From The Dawghouse

There for a moment it appeared the main event would still turn out as planned and All Saints Day 2008 would be recalled as a maroon-letter date in MSU memory. The splendid Templeton Center opens; the SEC's biggest and best video board lights up; and the Bulldogs take care of Kentucky. The moment lasted as long as it took a field goal kick to go from right toe to left upright.

Quick as that and for everything else worth celebrating—including John Cohen's first coached-fall intrasquad classic and routine basketball exhibitioning—caroms awry along with that booted ball. All Saints Day is blown to…well, you get the idea. Just a reminder that here in the SEC, here at Mississippi State, when football loses not much else really matters.

You think we'd be used to such by now, of course. I mean, we've only spent most of our 109 falls playing the game mumbling, grumbling, while stumbling from the stadium. For that matter there've been enough setbacks already this season that another in and of itself. So what is it about this particular SEC setback that's pushing buttons more than usual this evening? Yes, I'm taking advantage of the time-change to evaluate and opinionate, so I won't have to turn this machine on any longer Sunday than necessary to post it, and send the January magazine issue cover to Scout.

I think what strikes home so painfully is that a one-point loss actually reminds just how far Mississippi State is from being competitive in the conference. At least, on any sort of consistent basis, because by competitive I mean the ability to at least break even for a stretch of seasons. 2007 was fine fun in that regard, but right now matching that 4-4 mark is going to take a whole lot of the same great breaks that team thrived on. Which is also a painful reminder, for similar reasons we'll get into.

Now, let's be entirely clear: coach and players are entirely correct that Mississippi State was only one play from winning yesterday. Just as against Auburn, the difference this time being the Bulldogs made a lot more plays and yards and points than against a Tiger team that has since utterly collapsed. That State exposed the Tigers without beating them is cause for, yes, more pain. But back to the present. Bump that field goal through and win. Make the PAT and not-lose…and how that block affected Adam Carlson's later effort, certainly high enough to clear but drawing iron even he likely can't say.

Don't late-hit the Kentucky quarterback in the third quarter. Don't get beat deep and grab at the jersey tail to draw another flag. By the way, I could see a holding call, maybe…but not pass interference as was ruled. Nor should it have mattered, I'm more annoyed that next play after getting the penalty Derek Pegues didn't wrap-up the runner but tried to tear the ball from his hands. It not only cost a first down but a timeout as Coach Sylvester Croom correctly, to most minds, stopped play to calm the guys down.

Then again Pegues' was also still likely letting his great chance to seal the game as early as the second quarter glance off his hands. I'm convinced it would have pushed a vulnerable team over the edge. But then Derek has had a frustrating personal season already and didn't pull in a ball that, last year, would have been automatic pick-six. Which is yet another painful reminder.

Really though it isn't details of the defeat that so rankle. Nor is it anything to do with actual game-coaching and play-calling, because I thought State had the right ideas and plans at the proper points. The option-pitch to a receiver was slick. Liked that shovel pass too, eh? And if Tyson Lee leads Brandon McRae on that hard right-to-left slant on the last-chance series, State wins. Just as if he'd led Aubrey Bell on a the same series, same situation, at Louisiana Tech. Or two weeks ago at Tennessee. I don't think it's anything technical, more that the quarterback feels the fourth-quarter responsibility to make The Play that maybe it hangs up the throw a bit, sorta like a pitcher trying to load-up the fastball and losing mph as a result. It's worth asking in this open week anyway.

But then this isn't the question being asked over the open date, is it?

Nope, the topic isn't a game lost, or in all probability with it the season, for all the brave—and proper for athletes—talk of winning-out and breaking-even. Bless the Bulldogs for being upbeat, as it says much about how the program's mental state has improved in recent years. We who watch them, paying or paid, are thinking and talking along other lines.

What puts the situation in uncomfortably clear focus is this. Kentucky graduated a ton of 2007 talent and production on both sides of the ball; this year they've lost their best speed runner and wide receiver; and today they started a modestly-recruited ‘athlete' signee at quarterback; and they won. Or maybe better-put, they did not lose. Just as the '07 Bulldogs down the stretch won by not losing and taking advantage of opposing gifts & gaffes. That hurt today, oh did it ever, seeing tables turned so.

Yet again that's not entirely the point either. It's that a Kentucky team lost so many playmakers and today still made enough plays to beat a Bulldog team that last year thumped them in Lexington. Does anybody here recall how highly Wildcat recruiting classes have been ranked in recent years? No? Neither do I.

