From The Dawghouse

Back at my Jones County home there's a book I scan this time of year, of holiday stories, legends, and poems. Among the latter is an anonymous four lines of Gaelic verse which as best I recall goes: "Yule's came an' Yule's gane an' we hae feasted weel; so Jock maun to his flail again and Jenny to her wheel."

Besides explaining why my dour Highlands forebears, especially us on the Protestant side of the hills, weren't exactly the life of holiday parties back then, there is something even y'all not hamstrung by Scots ancestry can take from that bit of doggerel. Particularly all Bulldogs after the happy holidays of 2010 and '11. Without belittling any of the labors put into making the past two Mississippi State seasons the successes they were, real work remains in store.

And resumes, ohhh, I'd say about right…now?

And lest any think we're jumping the gun on a 2012 that ticked into being just a dozen or so hours ago, I offer this interesting comment made by Dan Mullen immediately after his third Bulldog bunch had just scored a 23-17 victory in the Music City Bowl. With trophy presentation confetti still dotting the coach and team captains Vick Ballard and Charles Mitchell, Mullen said "This team was born last January, and had a one-year shelf life."

Interesting observation, eh? There was direct evidence to back it up, too. Where a year ago at this time (almost literally as it was New Years Day when those Dogs stomped proud Michigan flat) Mullen and men were practically dancing around the Gator Bowl field, Friday night there were cheers and chants, hugs and handshakes…but not quite that raw giddy delight.

And you know, I think that is kind of a good thing. Kind of, because at some level we'd want any Bulldog to end every season with a sheer, visceral thrill of victory. Then again, maybe that sort of thinking belongs to another MSU era when such success came so infrequently that we elder generations came to think of it as part of the post-season process. That one great moment or season could carry us through a dry spell as we anticipated the next great day, someday.

I'll plead guilty there. I've often said a positive point to being a State fan was while our benchmark Bulldog days were rare, we enjoyed them soooooo much more than those peers so used to winning they were kinda disappointed by a merely good season. Put another way, the great games and years stood out more here because, well, they simply stood out.

This is worth reminding because now there seems an encouraging change in the MSU atmosphere. Not so much that we can take continued success for granted of course. Anyone who's acquired that mindset after just two winning seasons and two bowl victories better take another Tylenol or two and refocus on reality. To wit: we're still in the SEC, specifically the Western Division, with an annual schedule that'd intimidate Genghis Khan. I mean, look at what a two-SEC win team just did to a Wake Forest club that won five times in the ACC.

Right, about that win. I don't want anything else expressed here to diminish the victory, that isn't at all the goal. In fact, much again as we enjoyed steamrolling Wolverines with a huge offensive display last year, I actually—and I guess oddly—am now more pleased how a State squad could practically self-destruct for a quarter and still slap the other side around. Or as Mullen himself said, "We were at times finding ways to try to lose the game."

I'll vouch that on our message boards a whole bunch of fans, most of ‘em obviously NOT in the stadium at the time, were having hysterical meltdowns of their own. What they missed was something Mullen did not. Something that is a measure of how differently Mississippi State has developed in the last three seasons.

"No one panicked, no one got worried, everybody just stuck to the gameplan, did their job and found a way to come out with a victory," Mullen said.

Now don't get the notion the coach LIKED the way his team began the bowl, at least not on offense. "What couldn't we improve on in that game?!" he quipped afterwards. Yet I still have to think a ground-out win was, as a MSU measuring stick, more meaningful than a fast knockout. Not as much fun, granted, but a better indicator of internal progress. Seriously, for us who've followed Bulldog football for a decade or three haven't we seen more than a few State teams show up at a holiday event, go through the game motions and accept a glad-to-be-here loss along with their bowl gifts?

This isn't your same old State in that regard. These guys, many of whom had done the aforementioned field-dancing 363 days earlier, got down to business and, much like most of their other '11 wins, figured out some way. Whatever way. In that regard the bowl exemplified the entire season, thankfully without the injuries. Darned right, I was relieved when Mitchell got back in the game for the final defensive stand. No turned ankle was keeping Captain Charles off the field for that concluding series.

Or as Chaz said later, "When I start something I want to finish it." He did, and finished a splendid State career feeling no pain at all. Which considering all the pains Mitchell and fellow 2008 freshmen, true and redshirt, endured makes for a most happy ending indeed. Charles, Big Q, Wade, Addison, Marcus, Damein, and the other oldest Dogs one last time got to sing to one corner of a stadium dominated by maroon (I cautiously estimated a 8-to-1 ratio favoring State ticket purchasers), pose for pictures, hug everyone in reach, accept a trophy, and enjoy a final evening together as a team. Nor should we overlook the two-year upperclassmen, Vick and big James.

And of course one other special senior, at least to me. This also was another game won by a certain quarterback who went from hero to zero in many minds over the course of just six weeks. Which if you think about it had a certain symmetry considering how little was expected of an almost unrecruited quarterback five years ago. Happily Chris Relf shrugged off the critics and questions alike and concluded a career with, let's see…three Egg Bowl wins, which no State quarterback as we define the modern position has done EVER, two bowl wins, and the second-best passing percentage in program history. Second only to Tyson Lee in fact, and hopefully a connection is being made in MSU minds now. That, two Mullen quarterbacks top that chart.

