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.
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.