From The Dawghouse

Farm-boy background notwithstanding, y'all know I am not an a.m. person. Especially when it comes to columnizing, a task done best after lunch. But here I am thrashing at the keyboard before heading to church for some serious thanks-giving. And now that the retinas have finally adapted to the Sunday sunshine, my spirit is impelled to quote from a favorite film: ‘And isn't it a luuuvly morning?'

To be a Bulldog, that is. Or perhaps the better way to phrase is to be a Bulldog again. No, not simply in the afterglow of yesterday's SEC success, as signal an event as that was in itself. True, it's obviously not every Saturday that an attendance record is set at Scott Field; or that said throng is treated to a home-field victory over Highway 82 rival Alabama. That was only the fourth time State has defeated the Crimson Tide in Starkville, remember, all since 1996.

No, today is special for bigger reasons than just beating Alabama, something the Dogs did last year as if any in both states need reminding. (Actually it seems some still do on the wrong side of the state border, as those folk apparently believe '06 never happened. I suspect it's not so lovvvvley a morning over there as many ponder the impact of inflation; i.e. how $4 million a year just doesn't buy what it used to. That's their problem.)

No such worries and woes in Bulldog Country today, where hopefully folk are finally grasping just what a bargain Mississippi State has found in Sylvester Croom. And, what potential dividends are yet to come from the football program so painstakingly and often so painfully built over these four years. All the frustrations of 2004-06 are fading as we see what these Bulldogs are capable of. Not just the occasional highlight win such as '04 Florida, the '05 Egg Bowl, and last year at Alabama. But the consistent sort of success needed to raise State back in the SEC pack annually. As well as put the Dogs in the post-season picture.

Those scouts from the Chik-fil-A, Independence, and Liberty classics weren't on campus this weekend just to watch the visiting team; they came to see if Mississippi State could, would make its own case by following up on the win at Kentucky. It takes more than just one big victory to merit a bowl berth, especially this wonderfully-insane season where it seems 70 clubs will be bowl-eligible and the rest trying to fire the staff.

And let's address this topic of the day. Six wins only has the Bulldogs eligible for bowling, not in one. Yet the scouts I spoke with made it clear even Friday that they really want State to qualify, and not merely for perceived p.r. reasons. They know from years-past that a resurgent State program will bring a crazed crowd thrilled to be watching their team playing holiday football. Yes, yesterday's record crowd at the field—and from my press box seat there had to be a couple thousand more left ticket-less in the Junction but staying close by all game—was the perfect complement to the victory on the field. The scouts loved that sight. And at least one bowl rep fretted State is going to win its way into out of their contention! Hope he's right, though by no means am I heading down the too-giddy path of believing the Dogs are sure of taking the remaining November contests. Not hardly. State can just as easily lose either and both, yes both, of those matchups, and don't doubt Croom & Staff will pound that into their helmets every afternoon.

By the way, let me go down a side-track for a moment. Yesterday Croom talked of the team being tense in the opening quarter. True enough. Yet that wasn't what I saw in the week's practices. If anything, the players were relaxed and business-like as usual, while several coaches were as up-tight as I've seen in a while. This is just speculatin' you understand, but it had to be partly because they really, really wanted to take care of this sixth-win business ASAP and not let it drag on into the end of the season. Plus there are all those old Tide connections running through the staff. Whereas, the players are literally and figuratively another generation. Put another way, the coaches—and most of us fans for that matter—came along when Alabama was, well, ALABAMA written in the sort of letters used for the credits in Ben Hur, much less Blazing Saddles. The players? Even those who hail from that state regarded Alabama as just another SEC and ranked opponent. Truly, they see no difference in preparing for the Tide than they did, say, Kentucky, or West Virginia. If anything that latter was a bigger practice-week deal for the Dogs. I probably roused a lot of ire Friday on a regional radio show when I said State players were getting ready to play a team, not a Name, but it's the truth.

And a very good sign of what the Bulldogs think of, believe about themselves. That now and at-last they belong in the same sentence with conference contenders. Rival fans and outside media are still slow to acknowledge the fact, but their peers on the playing field increasingly agree that Mississippi State isn't any more some bad-boy crashing the SEC party. They are on the verge of becoming respected members of the club.

Which is not the same as being there yet. I'm minded of the old politico's cynical quote about ‘weathering this storm of approval'. All the good feelings and high hopes engendered by consecutive wins over ranked teams—and the prospect of mere consideration for a ranking—could vanish in the time it takes Arkansas to break an 80-yard touchdown run. Which ain't long. Sacking a John Wilson is far simpler than tackling Darren McFadden or Felix Jones. Yet that's now just another week's game-planning work as the Bulldogs try to get used to a new sort of routine.

Of coming off consecutive SEC wins and preparing to do it all over again. And, hopefully, win again because whatever the behind-scenes discussions no bowl has extended an official bid to the Bulldogs. A lot can happen in two more game-weeks and not all of it good, as we know. But by golly ain't it good to be within sight of some long-desired objectives, like a winning season and bowl-trip planning?

