Not a big deal, really, the correct time was least of Sunday concerns. Explaining or expounding on a Mississippi State team and season which has lots of heads spinning, and not a few hearts souring, is. First and foremost because, applying what we now know, the records are realistically what we would expect. Letting the Auburn game get away does still sting bitterly to be sure.
Yet if someone without extensive grounding in either State football or the SEC were to take what they see from these Bulldogs, and judge it against what they see of the opponents played to-date, they would almost certainly say 4-4, 1-3. This uninvolved outsiders would say wins over Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green, Kentucky; and losses to the quartet of now-ranked teams.
But…that isn't our realistic concern of the, umm, hour is it?
Lots of notions and impressions gelled into an evaluation sometime during yesterday's third quarter in Columbia. Without anger I should say here; or much of any emotion. The outcome was what all but the truest believers--blessings upon them and may their faith never fail—would have forecast. I went there thinking the Bulldogs had a reasonable chance if they played to their peak and South Carolina didn't play well enough. Which is how any of us who've spent more than, say, a decade of seasons following the Dogs regard road SEC games not played at Lexington or Nashville. More on this in a future column.
For today, the issue is not what should State's record be, or not, after eight games. It is simply how the team has won, and not; and what that says about both present and future. Relax. I'm not equating all is pretty much as expected with all is well. It's not…yet neither is it time to despair of the program. The season, yeah, that hangs by a pretty slender thread. Coaches and players can't talk in such terms but the rest of us are free to forecast Bulldog bowling will require beating Arkansas and Ole Miss. One would be rated a toss-up at best right now; the other will frankly require an upset on the order of 2009 if the identical teams of today show up on November 28. Things can change of course.
And I don't mean ‘can change' in simply philosophical terms. Based on first-hand observation Saturday, it is ever-more apparent Dan Mullen has pieces to play with capable of bowling for a record fourth-straight season. Buuu-uuut, margin is zilch and potential for misstep great.
I'm too travel-tired to ransack stat sheets and play-by-play right now. Enough was included in the game story and notebook. Certainly you watchers knew the story-lines before we (four beat writers who made the trip) wrote ‘em up. I won't put all editorial weight behind Mullen's proposition that had the home team lost five turnovers and State none, the Bulldogs would have won. But I won't argue against it, either. Because when the MSU offense wasn't giving the football away, something scarcely seen the prior seven games, they were making lots of plays. And while the defense got burned by Gamecock home run hitters, to mix metaphors, they also made a surprising number of three-and-throughs on the road against a legit top-15 foe. Punting was great and hey, State made a three-pointer too.
Which brings us to the inevitable ‘but' moment. I don't say State out-played South Carolina takingawayaturnovers. I do say it was a genuine contest even with the turnovers, and without them that game goes to the wire. With, I'd figure, the ranked home team with a senior quarterback and defense used to pressure making the one or two game-deciding plays.
Now, since I've probably lost yet a few more angry readers, stomping away from the keyboard snarling curses against ‘sheep' and ‘sunshine pumping' and the like, to continue. Unlike the Auburn game, which I'll always believe would have been a win played at Scott Field, I also figure South Carolina would still won on the road. Why? Play calling.
No, no, no. I don't mean ‘play calling' in what offensive or defensive plays were called. That topic grates on me after too many years talking to players and coaches about what happens during a real ball game; you know, the ‘best laid plans' and all. I've written before and surely will again that if fans understood how little of what a college coach calls actually happens on the field, they'd wonder how anything ever gets done. The number of moving parts in the process make the Calculus III that finished my chemical engineering career (I'm sorry but Riemann's sums STILL look like nonsense) seem simple.
What I really should say isn't the plays selected per se; but the timing. It doesn't show on any season stat sheet, yet I can't shake an impression that some of State's calls, on both sides of the ball, have been short-circuited by poor timing. Not ignorance or stubbornness or lack of preparation and imagination, understand. Just that the Dogs line up with a specific call for time/score, down/distance, and field position; and the other side has an antidote. No, not from being smarter or scouting better or whatever. Just, you know, timing.
