Plays like Amari Cooper made Saturday are what separates Mississippi State and Alabama.

It’s not easy being the “Top Dawg” in college football. Mississippi State found that out the hard way Saturday night.

The 2014 season has been a growing experience for “State.” They went from a team looking for their first statement victory to top-25 team to the best team in college football in just a few short weeks.

In that time, they went from the hunter to the prey–a position no up-and-coming team is truly prepared to handle.

While holding that No.1 ranking, the Bulldogs showed tremendous resiliency and found ways to win games where they didn’t play their best.

The one by-product of not playing your best, though, is that teams develop bad habits. Alabama exploited Mississippi State’s bad habits on Saturday.

Try to bounce the ball outside against the Arkansas’ of the world. You might make a play or get a few yards. Against Alabama, you get taken down in the end zone for a safety.

“Josh [Robinson] was trying to make a play he didn’t need to. He should’ve kept it up inside, but he tried to bounce it outside to make a play. The guys are just trying to make plays out there on the field in big games, which you don’t have any problems with, ” Mullen said in his post-game press conference.

Robinson wasn’t the only Bulldog to make mental errors. Star quarterback Dak Prescott threw three interceptions–essentially eliminating himself from Heisman contention.

There were other mental lapses such as Justin Malone committing a false start on the one-yard line and a drop by Jameon Lewis on a key drive.

But even with all the mental lapses and errors, the Bulldogs had an opportunity to win the game. And that’s says a lot about where Mississippi State is as a program.

I thought you don’t believe in moral victories.

I don’t. But I do believe in assessing where a program ranks in the college football hierarchy. If Saturday’s game proved anything, it’s that Mississippi State is on par with the rest of the college football’s elite. As I stated in my preview for this game, Alabama is the gold standard in college football. And they had to play mistake-free, conservative football just to come away with the victory.

That shows two things.

1. Alabama respected Mississippi State enough to not get aggressive–fearing they would make a costly mistake.

2. The gap is closing between Mississippi State and Alabama. And by proxy, they’re closing the gap with the rest of nation’s elite teams.

The proverbial gap closing can be quantitatively measured with the last seven final scores between Alabama and Mississippi State.

Last seven final scores: 32-7, 31-3, 30-10, 24-7, 38-7, 20-7, 25-20.

Outside of the 2012 game, the games between Alabama and Mississippi State are becoming more evenly matched by the year. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I’ve long been one of Mullen’s biggest critics. But he, along with his staff, deserves credit for finding and developing the undervalued talent on the Bulldog’s roster. His ability to do both is the reason Mississippi State is competing with Alabama, which, to put it mildly, has more heralded players.

“(They) probably have more 5-star players sitting on the bench that can’t get a rep on their team than we have on our roster,” Mullen opined before the Alabama game.

Mullen isn’t lying, either. Mississippi State has one five-star recruit (Chris Jones). Alabama has, well, a lot of them.

Forget the rankings for a second. Mississippi State still has several elite talents: Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson, De’Runnya Wilson, Jameon Lewis, Preston Smith, Chris Jones, Benardrick McKinney and Will Redmond.

Even with those stars, though, the “Dawgs” are one or two elite players short. The two big plays given up to Amari Cooper are proof.

First Big Play: Amari Cooper lines up in the slot and is one on one with Jay Hughes. The end result is an easy Alabama score.

Second Big Play: Amari Cooper streaks up the seam and both Mississippi State safeties are in position to make the play and Cooper just goes up and gets it over them. It’s one of those classic “I’m-Better-Than-You” plays.

Mississippi State has players that can make those plays. But Alabama has a few more of them. And that’s what separates the two teams and possibly Mississippi State from the rest of the nation’s elite–a couple of Bobby’s and Joe’s.

The Bulldogs are expected to get a few more of those guys, though, over the next few years. As I type this column, they’re ranked 13th in 2015 recruiting (247 Sports). The Bulldogs have become a national title contender with classes ranked 25th and below. Imagine what they’ll do with a top-15 class.

Mississippi State may have fell short Saturday. But they’ve arrived as one of nation’s elite. And they’re not going anywhere.