Was it pretty? Should we care? No to both. I'm long beyond the odd concept of ‘ugly win' in anything, any more. College sports is so competitive now that every W is precious and until they start scoring by style points only an L is ugly. I recall the wailing and woe among fans how State had to outlast Louisiana Tech in OT (speaking of ugly, if hope to heaven not to see all-black uniforms for a long time), how it was not a pretty show. Hmmph, considering that win proved all-important in achieving bowl eligibility and now a 7-6 record, it looks lovely in retrospect.

"We don't play until September 1, 2012. That's a long time and it will be great to spend all that time coming off a win," said Mullen, seated beside Vick and Chaz. "These guys have much bigger and better things ahead of them, but for the young guys in the locker room it's nine months of Coach Balis (which had both departing seniors smiling in open relief) before they get to go out there and be rewarded with another game. So it's awful good to be spending those nine months coming off a win."

Enough about Nashville for now. The credential now hangs on a hook with my other bowl passes—shudder, I've now worked ten of the 15 bowls State has appeared in!!!—and 2011 is, as said above, "gane". All Jocks and Jennys who work for and with Bulldog football have maybe a day's break left to watch games before diving head-first into 2012.

Which of course the coaches already have. No, we've no reliable word yet on potential pending staff changes in the short off-season. But based on Januarys-past, yes, I'd anticipated a few shuffles between now and the coaches convention. And not that I'm mentioning this case for the particular persona; I only bring up defensive coordinator because State hasn't had the same one for consecutive seasons since 2006-07. A little consistency would be welcome here, huh? You'll also notice I've said nothing so far regarding who will be in overall charge for 2012. It's because all I can say at the moment is, keep the fingers crossed. State has made all necessary moves to prove its commitment…and by the way, I couldn't resist telling Scott Stricklin on the sideline Friday that he is the first State A.D. to be 2-0 in bowl games, just like his coach.

Besides, who is in charge of what positions come spring camp isn't nearly so important right now as who is out wrapping up recruiting. It's not telling any tales to remind that the most recent class was a solid one but not spectacular, though in retrospect a couple of the late losses might not prove to be missed after all for the longer haul. Mullen has addressed the glaring immediate needs on both sides of the line with early signings and if the prep big bodies hold to commitments those absolutely vital areas are shored-up for the foreseeable future. If. It's a long way to signing day after all.

At least responses are positive even by non-signees these days, what with winning holiday games on TV. "It certainly helps our name recognition nationally a little bit more. When I first got there we weren't getting many return phone calls when you start going around the country. Now when we call people know who we are and they can relate to what we've done."

Actually the best recruiting Mullen could manage is likely beyond his power; that would be convincing Fletcher Cox and John Banks to return for senior seasons. I spoke very quickly to both post-win, not an interview at all, just a handshake and hug and thanks for all they've done here. It's about money now and if I had any to wager I'd put it on them tossing names in the NFL list within these next two weeks.

"We encourage all our guys, they turn in their paperwork to the NFL," said Mullen the other evening, before getting in a gig at the press corps. "And we always remind them that, nothing against you guys in the media but you don't get a pick! So whenever you do a mock draft the kids should hold you accountable for the millions they lose when you project them much higher than the NFL office!

"But we tell them if you're going to be a first-round pick you should go. If you're not, it's really not all that much money. It's not life-changing money." OK, easy for a guy pulling $2.65 mil per-annum to say, but the coach has a fair point. "We encourage guys who aren't going to be a first rounder to come back, finish, get their degree, and hopefully improve their draft status. I don't think I've ever seen a Guy Hurt by coming back. I've seen a lot of guys hurt by leaving early. But we'll support whatever decision they make, they're part of our family."

A growing family at that, and if Mullen's fourth recruiting campaign can build off the on-field results it will be a happier clan here holiday season. Yeah, I've looked at the finally, finally finished '12 schedule. I confess to already ‘counting' wins and toss-ups; a futile exercise for now but still fun. Were Cox and Banks to return, along with a healthy Tobias Smith, we'd be feeling really confident right now about a January bowling date in '13 no matter what them Mayans are supposed to have forecast. (Is it just lingering old Dog paranoia that makes one wonder if the world would really come to an end before State was allowed to win the big prizes? I mean, look what happened the last time a MSU team took the SEC title.)

All exaggerations aside, we can return to our labors with lighter hearts, if no less heavy tasks ahead. One had to admire the way Mullen pronounced a Bulldog benediction on '11 while issuing challenges for '12. Just as he has since arrival 21 wins, three Egg Bowl victories, and two bowl trips ago. Bringing home another trophy was another decisive stage in developing what the coach calls the Bulldog ‘brand'.

"When we first got here we sold all those guys from our first class, even our second class, that we're going to build something. If you guys believe we can build a foundation for a great future here. Now when we go out kids are expecting just to compete for championships, to get to bowl games every single year. For us to take that next, and in the Southeastern Conference that next step is a huge step. The SEC West championship will be decided at the national title game this year I guess!

"So that's the next step and that's a big step for us. But players coming in now can see there's light at that end of the tunnel. A young guy from Mississippi can look and say, I can go play for my state in front of my people and represent my home town to go win a championship. Not just for Mississippi State but for the state of Mississippi."

And for the Jocks and Jennys who call the state home, and call State the home team. So to all of us, Happy New Year. Now, where's that flail…maybe swinging it a while will burn off some of those calories compiled by feasting far too weel this Yuletime.

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