The specific situation escapes me, I'll need to watch a replay. But one single play epitomized this idea yesterday, I think in the second quarter. It was a third down and not long yardage. Dak Prescott made a quick drop and was going to throw to the back with blocking; a screen I think though it might've been a ‘hot' route. Either way, the play was going to go big…except a Gamecock came straight through the gap vacated (fans screaming for screens tend to forget that fact, eh?) by a screener and Prescott had no chance to deliver. Now maybe the defensive lineman got a fabulous jump worthy of a drag racing champion.
Or more likely the defense guessed rightly and blew the whole thing up. Bad call? Not at all. Bad timing, and against a smart defense. Other opponents might not've had the personnel or plan to respond there, but that is why South Carolina is top-fifteen again. And, why the Bulldogs aren't this year. Yeah, I'm just pulling out one isolated example, but really we've seen others during this frustrating season. Just as we've seen in prior seasons, or with this regime previous games, examples of State's timing being right offense or defense and the opponent's fans raging about how ‘stupid' their play calling was. When a team has its act together, knows the strengths and weaknesses, and just plays with legitimate confidence, it's amazing how well-timed plays appear. Oh, and it isn't so much taught as caught, learned as earned.
Give Prescott credit for the day's best quote, though I take no credit for having asked something that just seemed obvious to me. It was about how the defense and offense started so efficiently for a series each…and then when other series had similar potential a single breakdown—an interception, fumble, broken coverage, lack of pressure on the passer, whatever—would ruin the whole thing. I was implying to Prescott that this was not a case of State being dominated start-to-finish, but of State not finishing what it started.
As we quoted Prescott, "That's how the game should have went the whole game. We just didn't execute, we beat ourselves up. The first drive should have been like the rest of the game." Maybe ‘should have' is a player's pride speaking, but the point is still valid. I've witnessed first-hand far, far too many games, SEC or otherwise, where State had its scattered moments of execution and even solid series. This team isn't quite like those.
But the record isn't better. Why so? What is the missing piece in the process, that sends a team playing a LSU straight-up for three periods into a fourth-quarter collapse? Or makes what should be reasonably routine wins over Bowling Green and Kentucky into last-drive nailbiters? Or, knocks things so out-of-synch just before halftime at South Carolina? That game wasn't lost there by the way, but I suspect some degree of self-confidence was.
Maybe there's a clue in that too. When a team, by which I mean staff and squad, are operating in the proverbial synch even mistakes don't shake confidence. And through eight games I can't really claim the Bulldogs are working in the same tempos. Some of this is probably as inevitable as it is intangible, what with shuffles of personnel to a team that was still trying to figure itself out anyway. Again that's just one impression. Mullen said two weeks ago when asked he knew this team's identity. Maybe so. I'm not convinced the team knows its own exact self yet, but all I have to go on are the games.
What I am convinced of, is the 2013 Bulldogs have enough talent and almost enough collective experience to perform a few percentage-points better than they are. Enough to whip the whippable and compete with ranked rivals, even knock off a couple each year. Which is a step towards becoming a regular rank-ee of course. Barring some serious acceleration in the process that won't happen this season.
However these Bulldogs can still achieve what ought to now be the annual baseline of expectations: go bowling. Anything less than a six-win season is plain and simple unacceptable, based on how much the University has invested in staff and facilities, in promotion, in obtaining support. Oh, and the number of tie-ins available to any SEC program. A record bowl stretch also sets the stage, in conjunction with the schedule, for a lot of 2014 fun.
Yet…as said already the margin is gone. State must either score a major upset in the next two weekends, or more practically defeat two more comparable opponents. Those will be the kinds of games where the Dogs must be at their best in every aspect. Such as selecting what to do when, where, and with whom.
Timing might not be everything. But lack of it can ruin anything. Arthur Dent could tell you that, over dinner at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.