J.Short’s Hot Takes

  • Dak Prescott’s chances of being drafted in the early rounds were pretty much dashed Saturday night. Dak made a few plays, but he made two poor throws that may have cost his team the game. The saving grace is that his issues are correctable. You can’t correct arm talent or poor mental acumen but stubbornness can be corrected. And that’s Dak’s main issue. With experience, Dak will throw fewer interceptions and become a more efficient, viable NFL prospect.
  • Before the Alabama game, I asked for more “Bear.” Apparently the Mississippi State coaches listened. De’Runnya Wilson got the ball thrown his way early and often. Oddly enough, he probably should have been featured more. He had eight catches for 88 yards, but should have had more targets. The Alabama corners were completely mismatched and the Mississippi State coaches should have recognized it and thrown it his way every time he was one on one with a Alabama corner.
  • Salute to Preston Smith. He had another good performance against a quality opponent. Not only is he an All-American candidate but he’s now a serious pro prospect. With a good NFL combine, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him taken in the first three rounds. You don’t find too many defensive ends that have the versatility to play the seven, five or three technique. Smith can do that and it makes him valuable.
  • There’s no reason to mince words with this statement. J.T. Gray needs to replace Zach Jackson on the 1B unit. Jackson has been the cause of too many big plays. Mississippi State has traditionally made young players wait their turn. In this case, they can’t do that. Gray has star potential and needs to be on the field.
  • Mississippi State is looking to become an elite team. To become elite, you need elite players or at least SEC-level ones. One position where Mississippi State doesn’t have SEC-level talent is safety. Justin Cox and Kivon Coman are SEC-level talents. But the rest of the unit leaves little to be desired. Jay Hughes and Kendrick Market are just not where it’s at. The coaching staff has to put a focus on recruiting 6’1-plus, 205 pounds and over safeties. They took a similar approach with the wide receiver position–recruiting De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Ross and Fred Brown. I’ll say that paid off. I think recruiting bigger safeties would yield the same results.
J.Short’s Final Take

With Mississippi State only falling three spots to fourth the College Football Playoff Poll, they’re in the position to control their own destiny. It’s pretty simple. Mississippi State wins out and they’re in the playoffs. I don’t think the Bulldogs could ask for more. Now all they have to do go out and finish strong.

Jeremiah Short, Peach State College Sports Contributor

Catch me on the “SportsKrib” on Wednesday’s 8-9 Central and Thursday’s 8-10 Central. Follow me on social media @DaRealJShort or check out my facebook page JShortJournalist or my Google Plus page J.Short- Journalist.

The Mullen-led Bulldogs showed again Saturday that they’re ready for the spotlight.

Before the Kentucky game, I asked: Could the Bulldogs handle being the prey, instead of being the hunter?

The answer so far: yes.

The Bulldogs fended off Kentucky in their first game as the No.1 team in the nation. This past Saturday, they held off an upset-minded Arkansas squad. It wasn’t easy, either.

Arkansas brought their “A” game. They hit the Bulldogs in the mouth and dared them to beat them in a defensive struggle. They even jumped ahead 10-0. Faced with adversity for the first time this season, the Bulldogs rose to the challenge. Slowly but surely, they chipped away at the Razorback lead and pulled ahead…holding on to a seven point lead throughout the fourth quarter with Will Redmond sealing the game with an interception on the Razorback’s final drive.

The win showed the resiliency that this Bulldog squad possesses now. Two years ago, they lose that game.

“Looking back, Saturday was a great win for us. We have had to win games a lot of different ways, and we knew we were going to have to coming into this season. Before the game we actually talked to our team about that. We have won some high scoring games, and now we have won a low scoring game. We have won by holding on to leads, and now we have won by coming from behind. We have won running the ball well, and we have won games where we had to throw the ball well. We have won with goal line stands, and we have had to make offensive plays to win games. I am proud of our guys, and I think they understand all the ways they are going to have to win, “Dan Mullen on the Bulldogs overcoming adversity this past Saturday.

Mullen’s correct. The Bulldogs have won in every imaginable way. The LSU game was won with good ole fashion dominant, physical football. The Texas A&M game was won with great offensive football. The Auburn game was won by capitalizing on turnovers. The Kentucky game was won by a star performance from Josh Robinson. And the Arkansas game was won by stout defensive play.

The Bulldogs “Psycho D” was darn impressive, too. The goaline stands from the Bulldogs Saturday are the ones that define championship teams. There’s nothing more demoralizing than having the ball inside the five and the opposing team shuts you down for four straight plays.

That’s what the Bulldogs did to the Razorbacks…demoralized them. They could smell the upset. But the Bulldogs showed why they’re the best team in the country.

The victory was a tough one. But it’s on to the next one, which just so happens to be Mid-Major opponent Tennessee-Martin.

It’s a game with its own storyline–as the Skyhawks are quarterbacked by former Bulldog Dylan Favre.

“He is a play maker. I know that. We always knew that when he was here. If you put him out there exciting things are going to happen. Some good and some bad. I do not know if it gives us much of an advantage. He is going to be used to this environment. He has played in this stadium and has been in that environment before,” said Mullen.

He’ll surely try to put on a show. But the game is a proverbial “Bye Week.”

This weekend could serve as an opportunity for the Bulldogs to get ailing players–Dak Prescott and Jameon Lewis rest.