Random Musings…

Y'all know how long I've covered Bulldog home games, whether on the sidelines or in the press box. So maybe my opinion counts in this. After Anthony Johnson's game-changing interception return for touchdown, I turned to Clarion columnist Rick Cleveland to tell him I had never, ever heard it so loud at Scott Field. Not even in the '99 Egg Bowl, or the '98 comeback against Arkansas, or '92 Florida. Never. People, the sound was literally concussive where we sat in the press box; I can only imagine how it felt, not sounded, felt on the field.

I've always claimed that something about the design of this stadium, the addition of the decks on each side, produces unusual sonic conditions as the noise reflects sideline-to-sideline; that on a good game Scott Field is just as loud or even louder than much larger and more famed venues. Maybe there's a research project in this for a State engineering class, reckon?…

Certainly there ought to be a commercial of some sort made for adidas after yesterday. For the strength of their uniforms, I mean. Jogging off the field while chatting with Titus Brown, I noticed not a single tear or even serious stretch-mark on his jersey. By golly, that's strout material adidas uses to make their shirts, because the way Brown was grabbed and grappled coming around the end I was sure the fabric would be shredded by halftime. Seriously, didn't some of you at least wonder if the assigned SEC officials had been hijacked and replaced by a Mountain West crew yesterday? Those zebras weren't gonna call offensive holding on the Tide even if tackle grabbed one of them by the shoulders...

Yes, the turning point was Johnson's end zone-to-end zone jaunt. It was the fifth game this year a Bulldog has picked a pass and scored it, and by no coincidence State won all five of those contests. The lone exception, Kentucky, still sorta-fits. After all, UK's quarterback set the NCAA's consecutive non-interception record earlier in the year, so picking him three times counts almost like a touchdown or two, right?…

Along that line, Wesley Carroll handled his first college pick with aplomb, even it if kept the kid from setting a NCAA record of his own for beginning a career without an interception. Long title, that. He stopped at 137, for the record, and seemed almost relieved he won't have to face that weekly question from the likes of me. Actually Carroll was more aggravated about not making the entirely-correct response to his ‘reads' on that play than the turnover itself. This is a young man of almost intimidating maturity, gang, and the epitome of what Croom has recruited over the last few years…

But, if the two picks for touchdowns, either directly or set-up, were the pivotal points, to me the most impressive single play was in the fourth quarter. For what it showed about Mississippi State's offensive mindset, I mean. It was the 3rd-and-10 call on Alabama's 45-yard line, when after a timeout Christian Ducre lined up as the lone running back. I doubt there was a single person in the house who did NOT know what was about to happen, especially us who were at the Auburn game. In an even more stressful situation Ducre twice took the draw-play handoff and converted, for a first down and then the winning touchdown.

Well, we fans knew it was coming (though I did mention aloud that maybe, just maybe, Carroll might bootleg to the empty side), and Alabama knew it was coming…and Ducre got 11 yards anyway despite taking contact en route. Why does that mean so much? Because on a play where nobody, the defense least of all, was fooled, the Bulldog offensive line and #2 running back executed as practiced, made the gain with ground to spare, and burned off enough clock to leave Alabama in near-impossible straits. That, folks, is impressive…

In the aftermath of the sellout and record gate, there will be questions as to expanding seating at DWS by ‘bowling in' the north end. Forget it, at least for now. The expense would be prohibitive for the current state of State financing, and the likely returns nothing near what some giddy fans seem to believe. Call me a heretic but I just don't see the need for more seating at State. Now if 50,000-plus come to the Southeastern Louisiana game next year; or if 30,000 folk purchase full-price season tickets next spring, not including packages and student ducats, we'll re-open the issue. Until then, demands for stadium expansions appear to come from folk who merely hope to cherry-pick the games they choose to come to depending on the team/season, without making the real commitment of buying a season ticket…

Finally, even before yesterday's results I was proclaiming this as the most entertaining and enjoyable SEC season in my professional tenure. Because it's been so amazingly unpredictable, with the scores of one week having nigh-nothing to do with the next weekend's outcomes. It's actually kinda like pro ball where margins of victory count for zilch, where there are none of the ‘style' points we've been so used to in college football. If that keeps us on our toes for the coming two games, it's meant to. I was far more comfortable looking at the matchups this past weekend than I am about the trip to Little Rock, never mind the fact—which we will hear over and over and over—that State has yet to win a football game played on Arkansan turf. And anyone already counting the Egg Bowl as a ‘W' today is a fool or a newcomer to the rivalry.

What I'm getting at is this is as frenzied a campaign as we're likely ever to see in the SEC, with what? Ten bowl-eligible teams today and another within reach? That's the kind of chaos fans and writers ought to enjoy in November 2007 until the final Thanksgiving weekend results are in.

Which has me quoting the same movie we began with, that "out of chaos comes order." You may refrain from the appropriate script-response, though.

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