Otherwise, the highest-rated guests at Scott Field have come to town as twos; LSU in 2007, Alabama in 1992, Auburn in 1990, and Alabama in 1962. Those visiting teams all won.
As a coach, Dan Mullen would seem disposed to agree with his peers who have kept the Gators on top of their USA Today poll, as opposed to the A.P. But he also calls on what as of this week becomes the more popular ranking. "I look to the B.C.S. poll," Mullen said today. "That's what determines who gets to hold the crystal ball at the end of the year. So put them at number-one is how I look at it. And they're the defending national champions, they haven't lost a game either. So I'm hard-pressed not to say they're the number-one team in the country."
Of course the coach, along with Mississippi State officials, don't mind boosting the billing for this weekend's home game. The athletic department is making available a number of additional tickets for the supposedly sold-out game, all $50 seats on the west side of Davis Wade Stadium. Besides, noted Mullen, the campus is treating this as a #1 night. "When you're playing in prime-time, (ESPN sideline reporter) Erin Andrews on your campus, you're playing the game of the week. So we're really excited about this. Our guys are getting to show what they can do against the top-ranked team in the country. And if you're building a championship program there's nothing better to start than having to face the champions and seeing how we do against them.
"We're going to need great crowd support for this weekend, this is the game of the year in the state of Mississippi and we're expecting to have the whole state behind us to help us win this football game."
Interestingly, the Bulldogs themselves appear the calmest folk on campus this week. Without taking anything from the justly-rated opposition, the players can approach this as another weekend's work here in the SEC.
"Because we're in my opinion the best conference in college football," junior OT Derek Sherrod said. "Every team in this conference is going to come at you harder than any of the rest. So it's another game to us and you prepare for each game like it's no other no matter who the opponent is. Yeah, Florida is a great team. But we're just going to do our thing that we've done so far. People will come up and talk about them. But as football players we know that everybody is going to come at you wanting to win and will work hard. And we're going to work hard also."
LINE-MEN AT WORK: Speaking of working hard, Sherrod and his comrades have certainly done that this season as Mullen and line coach John Hevesy have relied on the starting five to take care of almost every offensive snap. In October the only substitution has been OG Tobias Smith at right guard, and that in just the Georgia Tech and Houston games. The first five went all the way, again, at Middle Tennessee. And Sherrod had to pause and think when asked the last time he took a series off.
"Probably Jackson State," he finally decided. "It's been a while." Not that the junior is complaining about all this duty, though. "You just have to keep moving and know when you go in you have to play every snap like its your last."
The obvious question would be, does the tendency of State now to hustle back into position for the next play further stress the linemen; or does not huddling actually help keep them in rhythm without the temptation to lean on the knee pads and grab a blow? "That's a good question for a big offensive lineman," Sherrod grins. "But our strength coach has done a great job preparing us to go through a fast-paced offense, we've conditioned a lot, I think that's helped because we're always ready to go, huddle back up, go take another snap before they huddle, we're pretty prepared."
BOOBIE'S PRIZE: Bulldog blockers share in the celebration of RB Anthony Dixon's career-rushing record more than most. "It's a joyous feeling because he's worked for it," Sherrod said. "And that I could help him achieve such a great thing like that, that just makes us feel good and I hope he continues that. And I know he will because he's pretty much the best running back I've seen in college football."
Certainly this is the best blocking Dixon has enjoyed during his Mississippi State tenure, and the senior back is quick to credit the progress made down on the line of scrimmaging.
"They've come a long way," said Dixon. "It's not a lot of penetration on the snap like in the past. When I first got here I used to get a lot of penetration on the snaps, it made me change directions. There really hasn't been a lot of that this year, they've been sealing the gaps off and letting me do what I do."
Which of course is to gain ground like no Bulldog back before. Dixon now owns 3,299 rushing yards in four seasons with five more regular-season games to extend that and his other records (touchdowns, scoring, carries, etc.). He himself has upgraded his own game as a senior, making the off-season effort to get in ideal playing weight and shape. And after three years in a pro-style system that all but telegraphed who was getting the ball, Dixon is benefitting from a more varied scheme that has helped get the backs better matchups. Even miss-matchups.
But none of this matters if the big Dogs aren't leading the way and Boobie is genuinely grateful for all services rendered. "I'm thankful for that, for them blocking for me since I've been here. It's a team effort, they helped me get to it, and I just wanted to finish it off by getting to a bowl. That's going to be the best gift."
