that defensive front out of the game.
And if it rains, wear gloves.
vs. Kentucky, October 28: In recent years, this has been a 'laughingstock game.' Both of these teams are well acquainted with the SEC basement, and while it's meant little to win the game, losing it means you're one step closer to the bottom rung than the other. The Wildcats took last year's game in Lexington, 13-7. But both teams stand to be improved this year.
This could turn out to be a pivotal game if both are in the running for six wins and a bowl. With the schedules that both have, it's certainly foreseeable that could be the case. At the very least, both teams should enter this game over .500. Kentucky's schedule is far more favorable down the stretch than MSU's, with home tilts against Vandy and Louisiana-Monroe sandwiched in between games against Georgia (home) and Tennessee (away).
So, a loss here would probably do more damage to MSU than it would to Kentucky, especially because it's at home. The home team has fared better in this series as of late, so that bodes well for the homestanding 'Dogs. With a win here, MSU could move one step closer to bowl eligibility. With a loss, there'd be no margin for error in the last three games, not to say that there isn't any room or excuse to slip up as is.
at Alabama, November 4: What MSU fan could ever forget that night ten years ago when big plays from every unit and a late 4th quarter field goal from Brian Hazlewood lifted the Bulldogs to a 17-16 upset over the top-five ranked Crimson Tide? That game ranks as one of the greatest in MSU history, it's also one of my personal favorites. I remember being on pins and needles during Alabama's final possession in the game's waning moments. MSU stopped Freddie Kitchens and the Tide's last-ditch efforts and then ran out the clock on an unlikely win. That was the start of a three-game win streak vs. 'Bama, and four wins in five years. Combine that with the four wins in five years against Auburn (four straight from '97 to '00), and that was a dominant stretch for the 'Dogs against the Alabama powers.
This season, it won't be quite the same story as it was in '96. Alabama's in semi-rebuilding mode, so MSU will enter the game with more of a chance than ten years ago, though the venue will be different. Tuscaloosa hasn't been too friendly in recent years.
A key to having a shot in this game will be shutting down the Tide's talented tailback, Kenneth Darby, and ruffling the feathers of their young signal-caller, John Parker (can't we just call him J.P.?) Wilson. On offense, the key will be to capitalize on the few chances that they'll be given by the usually staunch Tide D. Miscues must be kept at a minimum. Mike Henig got his first career start in last year's game against the Tide, and it was one he'd probably like to forget. He returns to his home state, and the hope is that he'll fare better, with that deer in the headlights manner gone. If he can be efficient against 'Bama, it could be enough to lift MSU to a win. Efficient doesn't mean throwing for 300 yards and three TDs. Efficient is making the right plays at the right times and not letting mistakes override them.
In that game last year, Alabama was up 3-0 when MSU had a 4th down and short deep in Tide territory. Instead of taking the three points, the Bulldogs went for it and failed to convert when Jerious Norwood dropped a sure first down and possible touchdown on a swing pass from Henig. Save for that drop and the two defensive TDs for Alabama early in the third quarter, and MSU actually had a fighting chance, had the offense been able to move the ball more.
If the defense can put forth the same effort as it did in '05, and the offense can put up a few points on the board, MSU could notch its first win against the Tide since 2000. It'd be the perfect way to enter the first and only bye week of the season.
vs. Arkansas, November 18: Game #2 in the Mike Henig experiment last year was ugly. Arkansas did everything right in the first half, putting up 41 points en route to a 44-10 demolition of MSU in Fayetteville.
That's not a scoreline anyone wants to see this time around, unless it's 44-10 in favor of the home team.
Containing Arkansas' dangerous backfield will be the defense's main concern. With the amount of tailback talent in the SEC, that seems to be a concern every week, doesn't it? Darren McFadden had a huge day in last year's rout, and if he can stay away from trouble and injury, he'll be strapped up and ready to run wild again. Behind him is Felix Jones, who's a top-notch talent in his own right. And there's an All-SEC fullback in Peyton Hillis, who is a threat any way the ball ends up in his hands. He averaged nearly five yards a carry last season and was actually the Razorbacks' leading receiver with 38 catches. He also returned kicks and punts.