Because that finally leads to the point. With a cap-tip to the visiting victors, Mississippi State doesn't have the horses to be what we call competitive. Today was not lost by coaching…except in that aspect of the profession which matters more than anything else, procuring the cumulative talent to play at this level and in this league. And let's clarify further, that ‘talent' is a catch-all sort of label under which must be included the collective experience of all the personnel involved and their combined intangibles and confidence. Have enough of that and you can, say, throw a true freshman quarterback into SEC action and win. Wesley Carroll 2007, young Mr. Cobb 2008.

But whereas Kentucky could replace so many stars, Mississippi State loses a fifth-year senior center, an All-SEC tackle, and two pass-rushing defensive ends…and slides back into the old habits we'd hoped might have been banished by the unlikely and emotional successes of last fall. We actually saw the danger-alert on opening night in Ruston; a whole bunch of Dogs who hadn't learned the right lessons last year were shaken by the unexpectable setback; I'm not sure all have recovered entirely. That's just how fragile the collective club confidence was.

Now one encouraging counterpoint here. All the Dogs I talked to post-game, as well as those I watched leaving the field, handled this defeat well. Angry, yes; at themselves. No cursing cruel fate, few comments reflecting confusion, and not a hint of denial. That seems kinda key to me as I've seen all sorts of State squads over the years hiding from reality. Not this bunch.

Then again, it's the overarching reality of the program, not the particular team, that must be addressed this November. And more to the point on into February. No, I'm not claiming one signing class is the salvation…though analysis of the current two-deep insists the situation is not quite as dire as we might feel this evening. Add a few key players to the '08 lineup, and second-team, and Mississippi State can compete in 2009.

But that isn't where we began. It's consistent competitiveness I'm looking at, as odd as it might seem tonight. And just getting better doesn't necessarily mean getting good because, as Kentucky showed, our competition does this rebuild/reload thing a whole lot faster, with much more margin for injury, for transfers, for dismissals, and for just plain bad breaks of the sort State has seen since the Liberty Bowl. Look, if we'd know the Grid Gods would assess such a high price for their '07 generosity, we'd have negotiated a better long-term deal.

But…the projected #1 quarterback for Kentucky didn't even make it to the season. And with all due respect to Rich Brooks, who has done an amazing job salvaging a program NCAA-nuked far worse than State and then spurned by the rebuilding coach, his roster isn't in the same class as Florida, Georgia, LSU, But they're going bowling this winter and barring the incredible the Bulldogs will be home for the holidays.

And during that time, some hard decisions are going to be made in the Byran Building. Which have nothing to do with Xing-and-Oing, either. That is no longer the question here. This staff has certainly shown in the last year-and-a-half they can and will adapt the offense to personnel, contrary to previous opinions. And goodness knows they've had to do plenty of adapting given how many starting quarterbacks we've gone through and the loss of you know how at tackle. How could we not like what the offense did, or tried to do, today? Tyson Lee manfully grabbed every bit of blame he could get his hands on, and I noted that late slant-throw above, but dang it the guy looked good most of the time. Of course in losses we just remember those times he didn't, which is part of the quarterback's job description. And whatever it is that has happened to State's tackling, that's not schemes and sets either but simple taking care of basic business.

So what is the issue again? Mississippi State needs more good players, playing together more games and seasons. Which isn't chalkboard coaching, it's recruiting coaching. No, I don't mean inking 25 guys with four or five stars by their names every year; ain't gonna happen here anyway. But the Bulldog staff has got to significantly upgrade the annual average of ability accepting their offers. Sure, I know very well they've tried to do that every year they've been here, I'm not saying these coaches haven't courted quality players. It's just that not enough of them have been willing to cast their lot with State, or this staff, or both. Which, true, has generally been the case most of our history regardless of coach. Absolutely true. Equally true that some of the exceptions came via nefarious means, which is why Greg Byrne's #1 annual priority is staying clean in the NCAA's eyes. Live with it.

But that doesn't alter the fact that to play and win in this league, without the easy access to instant JC help legislated out of existence earlier this decade, State needs the players to do it. That, or further adjust the playbook to fit not so much what is on one roster but what can be reliably recruited year-by-year-by-year here in our region. Don't worry, I'm not re-opening my plaintive plea for option-based football tonight, or reminding that you don't need pro-style linemen, tall pocket passers, and…sorry, I'll stop. Because in all seriousness this team isn't so far away from making the current offensive approach work.

