Not that you require reminding by yr. fthfl. editor of course. But as he does have e-space to fill here today and not a lot to work with after the open date we'll acknowledge the potential to be tapped this November. Coming out ahead in two, any two of these remaining three game dates means a happier holidays for Bulldog football with a bowl trip. And, as Mullen mentioned while we were leaving Wednesday's practice, more than just the goodies that come with post-season play. You'd have had to be walking alongside to understand just how much this first-year head coach would love to spend two weeks of post-season practicing for a head-start on 2010.
But that's big-picture talk from a coach. The Bulldogs themselves know exactly what they are playing for this big month. After all there are five guys in the current lineup who started in, and 18 total who played in, the 2007 Liberty Bowl, along with a host of redshirts and reserves who also made that short trip to Memphis. Let's figure that close to one-third of the '09 squad knows first-hand what bowling is about; and more to the point how much it means to finish a season strong by playing their best, by winning these must-win matchups. That should be sufficient to instill in the rest of the roster what November in the SEC is all about.
Such experience can't be overestimated either in light of what this team is about to begin. We who were present two weekends ago know what Scott Field will feel like this Saturday evening; an atmosphere so MSU-electric that the Weather Channel folk could post lightning alerts. If anything this should be even more intense given the ancient animosities of these bordering tribes, whereas it wasn't easy to work up an honest hatred for a Florida club most of us will be cheering for on December 5. And if there is no Heisman holder on the other sideline, there is a legit Trophy candidate coming to town.
No wonder State's administration thought long and hard of how best to make some additional seating available for this game too. In the end they settled for 400 on the east side as there just isn't a realistic standing-room zone at DWS to utilize. Remember our summer stories here about the MSU ‘master plan' for facilities expansions and upgrades that will take a year or so to complete, much less put into action? This sort of ducat-demand is bound to motivate the campus and athletic administration to find ways of speeding up or even getting around that schedule-script, as a major supporter indicated during a talk in Lexington last weekend. Actually the best long-term boost to building on at DWS would be somehow, someway fixing our biannual scheduling flaw that has all the top three rivals coming here—or State going there--in the same every-other-year. I don't see that happening anytime soon, though it is worth noting the SEC has not listed the inter-Division rotation beyond 2011. Hmmm…
Yeah, back to this week and this season. Given the normal extra-emotions that go into preparing for this annual bloodletting of near neighbors, and the fact that quite a few Bulldogs have been thinking about Alabama since return from Kentucky, I thought it an obvious question. How will Mullen strike a balance between urging his team to focus on just this next opponent, while maintaining the larger theme of playing for a winning or at least break-even season and that bowl opportunity? So, I asked today.
"I think they go in knowing if we win this game certainly it helps us get bowl-eligible," Mullen said on the Sunday conference. "Things for us haven't changed. We have three games left this year, every one of them is critical. Obviously our approach in this one is find a way to win this game and put us one step closer to getting bowl eligible."
He might be a first-year boss but evidently Mullen already knows where that fine line is. Now starting tomorrow when we can talk to players we'll see how closely the Bulldogs are walking it, which is where all those Old Dogs of '07—Dixon, Chaney, Love, Jenkins, Brignone, Washington, et.al.—will likely be called upon by their coach that much more than usual. I reckon they can tell teammates that the only way to really celebrate the holidays is scoring another November to remember.
DOWN TIME: In his own case Mullen left town Thursday for a call-in show stop in Tupelo and recruiting trips east of here, which is all I'm going to say on that topic. Steve and Gene, bless them, are the guys tracking the coaches on such ventures and they'll have any updates in the days ahead. But the head Dog was back in town Saturday to observe Alabama's win over LSU as informal scouting. Not that he'll need to see the coaching video to affirm main impressions.
"Obviously they've got a very talented team loaded with NFL talent from top to bottom. And they play very hard, a very aggressive defense, very physical." What concerns Mullen is that after weeks of relying on ground-pounding the Tide is balancing the offense with productive passing. "They showed yesterday they can do it both ways."
Mullen is no stranger to scouting an Alabama defense of course, having put together the Gator gameplan that won last year's SEC Championship. The challenge this time around is, well, he doesn't have that same sort of personnel to throw—or run—at the Tide. "But you're going to have to take advantage of what they give on defense. They have a lot of speed and don't give up many big plays. So you better score when you can because you're not going to have a lot of opportunities." Which any veteran Dog could have told the coach after notching a single touchdown last year in Tuscaloosa; or for that matter just one offensive seven in the '07 victory here at home, the rest of the points coming on the famous Anthony Johnson pick-six and a field goal. Then again, Alabama went three years without scoring an offensive touchdowns themselves against State teams and still won twice. Who knows, maybe we're decades overdue for a true shootout in this matchup?
The Bulldogs will have some advantage in the health department. Christian Ducre's bruised knee should be fine to resume practicing Monday (Mullen changed the schedule to allow a free Sunday this time) after taking it easy last week. Arnil Stallworth's hip didn't seem an issue in the open practices, and Wade Bonner ought to be back as well. Maybe, maybe, Tobias Smith can make his own return after three week's absence, though it's hard to be optimistic given how the ankles continue to hamper the young guard. Mullen is mighty grateful this has been the only O-line injury too. "Fortunately everybody else has managed to stay healthy, because you can test your depth really quickly in the line if guys start falling," he said today. Otherwise Mullen expects everyone else to be ready for the work-week.
"We've fortunate we've been able to get through nine games without a whole lot of devastating injuries. We've got a whole lot of bumps and bruises. But it was nice to get our guys physically and mentally a little fresher."
Just in time for November, that is, and the trio of showdowns in store. Obviously Alabama looms largest because it is here now and with their national ranking. Yes, for all the added emotions none of these three matchups counts as more than a single W toward that possible bowl berth…but neither is it over-Stating the case to say this weekend could become the in-retrospective start of something bigger for Bulldog football. Thus Mullen will not downplay or ignore hoopla and hype this game-week on MSU's recharging campus.
"We expect a great crowd and the whole state to get behind us," Mullen said today. "We encourage playing the big games, that's why you come to the SEC. Our guys have done a good job of handling it, coming out and playing hard."