Well, to topic. The aforementioned pre-service last-Sunday-before-season questions arose, as always. 1) ‘I guess you're about to get busy.' Look, I appreciate the well-meant opener, but what do these otherwise-fine folk think I, and moreso MSU coaches and players, have been doing since August 2? Or for that matter what most players have been doing since early June with very few breaks? There simply is no ‘off season' in college football any more. Nope, we've been busy all August already preparing for the 2008 season, though as best I can tell only myself and the esteemed Kyle Veazey have attended every single pre-season practice.
Of course 2) is the true question all are asking this Sunday, and not just we who held down a seat/pew. Variously phrased it comes down to ‘What do you think State will do this year?' (Fortunately no one seems to be staking their paychecks on my notoriously erratic prognosticating skills, though you never really know ‘bout us Baptists.) Just as with you message-boarders who've demanded an opinion, I've begged-off…until today. Yep, it's time to make an on-record forecast at last for the 2008 Bulldog season.
Sparing any dramatics, 7-5 and a bowl to be named later.
Ever since spring ended, and more particularly because of how it concluded with the dismissal of Mike Brown, easily State's best lineman and one of the SEC's as well, and one-year suspension of top cornerback Anthony Johnson, my own 2008 ‘baseline' has been 6-6. That is, the team I've watched this past month is one that should win six games. Not easily or automatically by any means; but as these Bulldogs and their 12 opponents stack up right now, before the season starts taking an injury-toll, before unexpected contributors emerge (can you say ‘Wesley Carroll'?), and before expected standouts stumble. My fundamental forecast is Mississippi State should win the four non-conference contests on this slate, as well as home dates with Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
That's six Ws. That's the starting point.
Now do understand I've no illusions how any personal prediction is perceived. As learned long ago in the original D.B., most really want to hear me and my media ilk toss W-L numbers out there for argument and not agreement. Happy to oblige. In fact I'd be clever to forecast break-even since it would allow both sides, those angered by pessimism or annoyed by optimism, to draw clear lines and tear into each other for A) lack of a true State faith or B) mindless adherence to Dog doctrine. Well, whether cynic or sheep, which as Rick Stansbury would say are both sides of that coin, do have fun. Subscription fees are identical for either acolyte.
So if I'm starting from six wins, why expect seven? Or, why not more? An assistant coach who lives nearby finds me overly pessimistic, thinks I put too much weight in the losses of Brown and A.J. Not that he predicts any records; he merely counters ‘Tell me who we can't beat?' And I'll be the first to applaud such optimism, not only because we want our coaches thinking and talking positive but such an attitude rubs off on the players. More importantly, the aide has a very good point in that for this season, with this team, there isn't anyone on the slate that Mississippi State could nor should concede to in August. No, not even those Louisiana cats, who will still be very, very good…but hardly unbeatable until they prove otherwise. Nor will any be wasting time and gas budgeting a trip to Knoxville this fall, and I don't mean just to see the scenery.
No, I'm hesitant at this point in 2008-time to predict any momentous moves-up in final record for a handful of reasons. Make that, unanswered questions, most of which I'm sure y'all share. Starting with Mr. Brown, who I wish the best at Alabama A&M and truly hope he finds his way to the NFL. Derek Sherrod was going to be left tackle eventually, will be All-SEC soon enough, and should play pro football himself. And off-the-bench Sherrod last year at right tackle was, in the last couple of games, grading more consistently than Brown, or so I'm told. But he's still a sophomore in a different position with more responsibility in both pass-protect and run-block than he had on the quarterback's throwing side as a freshman. And what if he's the equal of Brown now? State doesn't lose anything, then…but neither does it gain by having BOTH ends of the line in stout, safe hands. A wash, as it were, at least until Quentin Saulsberry and/or Mark Melichar show they can take care of leading the run-right way for Anthony Dixon. Guards Mike Gates and Craig Jenkins are going to have to help their younger comrades as well as do their own jobs.
And while J. C. Brignone is physically superior to Royce Blackledge, a budding beast in the middle of the line, he hasn't had to read an opponent, make decisions and calls, and securely deliver the hike under game pressures yet. Maybe he's an instant star, a la Kent Hull. Maybe he's still learning a demanding job, the first assignment of which is just make the snap before worrying about the other guy(s). In time he'll be a very good college center, it's just a matter of how much time. Though having cool-hand Carroll on the other end of the exchange should ease his transition since Wes can do a lot of ‘reading' defenses for his hiker if needed.
Let's not overlook entirely-new tight ends, either, especially given how much State's offensive systems rely on tight ends and fullbacks. That latter, by the way, is looking good because Brandon Hart has cranked it up for the senior season and Eric Hoskins is healthy, so far. Huge sigh of editorial relief here. But to do all of what State wants, and this year has the runner-thrower-catcher personnel for, demands a couple of quality extra blocker/receivers. 2007 was a fluke with three standouts, far better collectively than any stats could show. Marcus Green is faster than all the grads, but is also still learning a new job that begins with blocking, blocking, blocking. That said, there's some practice patterns been seen where Green shows what he can do taking off in a straight line… Brandon Henderson will be a reliable blocker, I think; and that extra spring has accelerated Nelson Hurst's freshman progress. But again, they haven't done it in a real game yet so I'm leery of factoring these places positively. All will have chances shortly to show up our lack of forecast-faith, though.