It's just…can it work well enough, consistently enough, without benefit of those opponents' G&Gs? Must MSU always rely on winning by not-losing? Not in this league. And must State eternally allow two, three years of building to get one good season, then start re-building all over again? I don't think so any more. It's a sweeping generalization that doesn't allow for all sorts of site-specific factors, but…what increases the pressure on Coach Sylvester Croom here is the kind of successes we see in other programs that change the boss and win immediately. I certainly didn't think Georgia Tech could adapt to an entirely new system and challenge in the ACC, for example, but talent allows it. Or to get uncomfortably closer to home, sure, Houston Nutt inherited an under-achieving squad with veteran linemen on both sides…but what State fans see are the Ws and the points. Or just the points. Talent does that.

And I'll tell something else it makes for. As long as I've been with MSU, we've lost non-conference games no SEC squad should. Why? I finally figured it out, maybe. Again, talent. Whoa, you cry, isn't State more talented than, oh, Maine? Tulane? Louisiana Tech? Sure. BUT…what we easily forget is SEC teams expect to beat those teams because they, well, expect to win those games. And the opponents expect to lose. But not with State, because Bulldog teams rarely develop the honest confidence—through annual competitiveness in our league—to take on much anyone with gonna-win, as opposed to gotta-win, assurance. That's not coaching, either, as much as it is recruiting.

But then, recruiting is what coaching is now, more than ever. Because everybody scouts, everybody practices the same hours, everybody lifts and runs and rehabs. There is no longer out-working or out-preparing anyone. The side with more good players, playing good football, will win 70, 80% of the time…with just enough exceptions to keep things college fun, not NFL dull.

These Bulldogs should have beaten Kentucky. They did not. They will be under-Dogs the rest of this year; not an uncommon MSU situation of course, but one we'd reasonably hoped had changed for the better in 2008. And for all the ways that this team, specifically this offense, has improved over the course of the year, can we deny that the three remaining foes haven't also improved even more? State keeps making hard, short steps forward, only to see the competition striding ahead. For all the good things I can see in practices and games from this team, the underclassmen specifically, the voids and gaps in ability, experience, depth, or combinations of all three are reason for continued concern about catching up with the other guys.

So, what? What does Mississippi State do? Well, nothing right now; as said last week, we play the entire season out because these last three games—a whole 1/4th of the schedule—offer all sorts of opportunity to show more, and maybe more encouraging, signs of where this program is headed. Then after Thanksgiving the athletic director and head football coach talk about things. Everythings. Oh, and something that might have been overlooked, Mississippi State is about to have a new president. Soon, we hope. But who knows what the new big boss will think of the situation, know of the history, understand about State's place in the football world and believe is feasible? Now there's a wild card factor few have thought about until now.

It's no secret, I'm an admirer of this coach, this man, what he has tried to do and more importantly why. And I'm appalled at how few folk today are willing to recall what Croom walked into, accepting a job no proven D-I head coach and few promising coordinators at the time were interested in other than to raise their pay elsewhere. It took years to disinfect a poisoned program, and even now some damage shows. Most obviously, that it took three whole years to get anything going as far as recruiting. Now these past three classes have clearly improved annually, you and I must acknowledge. And folk who keep up with such things say the potential class of '09 will be Croom's best so far.

Will it be enough to make up major ground on our peers, though? To answer, correctly, that only time will tell still begs the question though. State can't afford baby-Bulldog steps now. Slow progress, isn't. It hurts to say that because so much has been corrected in the last three years, so much improved, so much made good and right and enjoyable. Why, last week I'm out watching the running backs working, when somebody shouts my name and a ball comes my way. Wes Carroll made a nice throw, too, only to watch it clank off my hands. Glad they enjoyed it, and all the more glad to know these Dogs are having fun in such stressful times…even at my dubious expense.

Yet winning is fun for everyone. In which clear case, our question finally comes to a proverbial head. When does Mississippi State's obvious obligation of gratitude to those who have labored so hard, so long, to set so much right, make the transition to requiring of them steady success on the field? If five years the magic mark?

I don't have that answer tonight, though it seems many out there have already decided. All we need know now is the opinions which count will be expressed privately and professionally only after all the games have been played. And if the new athletic/academic center and video megaplex, which I've tagged as The Big Dawg (patent pending), both of which will further aid recruiting, are any indications, Mississippi State is developing a taste for bigger and better things in every aspect of the operation.

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