If the Bulldogs are to go bowling they have to win three of the remaining five games, all SEC contests including matches with both of this week's top-ranked clubs. As well as the two finest defenses in the college game today, starting this weekend. Florida is allowing only 95 rushing yards a game, or less than the 116 yards Dixon is averaging this season. For him to score a sixth-straight 100-yard output, which would tie the program record, will require the best effort of his long career. And certainly better technique than Dixon got away with in bashing Middle Tennessee.
"Just by watching the last game film I'm definitely going to have to get my pads down lower," Dixon said. "I was kind of high on a couple of my runs last game, I don't think with Florida that's going to be real effective if I go up in the hole high. So I definitely have to get my pads lower against these boys."
And, maybe, get the ball faster, as in taking a direct snap. It's something WR Chad Bumphis has done a few times this freshman season; but senior Dixon hasn't had his chance, despite practicing this very thing in spring. He does wonder when opportunity will arise to show his other proclaimed skills.
"I don't know, you have to ask Coach Mullen, he's the man running the operation! I don't know what he's waiting on, if he thinks I can't be effective with the ball in my hands or not! But he's my coach and I ain't going to doubt him, I'm going to run the ball when they give me my chance."
GETTING HIS KICKS: For his part PK Derek DePasquale has welcomed his own chances of the last three weeks. The walk-on was rushed into duty during the Georgia Tech game when starter PK Sean Brauchle strained a leg muscle. DePasquale has been good on four of five field goals since, the lone miss an unlikely 51-yarder into a breeze against Houston; and given his defense good starting position with kickoffs.
"This is what you dream of," DePasquale said. "You come here, walk-on, you're like man one day I'll get a shot. And it came a lot, lot sooner than I expected." Not that he's happy to see Brauchle, himself a juco transfer and newcomer to campus, sidelined. Brauchle had a six-make streak going before that 42-yard miss and leg pain three weekends ago. He's continuing to rehab the leg and re-activation seems certain soon.
"He's real supportive in practice, if I'm doing something wrong he watches me and gives me tips," DePasquale said. "We help each other out. The ultimate goal is the team goal to win. There is the competitive edge, you don't want to give away your secrets, I'll say that. But when you see someone struggling you have to help him out. Because when he misses a kick it hurts the team, so I'm there to help him and back him up, now he's helping me while he's injured."
The difference that DePasquale, Brauchle, and P Heath Hutchins have all made as first-season Bulldogs goes so far beyond statistics. Every aspect of State's kicking game(s) have improved for 2009 and done a world of benefit to the entire team's confidence that the kickers, along with returners and coverers, won't hurt the case as was too often the case last fall.
Yet the specialists have not had everything their way this season. Especially the weather. DePasquale, who transferred from the Colorado School of Mines for spring, prepped for the year in August heat only to endure an uncommonly wet fall. "And we haven't had a dry week in about a month-and-a-half!" At least that forecast is improved for this week, though the two grass practice fields will take a while to dry out sufficiently for players to use. Even the kickers, who've had to make-do for a while now.
"We very rarely get a good practice field, we get the turf sometimes and then the offense will come through and take over," DePasquale said. "So we migrate trying to get a good practice field." Then again, these preparation problems haven't affected performance so far. Nor the fact that, in Mullen's practice policies, the Bulldog booters rarely get to aim at the real goal posts. Seriously, DePasquale said his experience on Scott Field consists of the spring game and the live contests played this season.
"And really that's it. It's a different experience every time you get out there, it really doesn't feel like it's my home stadium!" Thus he and Brauchle don't even know yet how, say, the wind tends to swirl around DWS, or how to read the backgrounds. Yet both have made the transition without obvious issues. Besides, DePasquale said, it makes every opportunity that much more special.
"My first time I ever stepped on Scott Field besides the spring game, it was awesome. In high school I played in Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome and some big stadiums, so I was used to the big atmosphere. But yeah, it was awesome playing here with that many people yelling and trying to get that tunnel-vision and focus on the game, not get lost in the crowd."
Which DePasquale actually finds easy to do on non-game days. Especially as a walk-on kicker who knew just two folk at State when he chose to change addresses. "A girl, and one of my best friends from third grade!" he smiled, saying it was a tough move otherwise. And that he's still comfortably anonymous even after a month's varsity action. "Nobody knows who you are or that you even play football. But you're right there doing six o'clock workouts and practicing every day."