I'm not quite so worried today as two weeks ago about the defensive line. As long as both Kyle Love and Jessie Bowman are together, the Dog D won't get run over much and that is where any gameplan must begin. It's not just a baseball truism about ‘strong up the middle' you know. With Love and Bowman up front, Jamar Chaney line-backing them up, and any of this amazing collection of safeties supporting, State is stout up the middle indeed. But when Love's big toes are hurting, State's defense feels pains on the ground.
Charlie Harbison and David Turner have adapted as the roster allows, bringing Cortez McRaney and Charles Burns back inside for depth. At cost, of course, to the d-end rotation. I have to believe losing all that weight will aid LaMarcus Williams' durability, but giving up those pounds might also prove a trade-off in the interior alternating. Maybe Reggie Odom has finally decided to be a ballplayer, which would help hugely. Or maybe it will be up to those young linemen to grow up fast and fill gaps soon. What it comes down to is the d-staff would be happier if they could use McCraney and Brandon Cooper in obvious run situations, then switch in Jimmie Holmes, Sean Ferguson, et.al., to rush presumed passers. Until they prove they can handle the responsibilities, look for outside ‘backers like K.J. Wright (himself once considered for d-end duty) and Dominic Douglas to go on the attack much more often than we're used to seeing from a Dog defense.
Which brings up a peripheral point: Harbison would likely be more aggressive anyway than his predecessor. Ellis Johnson would practice ‘attacking' schemes but on game-day prefer to hold their place and, hopefully, the other team. It prevented putting his secondary in do-or-die situations too often on first and second downs, but also led to quite a few 3rd-and-long completions. I've got a hunch we won't see nearly as many such conversions this season as this group will get much more practice pressuring passers…but at the potential cost of giving up ground more often in first and second downs. Maybe. Hard to say right now as, repeat, they haven't played for-real yet.
Oddly, I'm not nearly as worried now about Johnson's enforced sabbatical. Big plays, yeah, he sure could make ‘em. And give ‘em up, too, as a coach told me he was the most inconsistent of 2007's regular corners. Shows how our perceptions also are subject to further reviews, eh? If the newly-aggressive front seven do their part the corners won't be forced to cover quite as long anyway, though I believe now they have the skills and experience to get it done as needed, often enough. And in my three Dog decades this has to be the best all-around collection of safeties ever in State uniforms, when Derek Pegues comes off the one-game suspension that is. Even without him, there's more than sufficient first-weekend talent to do the jobs. We certainly hope.
Kicking? At least as good and probably a bit better this time around. The ‘probably' is because the coverage teams look somewhat faster for '08 though we might miss the painfully-won experience several graduated Dogs had to offer. And I do mean painfully considering the fiascos of 2005 and '06. The specialists and their teams-mates didn't get nearly enough applause for the progress shown in 2007, and I'm as guilty as any in often overlooking it. And while Pegues has nothing to prove, there are some pretty hungry pups who badly want to show what they can do after catching a kick and from what I've seen in drills they can take care of business.
So, again, why ‘only' a seven-win regular season opinion? Particularly when the head coach has freely and frequently said winning championships is a realistic goal for this team, and every player interviewed all summer has sung from the same hymnbook? That assistant I speak of is correct that, unlike the previous four seasons, there isn't a date on the slate with a mental ‘L' penned-in already. So why not toss out eight, nine, more Ws by December? Because, again, I'm working from a starting-point. And, because of how many of 2007's wins hinged on a single play. The long punt and ensuing pick, at Auburn. The reckless attempt by Alabama to nail the coffin before halftime that became A.J.'s game-turning interception return. The mindless decision not to punt on a two-TD lead by a next-day dismissed Rebel coach, and Pegues' punt return which upon step-by-step review (for a November-dated magazine issue, and I'm sure having fun writing it) shouldn't have got started much less completed. Even an official's call in the Liberty Bowl overruling a MSU turnover.
In short, the 2007 Bulldogs were four plays from finishing with half-as-many wins. Then of course we could say, just as correctly, that the mere fact they made those plays shows how far the team and program have come from preceding seasons when such situations were not-made and three or four games not-won. Objectively, I can't easily ‘presume' on such play-making again…
…but neither do or can I any longer bet against making those same plays from now on. Do you see the difference? The Bulldogs now know they can do it in the clutch; they might not do it, but they know they can. And that's exactly why six or seven wins, against this schedule, is the starting point and not the absolute objective. Does that make sense?
Oh, and does anyone notice something interesting about all-the-above? It's the other players and positions I have not posited as potential problem points. While Carroll is calling the counts, State's offense won't lose many if any games on mental mistakes. No team has better, and few as good, a backfield bunch as State, which is why when I hear fans grumble about ‘predictable' and ‘boring' offense build around Dixon I counter why NOT give the football to your best offensive player early and often? As long as he's not trying to dance for extra yards in 3rd- and 4th-and-shorts, that is.
I absolutely do think Mississippi State really can post a better record this season than last. I also think with just one or two specific injuries they will have to scramble to match ‘07s mark. Which leads to my own main point. I can't help but see 2008 as, ohhh, let's call it a ‘maintain' year. There is the talent to continue improving right now, and even a dash of depth thanks to three years of progressively upgraded recruiting…which is only getting even better based on the commitments reported so far.
Thus, the need for Bulldog football to at least ‘maintain' their gains of last year on the field and if possible do even better, but not to slip backwards any. Because even as this season kicks off, I'm completely confident about what Coach Sylvester Croom has in store for us in 2009 and '10 as these Dogs develop.
Now, if they should choose to accelerate that pace and prove to be the self-proclaimed contender this year?
Well, then, hallelujah and pass the collection plate to fund a really fun MSU-mission trip this holiday season. All Dog denominations welcome to come along, of course. Amen.