The matchup will also give inexperienced players: Ashton Shumpert, Jamoral Graham, Devon Desper, Quadry Antoine and J.T. Gray a chance for some game reps.

The additional reps could prove vital as the Bulldogs prepare for their road game against Alabama, which could be a One vs. Two showdown.

College Gameday, ESPN’s premiere college football show, will probably be in Tuscaloosa for the cross-state rivalry game that could be one the most important and hyped in the history of the series. It very well could determine the SEC West and alter the national championship race.

Bama Wins: The SEC chances of two bids in the College Football Playoff vastly increase. For two reasons: if Alabama runs the table, they represent the SEC West and the Bulldogs likely are left with one loss and holding one of the slots in the playoffs. If Auburn runs the table–beating Alabama–they’re only loss is to the number one ranked team and they’ll likely secure a playoff bid, as well.

MSU Wins: Alabama is eliminated from playoff contention. MSU and Auburn are then the only SEC teams with a chance to make it into the playoffs.

The pressure is about to be put on the “Dawgs.” They beat inferior opponents who brought their “A” games the past two weeks. Let’s see what happens against Alabama.

I doubt Josh Robinson is worried, though. “Throughout the season we are going to have to face adversity, and that just shows you what kind of team we are. If we just keep playing Mississippi State ball, we’ll be fine.”

The Bulldogs will be fine. They’re resilient.

J.Short’s Hot Takes

  • Dak Prescott’s NFL prospects will become just as big a story as his Heisman hopes as the season presses along. On Saturday, he showed why he has a bright future in the NFL but he also showed why it shouldn’t be next year.
Prescott was proficient from the pocket—lighting up Arkansas for 331 through the air (Career High). In the process, he threw two interceptions. One interception was a result of Prescott getting hit as he threw the ball. But as he matures, he will learn to sidestep that defender, instead of trying to be tough by standing tall in the pocket. The second interception was a result of Prescott locking onto a receiver with three defenders around. It’s a habit he has that must be broken. The good part is that his problems are correctable. Another year in school would help Prescott develop into a top-10 or top-15 draft choice. Hopefully, he chooses that option.

  • The hype is on Dak. But J.Rob deserves some praise as well. He didn’t run the ball well versus Arkansas. But he did have 110 receiving yards. Robinson will be on the NFL radar by the end of the season if he isn’t already.
  • The Bulldogs offensive line deserves some kudos for their performance Saturday. They didn’t allow a sack to a talented and physical defensive line.
  • The real Chris Jones showed up…to the tune of four tackles, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hurries. It’s about time.
  • Matt Wells deserves some praise for his performance against Arkansas. Nine tackles, two pass break ups and two quarterback hurries. His chase down tackle of Alex Collins might have saved the game for the Bulldogs–as he would have scored.
  • Will Redmond impresses me more and more every game. He may not be the starter at cornerback on the official depth chart, but he’s clearly the best cornerback on the roster.
  • Evan Sobiesk’s connecting on a kick longer than 30 yards was huge as Coach Mullen stated. If he can begin to hit those kicks on the regular, the Bulldogs are in a much better position in close games.
  • I was excited after watching the way Coach Collins rotated the linebackers on Saturday. He mixed the 1A and 1B units for the first time all season. It was move that many were waiting to see. Benardrick McKinney, Beniquez Brown and Christian Holmes on the field is particularly nice to see. They’re the smartest linebackers on the roster and the best run stoppers. With Alabama coming up, this trio might see the field a little more together.
  • The Mississippi State offense is reaching heights that it never has this season. Dak Prescott and Josh Robinson are a big reason. Coach Mullen pushing the tempo at the right time is a big reason, as well. The first touchdown drive was a perfect example. MSU needed a boost after falling behind 10-0. J.Rob and Dak had a couple of nice runs and Mullen decided to go no-huddle push the tempo. What was the result? A score. 
It shows Mullen’s growth as a coach. Conservative Mullen doesn’t push the tempo that way in 2009.

J.Short’s Final Take

The most encouraging takeaway from Saturday’s game was Mississippi State’s improving pass defense. The defensive backfield has been much-maligned but they showed up against Arkansas. If it wasn’t for a last minute drive from Arkansas, they would have held them to under 200 yards through the air. I don’t care if Arkansas’ passing game isn’t the most prolific…It’s a step in the right direction.

Coupled with some solid kicking from Sobiesk, the Bulldogs improving pass defense bodes well for the Bulldogs as they head into the stretch run.

Jeremiah Short, Peach State College Sports Contributor

Catch me on the “SportsKrib” on Wednesday’s 8-9 Central and Thursday’s 8-10 Central. Follow me on social media @DaRealJShort or check out my facebook page JShortJournalist or my Google Plus page J.Short- Journalist.