It’s easy to be the hunter, but it’s a lot harder being the prey. Mississippi State is about to find that out the hard way.
Mississippi State’s fans, players and coaches are in an unfamiliar position. The team that was once seeking legitimacy and relevance with every game is now the team up-and-coming programs will try to beat to gain legitimacy and relevance.
It’s an interesting role reversal. But it’s a well-earned one. The Bulldogs defeated three straight top-10 opponents in a row (First team since the 1983 Auburn Tigers to do so.). They were rewarded for withstanding the brutal SEC gauntlet–going from unranked to number one in the span of five weeks, which was unprecedented but warranted.
The Bulldogs have received all the acclaim and accolades that come along with a top ranking: the Sports Illustrated covers, the Heisman hype for their quarterback and, most importantly, the RESPECT.
If the casual fan didn’t know the difference between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, they darn sure know now.
How do they keep their status? Beware of complacency.
6-0 is a great record and start to any season. But that just means there are nine games left to play: six regular season, one SEC Championship and two College Football Playoff.
The next game is truly the most important one when you have a target on your back.
“Playing in the SEC gives you a bigger game every week. This is the biggest game we have played of the season. I said the Auburn game was the biggest game ever played in the state of Mississippi. This game is bigger now. Now we are a team that has a target on our back. We have to go on the road in a hostile environment and play one of the hottest and most improved teams in college football. Our guys better learn how to handle that and realize how big of a game this really is,” Mississippi State Head Coach Dan Mullen on remaining focused.
While the recent three-game stretch proved that the Bulldogs have arrived as an elite program, the next three games against Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee-Martin will show if they’re still hungry.
All three games present their own challenges. Kentucky is a burgeoning program looking for that first “Statement” game to make the nation take notice. Arkansas is in year two of Brett Beliema’s regime, but they have some momentum and are powered by dominant run offense. Tennessee-Martin is a mid-Major but the matchup has “Trap Game” written all over it–as the Bulldogs might be looking ahead to a potential showdown with Alabama.
If the Bulldogs lose one of the next three games, they’re not out of the race. But they do lose a little bit of that “aura” of dominance. All it takes is a little chink in the armor for a team uncomfortable with the spotlight to go into a tailspin and believe what their critics are saying about them.
Oh, LSU wasn’t really that good and didn’t take Mississippi State serious.
Texas A&M wasn’t really that good and was dropping the ball all game.
Auburn’s a nice win but they shot themselves in the foot.
Critics do what critics do…Criticize. But critics aren’t always wrong.
In the Bulldogs key victories, they did catch a few breaks.
LSU didn’t respect the Bulldogs. Take the initial goaline stand from the Bulldog defense as an example. Instead of mixing it up and trying to run around the Bulldog front seven, LSU’s Head Coach Les Miles decided to run right at them. It’s was like he saying: We’re LSU and you’re MSU…stop us. LSU was stopped and embarrassed. But it still doesn’t stop the fact that Miles didn’t respect what the Bulldogs brought to the table.
Texas A&M, a team which built around an up-tempo offense predicated on rhythm, struggled to put together consistent drives because of constant drops and inaccurate passes from Kenny Hill. Could the Bulldogs have won the game without those miscues? Yes. But we’ll never know.
Auburn and Mississippi State turned the ball over in their matchup. But the Bulldogs did a better job of capitalizing on the Tigers mistakes.
Mississippi State has beaten teams who brought their B, C and D games. What happens when a team with the talent brings their “A” game?
Will the “Dawgs” make the necessary plays or will they buckle under the pressure?
That’s the question yet to be answered. But it’s going to be answered at some point. If the Bulldogs do make it past the next three games unscathed, they do have Alabama, the current preeminent SEC program that won’t relinquish its title without a fight.
And then if they beat Alabama, they have their annual showdown with Ole Miss in the “Egg Bowl,” which has weighted importance–as the Rebels will be playing spoilers or for their right to represent the SEC West in Atlanta.
Mississippi State is the top “Dawg” in college football. Keeping the hunter’s mentality is the only way they remain there.
J.Short’s Hot Takes
- I understand Mullen deciding to roll with J.Rob against Auburn. But Brandon Holloway has earned the right to be on the field every week. He’s too much of an asset to be on the sidelines in an important game.
- Salute to Malcolm Johnson for showing up against Auburn. He hasn’t been incorporated the way he should be throughout most of the season. But when his bell was called, he produced.
- Shout out to Ben Beckwith. He’s making a lot of talent evaluators look bad. He’s gone from walk-on to a potential NFL Draft pick.
- Shout out to Ryan Brown for a huge game against Auburn. His numbers were a little deceiving–as he only had two tackles and one for a loss. But he locked down the edge and had three quarterback hurries.
- Matt Wells isn’t getting the pub that fellow Bulldog starting linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown are getting, but it doesn’t mean what he’s doing isn’t equally as important. He only has 22 tackles on the season. But he has ten pass break ups and deflections on the year. He’s been the ultimate hybrid linebacker–sealing the edge and shutting down the flats. I see ya young buck. Keep grindin and flexing on them.
- Quadry Antoine’s career hasn’t went the way he, or the coaches, would have liked it to have gone. But when he got his shot, he came up with a big play–causing a critical fumble that turned the momentum back in the Bulldogs favor. His time will come to make a few more of those plays…watch.
- I’ve never been the president of the Will Redmond fan club. But he showed up against Auburn. He was superb in man-to-man coverage and he could be the lockdown corner Mississippi State has been searching for all season.
- Justin Cox has been hobbled for most of the season, but he made the game-clinching interception against Auburn. The Bulldogs need him to make more of those plays if they hope to make it to the College Football Playoff.
As I’ve perused the web, story after story has focused on the Bulldogs talent or lack thereof. While the Bulldogs aren’t filled with four and five stars, it doesn’t mean their players can’t play. “Mississippi Boys” can play. The stats support it. Per capita, Mississippi ranks fourth in putting talent in the NFL( One per 87,243 citizens). A couple of NFL greats hail from Mississippi. Brett Favre. Steve McNair. Walter Payton. Jerry Rice.
It hasn’t translated on the field because one: The State of Mississippi has two major football programs.
And two: No coach has every truly focused on development the way Dan Mullen has at Mississippi State. It’s been commented that Mullen has turned two and three stars into five stars. I disagree. He’s got five stars to play like five stars. Those Benardrick McKinney’s and Johnthan Banks were that good the whole time. Recruiting analysts were and are just too lazy to go into those rural Mississippi schools and scout them. I use to work for a scouting service. I know for a fact that they overlook small schools. Most of the players don’t get ranked until they commit to an SEC program in some cases.
Look at Mississippi State’s roster. Six of their key contributors: Jameon Lewis, Gabe Myles, Zach Jackson, Benardrick McKinney, Will Redmond and Justin Cox are former high school quarterbacks who were converted to different positions. Only one of those players (Redmond) was rated above three stars and he’s from Memphis, Tennessee.
So, I think Dan Mullen and his staff need to be commended for actually evaluating talent, instead of paying attention to what ESPN, Rivals, 247 and Scout have to say about them.
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.