Turnovers and an overall lack of focus helped contribute to last year's debacle, but with something to actually play for this year, the same should not and must not occur.
Arkansas has a knack for knocking off MSU at the right times, which for MSU are the wrong, wrong, wrong times. In '96, following that big win against Alabama, MSU lost to the 'Hogs 16-13 in their first overtime game. That loss denied MSU of a winning season. In '97, the 'Razorbacks knocked off top-15 MSU 17-7, derailing the Bulldogs' SEC title hopes. They did the same thing in '99 (16-14 at Arkansas) and in 2000 (17-10 in OT in Starkville).
There is always '98 though...
at Ole Miss, November 25: You don't need a writer to tell you how important a game against your archrival is.
But I will anyway.
Independent of what either team's record is coming into this game, winning the Golden Egg is right up there with winning a championship (close, but not quite).
Last year's 35-14 win over the Rebels in Starkville ended a down year on a high note and led the way for higher expectations coming into this season. It broke a streak of four straight losses to the hated men to the north, and it showed what the team was capable of when firing on all cylinders.
The last time Mississippi State went to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and won was 1998, when the 'Dogs rolled to a 28-6 win that clinched the SEC Western Division title. There are few things sweeter than clinching a championship on your rival's home field.
That likely won't be what's up for grabs, but the stakes will be high nonetheless. Both teams are hoping for a shot at a bowl, and this game could not only be a battle for position in the division, but positioning in a better bowl, or a bowl at all, for that matter.
On offense for the Rebs, the main weapon stands to be the multitalented Brent Schaeffer under center. The Ole Miss running game has lacked that 'oomph' in the past few years, and while it stands to be better with the addition of a few talented newcomers, they'll be hard-pressed to find holes through the Bulldog defense. And as far as Schaeffer is concerned, he might have to do a lot of running around, because the secondary will be doing its best to ensure there isn't anyone open for him to throw to. Jeramie Johnson picked off three passes in last year's romp, and it might be someone else in the firm of Pegues, Heard, Johnson, and Fitzhugh who steps up and makes a name for themselves this time around.
The Reb defense was pretty porous last year, and they don't stand to be too far improved this season, but there is an All-American at linebacker in Patrick Willis to account for. He's got a nose for the ball, and a penchant for big hits. He'll likely rack up some impressive tackle numbers, but for his and his team's sake, they'll need to come before big gains, as opposed to after. Limiting his impact will take care of a large part of the Ole Miss defense's ability to be effective.
Overall: The schedule features games against four of the top teams in the country, and there are away games at Alabama and Ole Miss that are guaranteed to be tough. A winning record at home is imperative if the Bulldogs are to have any reason to be talking winning season or bowl come November.
While there are several tough games on the schedule, games against Tulane, UAB, Jacksonville State, and Kentucky offer the opportunity to exceed last year's win total with several games to spare.
The road has been a problem for MSU in recent years, and picking up an away win or two will take the pressure off of having to do it all at home. The best opportunities to pick up away wins come against UAB and Ole Miss. Alabama's also a possibility, but as aforementioned, Tuscaloosa's not been too kind to the maroon and white as of late. Wishful thinking would say that they could have a fighting chance against Georgia, but that's only if everything goes as perfectly as possible.
MSU has a history of pulling a big upset or two every now and then, and there's chance for that this year, with the home games against Auburn and West Virginia.
Four wins would be an improvement over the past few years, but considering the schedule and an improved team, it wouldn't be outlandish to think winning season. A lot of 'experts' have been quick to write off MSU again because of the last several years. But starting August 31 against South Carolina, the Bulldogs will be looking to prove them wrong and restore pride and dignity to the MSU football program.
2006 Schedule - Mr. Idealistic's Predictions
Disclaimer: Here's a grain of salt. Take these predictions with it. And here's a block of wood too. Give it a few good knocks.
Cross your fingers too. Do it! Now!
Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .