Those infuriating finals of 2010 and '11 had left everyone on this side of the state line just a bit ape-crazy not merely about winning a SEC opener itself, but with the particular opponent. It takes a heckuva lot of frustration for a Bulldog to learn loathing of a fellow cow college given our mutual histories and antipathies with that other Alabama-based program. But that was what September 8 had become; a date voodoo-pinned and dart-stuck to many a Mississippi State calendar as soon as the schedule was set.
It also assumed something of make-or-break importance in this 2012 context. The Bulldogs needed not just to defeat Auburn and snap some private streak; they really, really needed to stand 1-0 SEC on September 9 what with the obvious scheduling opportunity for a bigger winning run into October. Well here they are, the team standing tall and the coach simian-free.
Mullen certainly signaled how much this West kickoff meant by giving a pregame pep talk to the early-arriving (in spite of a short shower) crowd. This after the Bulldogs ended warmups by jogging over to the student section, too. It emphasized what Mississippi State invested emotionally in defeating Auburn, at last. When the deed was done, and emphatically so, I wouldn't have blamed Mullen had he gone all-Charlton Heston in postgame.
Though, he did offer some less-than-subtle return shots on the intangible topic. "I guess the monkey is off my back now, or no?" he grinned. "I view it as a bigger one just jumped on, and I hope in November we're talking about a 800-pound gorilla jumping on my back. That's what I want for our program."
Or mixing more metaphors, instead of a primate suddenly it is a target toted upon Bulldog backs. They love it of course; veterans got a taste of what serious expectations are like between the Gator Bowl and '11 Auburn game when it was State sitting ranked and pretty. Then it all vanished in a six-day span with losses to West Tiger teams. Will Monday find the Bulldogs back in the polls? Stay tuned with me.
Even the prospect of ranking, not to mention the inevitable emotional letdown after such a Saturday SEC high, seems to have the coach ready to remind of reality. 1-0 may be perfect but it's just the good start State wanted. "This is a very important week for us," Mullen said today. "We're in position to do some good things."
Even great things, potentially. Yeah, that is much to read into a single SEC success…but you gotta start climbing this league's tree somewhere. State just reached the first big branch of '12 and has four whole weeks before reaching higher. Whether that pair of conference King Kongs currently sitting atop it all has noticed yet doesn't matter much for now. They probably only care anyway how a certain contender just took a big fall…hmmm, maybe that there metaphorical monkey should scan Fayetteville listings for available backs.
What the Bulldogs suddenly have to concern themselves with is avoiding any of the banana peelings scattered in their path. It isn't an old rival immediately ahead, just a Troy program proud in their own right of tripping up big-league teams. That freshly painted-and-pinned target only ups the weekend ante.
"I certainly don't know if we're going to sneak up on anybody this year, but that's a good feeling to have," Mullen said today. To me, as we continue to develop, we have to come back and rebound this week. There's different types of adversity; how you face the adversity of failure, and how your face the adversity of success.
Adversity in success? Yep, it exists, if a team allows it that is. The potential penalty of all yesterday's emotional and physical investment is as Mullen said the bounce-back. Some degree of letdown is just inevitable. What's that you say? Has not Mullen already shown he can handle such swing-weeks? Sure. 2010 offers excellent examples, as well as reminders of what is at risk. That was a sweet piece of scheduling when State was able to bounce-back from beating Georgia by playing Alcorn State.
The real achievement showing why Mullen's coaching star was ascending was later; as those Dogs came off a tougher-than-most-recall win at Houston to knock off a vulnerable Florida team. But to my mind '12 is a slightly different case. The '10 team was sooooo new to real winning that the emotion was more easily sustained in consecutive weeks. And remember how completely flat they were in coasting by a bad UAB bunch after two big wins? The coach surely does.
The difference here is the '12 team has openly focused for over eight months—actually an entire calendar year if we're honest—on one opponent, one game. They won. Now the schedule doesn't conveniently pause to rest and enjoy, a trip to Troy awaits. Let's not overlook the ‘trip' part either, first road games have slippery-peel opportunities of their own. Though if we're again honest, is it not fun to suddenly be speaking of ‘trap games' for a Bulldog bunch?
In fact now that I think of it, after a third cup of Gevalia and two Bayers, this and even next week's South Alabama game offer Mullen his next chance to show supervisory skill. Not so much fixing features of the team though he'll assuredly do so; field goal kicking is an unexpectedly sore point. Oh, by the way, about Mullen's promise to go yell at the special teams coach last night? "I wasn't happy, but we won so I was kind of light on him!" he reported today. Mullen remains annoyed by 1-of-10 results on third downs yesterday. I'm thinking of how he coaches-up the MSU mindset towards the Troys and USAs of the football world. If the Dogs don't just take care of business these two weekends, show some flair and even fun in the process, and do not get distracted by either new SEC stature or the approaching open date…yeah, that will be another benchmark. Or branch marked.
Funning at the expense of an upset (upsot?) peer aside, pre- and early-season events have chucked a monkey wrench into some SEC expectations. Even those aforementioned K.K.'s have contributed with the loss of a special player. By the way, I'll confess surprise how a short-handed Georgia defense so thrashed newbie Missouri. Or that Florida found enough firepower to survive on the road. That there East is getting mighty interesting isn't it? Over here there is suddenly more potential room in the higher-rent region pending injury reports from last night.
What I'm getting at of course is having passed the first test State should see their own October opportunities taking shape. And, a developing Dog roster increasingly up to the task, maybe? Y'all can enjoy reading Tyler Russell's stats from the first two wins, how the ball is getting either shared by four productive backs or distributed to eight and nine receivers. Or, the legitimate swagger shown by a defensive secondary that ought to be second to none. Some interception records should be falling this fall, for sure. And oh, what a defensive line is taking shape not just for this year but more to come.
Me, I'm just slightly un-crossing the fingers over my own obsession. Yesterday was the first real test of the revamped offensive line and it passed in a big way. Yes, Russell took some shots—and that is a story in itself how he picked up, dusted off, and got back to shredding frustrated Tiger coverage. That is something any true quarterback must do, show physical and mental toughness to the rest of the team, and Russell has.
Or as expert Johnthan Banks put it, "I'm expecting Tyler to put up 50 points every game." Then all Russell said in response was to credit the blocking and say he had stuff left to work on (i.e. those third downs). Leadership, is what you're hearing.
Back to the line though. I slipped into the critic-mode initially when Russell took some early shots, then reviewing noticed A) Auburn was as intense as advertised rushing off the end and B) did it well. Meaning, barbs thrown at Blaine Clausell were not justified, other than of course his jumping a snap count once. Replays showed Clausell generally did pick up his assigned man and lane better than appreciated at the time. So I apologize. I don't apologize for being an unabashed fan of Tobias Smith; he was a post-game joy to interview, offering such gems as his plan to name his first two sons Dillon and Gabe from love of his line-mates. I hope the future Mrs. Smith understands. But tell you what, watching Justin Malone makes one boggle the MSU mind about the future of Bulldog blocking. And it's easy to see what one real, if SWAC-level, game did to get Charles Siddoway up to senior college speed.
All told, "It was a great way to start off the SEC season, to get that win in the first game," Mullen said after overnight review. "There's a bunch of things we have to clean up and improve on, (but) it's great after a win though because you have a great feeling coming into Sunday."
Even greater because whatever weight of primate Mullen plans to wear by November, the Bulldogs have found secure footing on that first conference branch. And they don't plan to stay there, as Mullen made clear yesterday. "People thought we were crazy talking about competing for the SEC (West) championship. To do that you have to win your home games, and win your opener. Both of those happened today to put us in position to move forward."
Or, upward. And if State keeps on climbing in the coming weeks, why, that will be more fun than a barrel of you-know-whats.