Consider this: In 1998, the Bulldogs obviously had the talent to win in the SEC, going to the championship game and losing to the eventual National Champion Tennessee in the final minutes of the game. MSU had the talent in 1999 when the team pulled off a 10-win season and had the #1 ranked defense in the nation. Since that time, Mississippi State has had the best three recruiting classes in recent memory. The most recent class having as many as eleven All-Americans.
Also, consider this: Many football enthusiasts believe that the State of Mississippi produces more football talent per capita than any other State in the Union. One could certainly make an NFL Hall of Fame team just from players born in the Magnolia State, with the likes of Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, and Brett Farve. And certainly the folks from the University of Mississippi would not even argue with anyone who said that it has been the Bulldogs who have dominated the State in recruiting over the past several years. There is no doubt that the current MSU football roster lists a group of players who are as big, strong, fast, and skilled as most any D-1 school in the country.
When someone asks my five year old son how Ole Miss is going to do this year, he says, "they just don't have the horses." Then he looks up at me and asks, "Daddy, do we have the horses?" I say, "Yes son, we have the horses."
Next, a winning team must have chemistry. What is chemistry? There are a lot of definitions. But I think that chemistry is what makes a team a Team. Players, in crunch time, have to be able to look over at the player next to them and respect their abilty and trust that that person can do the job it takes to win. Chemistry is what makes a team play as a unit. It's what makes players give up personal goals for team goals. In my opinion, it's vital. And from all accounts, it was a missing ingredient in last year's group and is listed as the main reason for last year's 3-8 record. "There were a lot of 'I's' on the team last year," said T.J. Mawhinney, in a recent Clarion Ledger article, "Everybody was kind of worried about themselves. This year, everybody is like, 'We're not going to get a darn thing done if we don't get our act together.' Everybody is sacrificing playing time, taking on blocks to free other people to make big plays. We didn't have a lick of chemistry last year, but it's like night and day this year."
I believe it was Richard Ball who said that he looked across the locker room minutes before the season was to begin and didn't know some of the players' names on the other side of the room. Another player said that when last year's group of talented junior college players arrived for two-a-days and were simply handed starting spots, the problems began there. The group had not earned their place on the team and therefore, had not earned the respect of their teammates. When the team saw some of their poor attitudes and poor work ethic, they all knew it was going to be a long year. And that was before the season ever started.
Well, now, it looks as if things have changed. Coaches and players alike have praised the atmosphere of this year's camp and praised the new work ethic and attitudes of those same juco players who were blamed last year. If this year turns out to be a success, it is those transfers who should get much of the credit for doing what it takes to right the ship. The players seem to love and respect one another again. It seems as if they all went back and took Chemistry 101 - and passed.
To maintain chemistry over the course of the year, there needs to be solid leadership from a few players. Coach Sherrill has stated numerous times that last year's team lacked the leadership necessary to have a winning team. He also did the honorable thing and took the blame for not developing his seniors into leaders. Johnny Majors once said, "To be good, a team has to have good seniors." Well, in the off-season, coach Sherrill has made an effort to make his seniors step up and be leaders. "I like this football team. We're a faster team. We have more skill players," Sherrill said. "We had a good spring and offseason. The attitude is very good. We have good senior leadership." Haggan, Morgan, Lee, Walker, Grindle and others have stepped up and become solid leaders. Not to mention the QB, Kevin Fant, who has earned the respect of his teammates as a natural leader, one that the other players will give their all for in the games ahead.
Certainly, with new leaders and a new attitude, the team chemistry has improved significantly from this time a year ago.
The third ingredient a team needs to win is good coaching. A team may have players of a high caliber and good chemistry, but without coaching, they are not going to win. It would be like having a beautiful and powerful sports car with no gear shift, pedals, or steering wheel. Well, MSU has the players and the chemistry - What about coaching? Do the 2002 Bulldogs have the quality coaching staff needed to win in the SEC? Does this team have the coaching talent to go head-to-head with some of the best coaching minds in the country week in and week out? Without a doubt.
Here are some facts to consider about the current MSU coaching staff:
Jackie Sherrill - The fourth winningest active coach in the NCAA. He has been coaching since 1976 and is one of only eight coaches who have taken three different teams to final AP rankings. He coached Pitt to a #2 ranking in 1980, Texas A&M to a #6 ranking in 1985, and Miss. State to a # 13 ranking in 1999. I don't think anyone would argue that Jackie Sherrill knows how to win football games. But one of the reasons he has won everywhere he has coached is that he surrounds himself with quality assistant coaches.
Sparky Woods - Coach Sherrill hired Coach Woods away from Virginia in 1998 to the surprise of many. Coach Woods, the offensive coordinator at U of V, had just led the Cavaliers to average 426 yards of total offense per game. In his second year at MSU, he led the Bulldog offense to its second highest offensive production in school history with 386.4 yards per game. His 2000 offense led the SEC in rushing and ranked third in total offense and scoring offense. Sparky Woods has proven himself to be a qualified and capable offensive coach.
Joe Lee Dunn - Do I have to go over this one? OK, if I must. Coach Dunn is one of the best defensive coaches in the country and he has proven it over and over again on the field. Let's go back to 1987. Joe Lee Dunn was the defensive coordinator at South Carolina when their D finished in the top five in the country in all major defensive categories. In 1992 - 1994, when Coach Dunn was the Def. Coor. at the University of Mississippi, his defenses ranked 6th, 1st, and 17th nationally. After his stint with the Rebels, he went to the University of Arkansas where he led their defense to a first place finish in the SEC and a ranking of 5th nationally against the run. And, of course, there is the famous 1999 defense he directed at Mississippi State. One of the most dominant defenses in recent memory, his 1999 crew led the nation in both rushing and total defense. That unit allowing an amazing 222 yards per game in total defense. Just as amazing, that year the Bulldog defense allowed only 66.9 yards per game on the ground. Now some say that Joe Lee Dunn has been "figured out." Well, if so, it sure has taken everyone a long time. This year, most will find that, with the talent he has to work with, he will return to his confusing ways once again. And then those folks who said he had been "figured out" will begin to say, "Wow, I guess he came up with something new this year."
Throw in the discipline and national championship experience of Curley Hallman, the attitude of a Terry Lewis, and the proven track record of John Hendrick getting his defensive linemen to the NFL, and this year's coaching staff is proven and as capable as any in the country.
Will the MSU bulldogs win this year? I wish I could answer that question, but a crystal ball doesn't exist. Can they rebound from an embarrassing 3 and 8 record? It has been done before. Just look to last year's New England Patriots in the NFL. They won the Super Bowl just one season after going 5 and 11, a record equivalent to a college 3 and 8. They changed their attitude, their chemistry, and their QB and went the distance. It could happen. All that one can do before the season even begins is to look at whether a team has all the necessary ingredients to winning. Does MSU have the caliber of players needed, the team chemistry, and the coaching for a successful campaign? At least one fan thinks so.
Brent Bozeman is a correspondent for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .