Behind the scenes at SEC Tipoff: MSU basketball drawing from success of football

Last fall, Mississippi State’s football team finished the regular season 6-6, having to win its last two games in overtime to avoid a losing record. Now, the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country, the highest ranking in school history where Dan Mullen and Dak Prescott are in the middle of what could be State’s best season ever.

“It’s an amazing story, isn’t it,” CBS college basketball reporter Seth Davis asked as the interview began.

“It really is,” MSU’s head basketball coach Rick Ray responded, sitting on the other side of the camera.

unnamed-3In Charlotte for SEC Tipoff, the revamped SEC basketball media days, Rick Ray and his players wandered the halls, studios and converted hotel rooms as they answered question after question. Vic Schaefer, head coach of MSU’s women’s team, did the same on Tuesday with his two players.

And everywhere any of them went, people were talking about football – about the No. 1 team in the country. Mississippi State.

Schaefer and Ray have been to these events before, and both coaches are as popular and well-liked by the media and fellow coaches as any. But the receptions they received this week went far beyond the usual. People they’d never met were exclaiming upon their arrival.

Schafer walked into a social media and marketing room (where the group responsible for ESPN’s commercial on the Left Field Lounge was set up) and was immediately greeted with enthusiasm when they saw his maroon MSU polo.

“Hey, Mississippi State! No. 1 in the country!”

On Wednesday, Ray and Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy appeared on the Paul Finebaum Show together, though it had very little to do with the fact that they are rivals. Finebaum wanted to talk about the best football state in the nation at the present time.

“There is great excitement on both campuses.”

unnamedIt could have easily been frustrating for Ray and Schaefer, who have their own teams they want to talk about, their own excitement to share. But the more each talked about it, the clearer it became what an impact a great football team can have on an entire school.

Beyond strangers in the hotel stopping them to congratulate them for having the best team in the country (“Do you guys have great high school football in the state or something?”) and the enhancement to the brand evident by the fact Sirius/XM hosts can’t wait to get the MSU coach on the show, there are positive changes on the inside of the program resulting from the gridiron successes.

“Any time you’re in the spotlight, it’s good for the whole university,” Ray told a crowd of reporters in the main media room. “This isn’t just about football. It goes to all of our programs. A lot of times there’s jealousy between staffs when one is having success. At Mississippi State, it really is a family.”

That’s the right way to look at it, certainly. It’s the way the football team responded when MSU’s baseball team finished second in the country two summers ago. Ray and Schaefer, because they are supportive rather than jealous, are able to take advantage of the success of Dan Mullen’s football team.

Both of the coaches have recruits on campus for football games throughout the fall, and Schaefer himself has credited the atmosphere at a football game last year to securing the commitment and signature of one of his players.

“Since I got here,” Schaefer said, “we’ve only had two players who came to campus that we didn’t get. Mississippi State is a great place. You gotta get people on campus.”

Said Ray, in reference to big football weekends, “It’s the only time you’re gonna have 80,000 people in Starkville. You’ve gotta take advantage of that. When we have guys come in and we’ve got College GameDay here and all these fans showing how much they support you, it’s a great tool for us.”

unnamed-1And then there are the examples set by MSU’s football team. Very little is expected of Ray’s team on the outside, who the media picked to finish last in the SEC this week. But, as you’d imagine, he’s not concerned with that. His point guard I.J. Ready told reporters last week that the basketball and football players spent time together this summer with each having the same thought: our team is going to surprise people.

“I think the football team is a good example of what we can do,” Ray told Finebaum. “They were picked to finished fifth or sixth in the west. Now, they’re the No. 1 team in the country.”

Like the football team in 2013, Ray felt he had a team last year that was young, shorthanded and relatively inexperienced. Now, like the football team this year, he’s got depth, experience and the opportunity for someone to become a leader. That right there is a big part of it, of what Ray takes from the football team – Dak Prescott. He’s the team leader every coach dreams of having. When Ray talks to his players, he talks about Prescott. About being selfless, holding others accountable, encouraging your teammates and putting them on your back when the moment hits.

The comparisons of his team to Mullen’s aren’t as far off as they seem, either. In the hallways of ESPN’s studios, that was some of the conversation Ray had.

Mullen’s offense is based largely on having a talented dual-threat quarterback. Ray’s offense is based on having a skilled person in the four spot. Mullen has Prescott, and while most people around the SEC don’t know him now, Ray has Travis Daniels, who he calls the most skilled non-point guard on the team. He’s huge, built like a brick wall, but has the shot and the handles of some of the best guards in the league. With size in the post and skills on the perimeter, Daniels is yet another big-time dual-threat player on campus.

Ray also has players he thinks are ready to step up and be leaders. And in an evolution reminiscent of Mullen’s receivers through the years, Ray’s team finally has height and size, flipping the balance of roster from under 6’7” to over.

Junior forward Gavin Ware couldn’t hold back his excitement when chatting in passing with Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson.

“We got some height now,” Ware told him with a grin. “You gotta watch out.”

unnamed-2As for Schaefer and his club, his team has some of the same outside pressures the football team did in the preseason.

“Coach, high expectations for your team this year,” one reporter stated as preface to her question.

“The next step is on the horizon in Starkville,” ESPN analyst Maria Taylor said as she sat on the SEC Network set with Schaefer.

Schaefer’s Bulldogs, like Mullen’s in 2013, struggled a bit through portions of the season, playing great at many times and poorly at others as new parts worked to figure each other out. Then, just as football won it’s last three games in a row, Schaefer’s team made a season-ending surge, tearing through the Women’s NIT all the way to the Final Four, some of the most exciting games Humphrey Coliseum had seen in some time.

Now, nearly all the pieces from that run are back, plus he’s added one of the best recruiting classes in MSU history.

Maybe all the similarities are why it’s so easy for Ray and Schaefer to talk football. It’s a cliché for either to say that winning is contagious, but it’s also pretty simple for the two to draw comparisons to their football brethren.

“It’s relatable to our players because they know those guys,” Ray said.

The excitement is easy to feed from.

“Man, Mississippi State,” the clerk at the team hotel said when the MSU contingent checked out Wednesday morning. “Big-time football. Did you guys see it coming?”

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Live updates: MSU men’s and women’s basketball media day

This afternoon, Mississippi State’s men’s and women’s basketball teams will have their on-campus media day in advance of their seasons starting in a few weeks.

I’ll share updates as the day moves along, starting with women’s basketball first, then updated with men’s basketball at the top when Rick Ray and his players come in.

As we wait, the latest installment of This Is Our Plate is linked below to pass the time (we made the Filet of Oscar at The Grill)

——————————

Alright, Rick Ray is here. Time to get the men’s portion started.

Bm5DiiLCUAAxAP0On injuries, Ray says in the past they “would have been devastating” to the team’s depth, but said this year, they’ve actually got a deep enough roster to make it through.

As for the injury to Craig Sword (back), Ray said there’s a good chance he won’t miss any games. If he does, it’ll likely be two or three max.

Ray also touched on football’s success in his opening comments, saying their success is due to leadership and hard work, which “is a good teaching point for our guys.”

Moving on to his team, Ray says two qualities stand out: length and athleticism. Both of which he says his team hasn’t had much of previously.

When Sword returns, Ray said he’ll play a fair bit of point guard. Not as a permanent move, but just so that MSU has a bigger and more physical option when MSU plays against some bigger point guards at different points in the schedule.

Lot of discussion on newcomers from Ray. He says freshman guard Demetrius Houston is one of if not the most athletic guy on the team. he’ll be relied on early if Sword misses time.

Ray has also been complimentary of Travis Daniel, a big, long and physical player who Ray expects to mostly play at the 3-spot because of his ball skills and smooth shot. He’s a good mismatch kind of guy.

He also mentioned forward Oliver Black as someone who is pushing junior Gavin Ware and giving him competition, something he’s never really had before. He expects that to make everyone involved better players.

Ray said the depth this year will give them the opportunity to go with something of a jumbo lineup where they’ll have Sword at point, Fred Thomas and Daniel at guards and guys like Ware and Black in the post. Certainly much more size than MSU has previously had.

Ray talking about his schedule now, says he scheduled good teams like Oregon State, Florida State and Utah State, “because I think we can win those games.”

Those on the outside may not be overly confident, but Ray seems to have a reserved excitement about his team. He clearly believes his team to be very good, and likely much better than it seems most expect.

“We had success in the non-conference last season, but struggled in the conference. So if we have success in the non-conference, which we fully expect, we have something to look forward to and keep these guys grounded.”

On Fred Thomas: “I think he is an outstanding defender. He’s a legitimate All-SEC player, I don’t see any reason he shouldn’t be … He’s got an uncanny ability to move his feet. What’s made him an even better defender since he got here is he’s got strength now.”

As Ray closes it out, he tells us how happy he is about the new video board. Going from standard definition to HD, a nice switch.

 

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Women’s coach Vic Schaefer is the first to the podium as this shindig begins on the floor of The Hump.

“I think everybody in maroon has come to learn the expectations that we have and excited to see the brand of basketball we have here at Mississippi State.”

Beyond the newcomers, Schaefer says, MSU has four starters returning who will be playing the top-20 signing class.

With those newcomers and the returning stars, Schaefer acknowledges it will be more difficult this season to play the underdog role.

“We’re not gonna fly under the radar with any coach in our conference. We’ve got respect throughout the league. I don’t think anybody’s gonna take MSU for granted.”

“You might as well embrace those expectations people have for us,” he added. “We’re trying to prepare for a great season.”

Asked specifically about senior guard Kendra Grant, Schaefer says, “She needs to play well for us to have a good season.”

What can take this team to the NCAA Tournament?

“Our seniors have to play like seniors,” he lists first, then says sophomores need to make big jumps from their freshman year, and the freshmen have to live up to the hype.

If that happens, he says, “It’s a recipe for a lot of success.”

I like this quote from Schaefer on who gets to play: “That basketball doesn’t know if you’re a freshman or a senior. That’s how I am. I’m all about production.”

 

 

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Cohen visits with media as fall baseball begins

Good timing? Mississippi State football is off this week and MSU baseball begins fall practice on Tuesday night. With action on the diamond coming up, local media visited with head coach John Cohen to get a little preview.

FPCDONOAJKJCEBI.20120225203711Of note, one of the most obvious changes is the new ball in college baseball, which has a lowered seam more similar to the MLB.

Cohen said it does make an impact, but he still expects Dudy Noble Field to be a tough place for hitters.

“I don’t think it’s a dramatic difference. I just think it will alter how far the ball will go a little bit,” he said. “We’ve noticed a little bit of difference in BP, but it’s not dramatic.”

To that end, Cohen did say he expects MSU’s offense to improve this year, particularly with the infusion of some power hitters, many of whom redshirted last year.

“We’ve got a little bit more power,” Cohen said. “I think we’re going to be a little bit better in the run-scoring area. I think that’s something we needed to improve on.”

Much of the leadership necessary in that area will come from senior first baseman Wes Rea, who Cohen said made some big strides over the summer.

“Wes’s attitude has been phenomenal,” Cohen said. “He’s made so many adjustments in every part of his life. Especially in conditioning, he’s just worked so hard.”

That conditioning is another thing Cohen harped on, saying this is the best shape he’s ever had a team be entering fall ball. He gave credit to strength coach Brian Neal for that improvement.

On that note, Cohen also said the team is relatively healthy, the only notables being pitchers Will Cox and John Marc Shelly, who Cohen said they’ll have to re-evaluate after the fall. Pitcher Paul young is one who Cohen expects to be good to go by February.

Of course, it is still the middle of October. MSU’s football team is No. 1 in the country after beating Auburn and Cohen, a football fan who grew up in Tuscaloosa, has been taking notice.

“I can’t imagine anything being more exciting than what we saw on Saturday,” he said. “I just want to take a minute to mention what this does for all of our student-athletes.”

Cohen himself was once ranked No. 1 in the country as a player at MSU back when he was playing baseball. He remembers what it’s like to play for the top team in the country.

“I think you’re so focused in on what you do, that you don’t know,” he said. “That’s a neat thing for me, watching the media frenzy that’s going on now, what’s enveloping our university.

“You wonder if the kids on the inside are experiencing everything we are, because you can get lost. But Dan [Mullen] has done such a good job of keeping them focused. It’s fun to talk about [as a player], but I tell you what, when you’re around your coaching staff, you know you better not let them hear it.”

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From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Starkville, MS, Max and Hanna reunite for Auburn-MSU football

14 months ago, Max and Hanna were babies living together in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This weekend, the two were reunited after over a year apart, and oddly enough, it was because of college football.

unnamedSee, Max was adopted by a Mississippi State family living in Starkville – Wes and Meaghan Gordon who work at MSU. He came home October 27, 2013.

Hanna was adopted by an Auburn family living in Birmingham – Mike and Ashley Hill, whose family on Ashley’s side owns Toomer’s Drugs in Auburn on Toomer’s Corner. Hanna landed in Washington D.C. on September 11, 2013.

On Saturday, when MSU hosted Auburn for a battle of top-five SEC teams, Max and Hanna saw each other again, playing together underneath a tailgate tent 100 yards from Davis Wade Stadium. Quite a change in surroundings since the last time they were together.

Max is two years old, while Hanna turns two in December, so the incredible circumstances surrounding their reunion mean relatively little to them. They’re just happy to share cookies, nibble on chicken fingers and run around in the grass.

Their parents, however, couldn’t stop smiling. The fullness of feelings inside them wasn’t an easy thing to describe, though it wasn’t difficult to tell how happy they were Saturday afternoon.

“This time last year, I was a wreck,” Meaghan said. “My kid was halfway across the world.”

unnamed-2It was a two-and-a-half year process for Max and Hanna to find their families, a lengthy ordeal which began before they were even born. It was during that stretch when the Gordon and Hill families met. They were working with the same adoption agency and became friends as they spent time together and used each other for support.

In fact, after meeting each other, the families were able to meet each other’s children in Ethiopia when they flew across the world to adopt them. When Mike and Ashley went to visit Hanna and complete the necessary steps on the Ethiopian side of the process, they brought presents for Max from Wes and Meaghan and even got video of him.

“The first time we heard Max’s voice was a on video they sent us,” Wes said. “That was really special.”

Two weeks later, Wes and Meaghan did the same for the Hills on their visit to Addis Ababa.

At the time, the families’ greatest interest was in getting their children home, as each had to wait nearly three months between visiting them at the orphanage and getting their visas approved in the U.S. But that didn’t stop them from looking just a little bit ahead to the future.

“We used to talk about it,” Ashley said. “I said, ‘One day, we’ll have them at a game together.’”

The Gordon and Hill families tailgating Saturday

The Gordon and Hill families tailgating Saturday

And it happened Saturday. Whatever rivalry there is between the two teams was kept squarely on the outside of that tent, though each has their own reasons for strong allegiances.

Ashley grew up steps away from Auburn’s campus, while her Birmingham-native husband Mike quietly is prideful of his alma mater – MSU.

“I flew to New York in 1996 to watch State in the Final Four,” he said. “That was my senior year.”

Wes was an athletic trainer for MSU’s football team when he was in school, and it was his freshman year in Starkville when he fell in love with a cheerleader named Meaghan.

All these years later, the two families really shouldn’t know each other, and they certainly shouldn’t have been tailgating together. But Max and Hanna made it happen.

“Max is pretty happy,” Wes joked. “The Bulldogs got a win and he got to see his girlfriend.”

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MSU’s success now the result of belief from fans then, say Mullen and Stricklin

Scott Stricklin still remembers when the idea for Maroon Friday came up. Now Mississippi State’s athletic director, he recalls someone in the meeting telling him that nobody was going to do it. State fans wouldn’t wear maroon every Friday just because they said so.

“I was like, ‘We’ve got to try,’” Stricklin says. “We had to do something.”

Not long after, he remembers the first time MSU asked its fans to wear the same color for a game – a white-out when the Bulldogs hosted LSU in 2009, Dan Mullen’s first year as the head coach.

“There was a real fear that no one would do it and we’d look stupid,” Stricklin recalled. “It was raining when that game started so everyone had ponchos on, but the rain stopped for the second half and all the jackets came off. We looked around and thought, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

IYDIGWDNMPEICCT.20141011224422Since then, it’s gotten to the point where MSU’s athletic department designates a color for every game. Most recently, the lower level wore white and the upper level maroon when MSU beat Auburn Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium. After the first few white-outs and maroon-outs, people were coming to Stricklin and saying, ‘Hey, you haven’t told us what to wear yet,’ so they had to start designating colors for every home game.

“People wanted to participate at a high level,” Stricklin said. “Our fans were hungry to do whatever it took to make us successful.”

It may sound a little silly on the surface. Or at least some would conclude that, in the case of T-shirts and victories, correlation does not equal causation.

But things like that really are what turned the direction around for an MSU program which, when Stricklin got to campus, had been struggling seemingly across the board.

Mullen has told the story this week of his reaction when he got to Starkville in December of 2008. Basically, he told everyone in the department, “You are the problem.” Mullen said the lack of belief was an issue. So was the complacency and the ease with which people were willing to do things “the way we always have.”

The new head coach didn’t hold back at all when he decided to let everyone know how he felt about them.

“He probably didn’t have the bedside manner you’d want,” Stricklin jokes now.

While perception had to (and did) change within the department, the biggest goal was bringing about revival in a somewhat deadened fanbase, a group who was exhausted in its search for something to believe in.

DBMCDFHRPHHHSKW.20141011201253In 2009, before his first season, Mullen asked the fans to believe in him. And they did, setting attendance records, selling out game-after-game and, of course, wearing maroon on Fridays. They did it despite the fact they were cheering for a team which went 5-7, at home for the holidays again.

But the signs of something worth believing in were there. At that whiteout in 2009, MSU was one yard away from taking down the highly-favored Tigers of LSU, which was about 98 yards closer than they had been in quite some time.

Four years later, something else big happened at Mississippi State, though it had nothing to do with football directly and Mullen wasn’t even there (although he was watching on TV from his vacation home in Georgia).

Walking through the streets that night after the game, maroon was everywhere. In the roads around the stadium, hanging out on sidewalks, underneath tents, sprawling over railings at restaurants and bars, cheers of “HAIL STATE!” rolling through the air everywhere from hotel lobbies to gas stations.

That night in June of 2013, Omaha, Nebraska was the western-most suburb of Starkville. 20,000-plus MSU fans had shown up to watch their Bulldogs in the College World Series with the National Championship on the line. Many of them couldn’t even get into the game, but they wanted to be there. They had to be there. As Stricklin put it, they were hungry.

And something happened during that two-week stretch as State bulldozed it’s way to the Championship Series. MSU has always been good at baseball, the school’s most storied athletic program, and fans believed the baseball team could be great, but something about seeing a Mississippi State jersey step onto a field with the National Championship on the line struck a chord within them.

Somewhere between Wes Rea belting a home run in Virginia in the Super Regional and Dak Prescott blasting ahead for a touchdown in Louisiana three weeks ago, that belief became bigger than baseball. It applied to everyone in every sport.

cws-picture-061212I remember sitting in the lobby of the team hotel around 3 a.m. local time. Chad Bumphis, MSU’s all-time leading receiver, was sitting next to me. He kept saying the same thing as I was writing a story about the magical two-week run.

“Mississippi State just played for the National Championship.”

The words sounded funny in his head but made him smile as he said them. It didn’t even matter MSU lost the final game. They were there.

In the early hours of the morning, as the celebration of something incredible continued around us, those were the thoughts I tried to put into words.

“This run, this experience, is far bigger than baseball.

In doing something no one in Maroon and White had done before, it became a Mississippi State benchmark.

Academics and athletics, football and softball, men’s and women’s.

These Bulldogs proved it can be done.

No one had to tell themselves they believed. They did believe.

Just as the state of Mississippi can claim generosity, hospitality and countless professional successes over any other shortcomings, so can Mississippi State now claim time at the top in spite of any days at the bottom.

When you’re a kid, you always believe your team is the best in the country, that they can win it all.

With age, realism and awareness set in. You know what limitations your team has.

But now, for the first time, Bulldog fans have made it within reach of doing what they imagined as children.

The baseball team knows it can win it all, and now everyone else has seen.

Quarterbacks and defensive linemen watched their diamond counterparts and said, ‘Mississippi State really can win a National Championship.’

Tennis players, basketball coaches and those from every sport saw the realization of dreams.

Now they don’t just have to say, they know, it can be done.”

Fast-forward to present day, and Mullen’s team is currently No. 1 in the country, one spot higher than the baseball team finished that summer. It’s appropriate that John Cohen, the man who coached that World Series, stood in the wings and watched as Mullen met with the media following his win over No. 2 Auburn Saturday night. Cohen and Mullen built this together, part of the new guard at Mississippi State.

“I think the last two or three weeks has been a lot like the Omaha run,” Stricklin said, referring to the string of upsets over Top 10 teams and the monumental support of the fan base. “It gives you a lot of confidence. The next time you have one of those dreams, you know it can happen.”

BDKQDMUEFOASHMN.20141012002434And those fans – the fans were the key, as Mullen has said several times these last few weeks.

“It’s not win first and then fans will come,” Mullen says. “If the fans come, then the wins will come later.”

Those fans bought in. They believed, showing up for the white-out in 2009, soaking wet and watching as their team fell just short. Five years later, sunshine or pouring rain, they’re enjoying the benefits of that labor.

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Mississippi State introduces itself to the college football world

I’ve never seen it like that before. Really haven’t. Waiting on Dan Mullen to arrive for his post-game press conference, the media room was more crowded than it’s ever been. Second place, whatever it is, isn’t even close. Just like the game, it was standing-room only at Mississippi State.

“You know it’s a big game,” Mullen said, looking over at a cluster of national media. “It’s like the who’s who of college football.”

Dan Mullen holding court with national media after the game

Dan Mullen holding court with national media after the game

ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, CBS, the Washington Post. Name a big outlet, they were probably there, listening to Dan Mullen talk about his No. 3 [and rising] Bulldogs beat No. 2 Auburn in front of the horde of recorders, cameras and notepads.

Someone asked Mullen if he thought his team should be No. 1 in the country. Like any good coach, he danced around the question and didn’t give a real answer. But then he looked around.

“Raise your hand if you have a vote,” he said.

A few played along, voters raising their hands.

“Ask them,” he said. “Chris, are we number one?” he asked ESPN’s Chris Low.

“You got my vote,” Low said.

Mullen later apologized for putting him on the spot, but Low didn’t mind. He does think Mullen’s team should be the top-ranked club in the country. As did most everyone in the room, all those local, regional and national reporters who then dispersed to write stories about The Great Mississippi State.

Nation, meet MSU. MSU, meet the Nation.

Starkville, as well as the state of Mississippi, was already the center of attention the last couple weeks. The sudden surge by Magnolia State teams ensured that. But it’s the continued success these reporters are interested in.

MSU isn’t a feel-good story anymore. It’s not about an upset or a heartwarming moment. It’s about good football. Great football. The best football in the country, at least according to a few of those surrounding Mullen after the game.

MSU has beaten three-straight Top-10 teams, all of them members of the Group of Death that is the SEC Western Division.

NMNDJVCJYRHKNHC.20141011201253What’s funny, though, is how the world of college football has latched onto Mississippi State. Junior quarterback Dak Prescott – one of the top Heisman candidates at this point – is the favorite storyline of all these guys and gals coming to campus to write something, anything about the upstart Bulldogs.

But when it comes to game time, when the country collectively watches the game together on Twitter, it keeps coming back to one thing.

“It’s a rare form of goose bump that comes from thousands of #cowbells,” the Washington Post’s Chuck Culpepper tweeted.

A few hours earlier, Chris Fowler was beating on a cowbell with a drumstick as ESPN’s College GameDay finished their broadcast from just outside Davis Wade Stadium, sitting next to former MSU pitcher Jonathan Papelbon who was hugging a Lee Corso ringing a cowbell from underneath his Bulldog head.

Tweeted Yahoo! Sports’s Pat Forde, “Until fans have to holster their cowbells during game action, this is possibly the loudest stadium I’ve been in. Oppressive.”

A few minutes before that post-game interview with Mullen, a fully-grown man ran down the hallway leading to the media room, ringing a cowbell and yelling, “Number one in the land, baby!”

The operative hashtag is #CLANGA. I think Whit Waide, called ‘The People’s Professor’ at MSU, was the first I saw to refer to the sound of cowbells as “clanging.” Spencer Hall of SB Nation was the first I saw to turn that into the ALL-CAPS cowbell-ed onomatopoeia hashtag of #CLANGA.

9:30 a.m. Saturday, watching GameDay from The Junction, that’s all Hall tweeted.

“#CLANGA”

All-caps and hashtag required.

The night before, MSU hosted Cowbell Yell in the stadium, a 15,000-person pep rally celebrating the farm-functional instrument.

Clanging, voting, tweeting, writing – at the end of this, folks are talking about MSU. Mississippi State, who could be the No. 1 team in the country by the end of the weekend, is the story of college football right now, cowbells and all.

Mullen is the voice, Prescott is the face and #CLANGA is the soundtrack.

WEPDJFWGYCCMNMK.20141011224235But it’s not some miracle, fairy godmother-granted Disney story. It’s years of work, a roster full of talent and a coaching staff devoting nearly every waking moment (and sacrificing a lot of would-be sleeping moments) to build a contender.

On defense, MSU is dominating in the front seven. They are huge, deep, fast, aggressive, and more important than anything, they’re incredibly smart. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is the reason for that.

In nearly every game they play, Mullen’s team has the best player on both sides of the ball – Prescott on offense and middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney on defense. Not to mention top recruit Chris Jones and three-time defensive lineman of the week Preston Smith on Collin’s unit. Or rising star receiver De’Runnya Wilson who has only been playing football two-and-a-half years or impossible-to-tackle running back Josh Robinson on offense.

These Bulldogs are good. And they’re deep. It’s been almost six years in the making since Mullen took over in December of 2008.

And they’re a team that believes they’re going to win every game they play. That’s not bravado or coach speak. These Bulldogs have gone into every game without ever even having the thought they might lose. And so far, they haven’t.

MSU isn’t a nice story anymore. MSU is the story. The last three games have cemented that.

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MSU, Auburn a battle of twins in appearance and style

Pop quiz: The following quotes came from either Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen or Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. Who said each and which team are they referring to?

“They have a dynamic offense. Their quarterback is one of the better quarterbacks in football,” this head coach said. “His accuracy has been extremely impressive this year, especially on play-action. Their offensive line is an experienced group. Their wide receivers are big and long and they have made some one-on-one plays. Their defense is one of the better defenses that we play.”

Not sure? Try this one.

“They have one of the top defenses in the conference,” said one of the head coaches. “You look at them, they have a lot of talented players. They roll a lot of guys through on the defensive line. They’ve got big, physical linebackers. They have great athleticism in the secondary to cover you.”

No? One more try then.

“They’ve got big-play wide receivers on the outside,” this head coach said. “Obviously, they’re a great running team with a big, physical offensive line and a bunch of different backs they’ll throw at you including their main guy who is the third-leading rusher in the SEC. Really another a huge challenge for us this week.”

If you actually guessed (I’m assuming many did not) here are the answers. The first quote comes from Malzahn talking about Dak Prescott and MSU. The second and third quotes are both from Mullen talking about Auburn.

DDNSBIQEDAXZHCJ.20140921034107The point? If it weren’t for the jerseys, you’d hardly know which team is which when MSU and Auburn play each other in Starkville on Saturday. They’re as similar of teams as there are in the SEC.

One is ranked No. 2, the other is No. 3. One has a dual-threat quarterback who is considered a Heisman contender. So does the other. Both head coaches run their offense. Each offense is a run-based spread. And the running backs in both are having very good years. The Tigers and Bulldogs both boast game-changing wide receivers. Each play-caller loves to make you bite on the play-action while also confusing you with the run-pass option.

One of the teams rotates about 10 guys on the defensive line. The other one does too. Each has a talented group of linebackers and both squads have secondaries who have been shaky at times but are loaded with talent. The defensive coordinators are considered two of the best around.

Drama can’t really be predicted, but it seems fair to say that, based on the matchup, this ought to be one of the best games of the year as the SEC season reaches its midway point.

“The last three times that I have personally coached against them,” Malzahn said, “it went down to the last play. Last season was no different; it went down to the very end.”

“Should be a pretty exciting game,” Mullen said. “Should be fun and should be a great atmosphere.”

And there lies the only obvious difference in this game: one team (MSU) is at home. The other (Auburn) is on the road. Davis Wade Stadium, newly-expanded, is completely sold out. Saturday, no matter the outcome, will absolutely be the biggest crowd in MSU history. CBS picked the game No. 1, even if the teams are technically two and three, while ESPN’s College GameDay decided to stay in the state and go to Starkville for the big SEC West showdown.

So, what of the numbers and big match-ups?

Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne is third in the conference with 596 rushing yards. MSU’s Josh Robinson is fourth with 594. However, Robinson has done it on 79 carries to Artis-Payne’s 110, an average of 7.5 yards per carry for the Bulldog and 5.4 for the Tiger. Robinson does lead in touchdowns, six-to-five.

9474562Both teams are averaging 42 points per game (technically 42.6 for MSU, fourth in the SEC). As a team, each is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, the Bulldogs averaging 272 rushing yards per game and the Tigers sitting at 268.

The teams are first (MSU) and second (Auburn) in pass efficiency in the league. Both the quarterbacks are top 10 in total offense in the conference. Prescott, second, has 337.4 yards per game (a total of 1,687 yards) while Marshall, sixth, is averaging 269.5 yards per outing for a total of 1,078 yards, though he’s played in one fewer game than Prescott.

These teams have the second (MSU) and third (Auburn) best rushing defenses in the league. The big difference defensively comes in the secondary where the Tigers are sixth in passing yards allowed and the Bulldogs are last. Though, as Mullen has pointed out, a few big plays in non-conference games (as well as having to face Texas A&M’s high-flying passing game) have kept the statistics from painting a completely accurate picture.

So who wins? What’s the difference in this game? Which hair do you split?

In a game with two quarterbacks who keep hearing that H-word, it would seem that one of them may have an opportunity to win the game for his team in one of those H-word Moments.

“We have our work cut out for us,” one of the two coaches said.

Does it matter which?

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Live blog: Dan Mullen press conference, Auburn week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with local media for his weekly press conference. No. 3 Mississippi State beat Texas A&M last weekend and hosts No. 2 Auburn this weekend. The game will be televised on CBS at 2:30 CT and ESPN’s College GameDay will be on campus.

Updates to come.

———————————————

Mullen is here! Recapping last week, making a point to credit the fans for the home field advantage.

“I think last week, they saw the type of atmosphere we have here.”

More Mullen, “It’s really exciting for the state of Mississippi, all the success teams in the state are having … There’s a lot of pride with everybody in the state of Mississippi on the football field. It’s fantastic that we could be a part of that.”

Mullen says Auburn will be “the best team we’ve played so far … A team that knows how to win.”

Said they have one of the best defenses in the conference and the most experienced quarterbacks on offense. Big-play receivers and “obviously a great running team with a big offensive line and some backs they’ll throw at you … really another huge challenge for us this week. Should be a pretty exciting game.”

On the relationship between Dak Prescott and QBs coach Brian Johnson, says it helps how comfortable Johnson is with the offense and he knows how Mullen wants quarterbacks to be talked to, what he wants them to go over after a series. Said it’s very helpful having his eyes in the sky in the press box.

“There’s really just great communication about what’s getting done on the field.”

On all the attention, Mullen says, “Rankings and things aren’t really our goal. All I see is that we’re 2-0. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Mullen was asked about Prescott as a Heisman candidate. Kind of skirted saying too much, mostly just spoke about the kind of person Prescott is, how hard he works. Did say, “our offense kind of helps that.”

On how it feels to get a big win and be ranked third, Mullen says, “In my years in this league, I’ve learned that if you win a really big game in this league, the gift is you get an even bigger game the next week. And that’s really all you get.”

On the state, Mullen: “I have a lot of pride in our university and I have a lot of pride in the state of Mississippi … You’re always hearing about the state being last in something … It’s great to have something we take pride in.”

Going forward, though, Mullen says it’s important for guys to keep level heads.

“We haven’t accomplished anything we want to accomplish,” he says.

Good question about how Prescott handles hype. Mullen said he’s very mature and able to take care of it fine. “He got here being Dak Prescott, so he can keep being Dak Prescott.”

Added that he told Prescott not to take himself too seriously, said it’s important to find people who will keep you in check.

“Have fun with it. It’s really neat. Enjoy it. Sometimes it’ll be there, sometimes it won’t … take it for what it is … The things that are constant, those are what matter.”

On freshman receiver Gabe Myles, who started in place of the injured Jameon Lewis, Mullen says he did very well. Gave credit to receivers coach Billy Gonzales as well as Lewis himself for making sure his backup was ready.

Said he sees similarities between Myles and Lewis in that both were high school quarterbacks experimenting with new positions when they got to campus. Lewis started at cornerback at MSU just like Myles did, and both have now completed a pass to Prescott this year.

Mullen says Auburn and MSU’s offenses are very similar: “Balanced, will spread you out and run it, work the play-action … It certainly is a challenge for our defensive guys.”

Mullen says there’s a good chance of WR Jameon Lewis and K Devon Bell being able to play Saturday, but it’s a “we’ll see” thing on both.

Asked about Josh Robinson, Mullen says the key for him was learning to be mature while still holding onto his personality.

On Auburn’s defense, Mullen says they will be the best and most complete group they’ve faced. “They’re deep, they roll those guys through up front. Linebackers that are big, physical guys. Athletic enough to go play man coverage. They’re a very, very well-coached outfit.”

 

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Everything but the game: Four days with fans, friends, ESPN and MSU in Starkville

7:45 a.m., Thursday, Seal Football Complex parking lot: Did you know Dan Mullen was raised around the theatre? I’ve been paid to learn things about him for the last five and a half years and had no clue his mom was a classical ballet teacher.

unnamedMississippi State’s head coach was shooting an interview with ESPN to run on SportsCenter later that morning and the producer was explaining to him how to know when the interview was starting. It’ll be fine, Mullen told him. He’s used to that stuff. He grew up around performances and knows how to recognize his cue.

Anyway, Mullen taped the interview, it went off without incident and the day began. The weekend began, really. One of the biggest weekends Starkville, Mississippi has seen. For me, it started there as I trailed the ESPN crew all day Thursday, did so again during the day Friday, hit Bulldog Bash and the Cotton District Friday night, made it to The Junction by dawn on Saturday, found my seat in the press box for the MSU-Texas A&M game around lunchtime and wandered in a daze on Saturday night trying to stay awake in my sleep-deprived delirium.

Throughout the weekend, I kept a running notebook of what I saw and heard, a timeline of somewhat-sensical observations on a throughly enjoyable (if not occasionally-exhausting) weekend.

8:30 a.m., Thursday, multipurpose room, Seal Football Complex: Is she talking to herself? Or does she have an earpiece in? Maybe she’s just rehearsing her lines.

Kaylee Hartung, one of ESPN’s rising-star personalities/reporters/faces/adventurers was getting ready for another live shot. She was behind the scenes with MSU all day, doing look-ins from the world of Bulldog football to be broadcast on the world of ESPN networks throughout the day. She was probably rehearsing her lines; trying to describe “Dawg Juice” without anyone actually telling her what exactly is in it.

“Can’t tell you that,” strength coach Rick Court said as he laughed. “But it’s nothing against the rules, obviously.”

Shortly before that shot, Hartung and the rest of the ESPN crew watched as the interview with Mullen from earlier aired on SportsCenter. ESPN watching ESPN interview Mullen on ESPN was a funny moment.

“Mississippi is a fabulous place to live,” Hartung watched Mullen tell her. “The people in Mississippi are some of the best people you can be around. My kids were born here so they’re locals, even if I’m a transplant.”

9 a.m.: Still in the same area, I was sitting at the table with Preston Smith, MSU’s breakout defensive end. I looked up and realized all the ESPN cameras were setup around our table and one of the guys was coming in to hook up a microphone on Smith.

“I need to get out of the way,” I told him.

“Don’t leave me,” he said half-jokingly. “I don’t wanna be alone.”

I think Preston is like me in that he gets chatty when he’s nervous.

“Is it heavy?” he asked one of the cameramen of his videotaping apparatus.

“After a while.”

“It’s kind of like a weight vest,” Smith observed.

12:30 p.m., defensive coaches meeting room: Geoff Collins is one of my favorite coaches I’ve been around. MSU’s defensive coordinator has made a quick name for himself since getting to Starkville, but even he got a little nervous before going live on SportsCenter to break down film on A&M with Hartung.

“I might go Ricky Bobby on you,” he warned her. “I don’t know what to do with my hands.”

unnamed-1By the end of it, whatever nervousness he’d had turned into confidence. He nailed the segment, an interview the crew was still singing the praises of later in the weekend.

“You were great,” producer Jonathan Whyley told Collins. “And I don’t give out compliments.”

I offered Collins similar praise, telling him he looked like a natural.

“You didn’t see my right leg shaking,” he whispered to me.

But he popped right back from that confession to say goodbye as the crew left the room.

“Don’t forget: at CoachCollins is the Twitter,” he called to them.

1:30 p.m., multipurpose room: It’s a late lunch for Mullen, but I get the impression his body has adjusted to his whacked out schedule and just makes the best of whatever food it gets whenever it can. Like a camel with water.

But lunchtime it is for him as he sits with Pete Thamel from Sports Illustrated. Thamel was in Starkville from Sunday-Sunday for what I assume will be a lengthy, in-depth, behind-the-scenes story on MSU’s program. He and Mullen were in a pretty deep conversation about the state of the program, what drives Mullen, how things have changed, what Dak Prescott has meant, what the fan support has been like. Everything.

Following a lull in conversation toward the end, Mullen offered a random thought as he looked back on his five-plus years at MSU.

“I love the building,” Mullen told Thamel.

“Yeah,” Thamel said, looking around, “it’s a nice facility.”

“No,” Mullen replied laughing. “I like building a program. But yeah, it’s a great facility, too.”

Noon, Friday, SEC Nation set in The Junction: Friday is generally a slow day football-wise, as players are just resting and doing last-minute study, so it’s then that the coaches visit with more of the TV folks for production meetings to get them prepared for the game. It’s a low-key day, so things of that nature are easier.

unnamed-2Around lunchtime (if such a time exists for Mullen) MSU’s head coach was off to The Junction for an interview on SportsCenter with Bram Weinstein. Typically, that’s the time on Fridays Mullen goes for a run around on campus. Instead, he skipped the cardio and found himself talking with Weinstein about all he’d ate since getting to Starkville.

Weinstein and the majority of the ESPN crew had been at Restaurant Tyler in downtown Starkville the night before. He’d eaten Little Dooey’s for lunch, while some of the crew had been to The Veranda and Bin 612, as well. Spicy fried alligator, stuffed pancakes, BBQ, nachos – all kinds of Mississippi delicacies.

“You can get some good food in the ‘Sip,” Mullen told him before their shot went live.

Weinstein agreed. You really can. I asked Hartung later that day what she thought about Starkville and her first response was how great the food is (followed by gratefulness for the impressive hospitality).

On Thursday at Restaurant Tyler, one of the producers told me about his lunch at Little Dooey while he scarfed down the plate of shrimp and grits in front of him at the moment.

“This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life,” he told me.

Not surprisingly, he’d never been to Mississippi before.

Anyway, back to The Junction, where Mullen finished his interview and walked through the crowd back to his golf cart. He stopped along the way for pictures, high fives and hugs.

“We have selfies with EVERYBODY!” one MSU fan cried in exuberance after taking one with Mullen.

Selfies are the new autographs, I think. I know Tim Tebow was in a few thousand this weekend, whether he was aware he was in all of them or not.

12:30 p.m., Seal Complex media room: Next came the production meeting I was talking about. All the ESPN crew – talent, producers, the works – who’d be working the game the next morning were meeting with coaches and players to glean whatever relevant info they could.

“You’re slimmed down, huh, coach?” one of them asked as Mullen walked in.

I guess all that running on Fridays has worked.

1:15 p.m.: After Mullen, Dak Prescott came in to chat with the group. They asked him a bunch about himself, about Mullen, about the program, about the attention he was getting and more.

At some point they asked what it was like when he got to MSU.

“I’d never even tried to read a defensive end before,” he joked, telling them how much things changed from high school to college. “I thought I was going to come in and have the Tebow role,” he told them, referencing the fact he arrived early, getting on campus in January a semester ahead of time.

But whether he was able to play or not (he wasn’t that year) Prescott was determined to help any way he could. If he couldn’t play, he’d try to win every stadium run and every weight room workout. He wanted to push his teammates and make them better, he said.

“There’s no age on leadership,” Prescott told the room. “I didn’t care that I was a freshman.”

1:30 p.m., Scott Field: I rode the golf cart over to the stadium with Prescott for his interview with Tebow (a spot which aired Saturday morning on SEC Nation).

unnamed-3The mass of people which gathered around the stadium gates as word spread that Prescott and Tebow were on the field was massive, but inside the stadium itself, it was pretty quiet. The ESPN crew stood in the middle of the field by themselves as we walked for the first meeting of the two No. 15s.

“I’m a big fan,” Prescott told Tebow as they waited on the crew to get setup,” but I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched the show much. I try to get away from distractions on gamedays.”

“Oh, man, I always watched GameDay,” Tebow responded. “I wanted to get my mind off my own game. I took in all that stuff.”

The interview went well, and was actually really interesting as the two Mullen-educated quarterbacks talked about their favorite plays from his playbook. They basically have the same preferred call, with the only difference being a change in the route of the tight end, or something of that nature

Once the interview ended, Tebow shook Prescott’s hand and then turned to the crew around them.

“Did you hear why my man told me he wears 15? That’s right!”

It’s for him, even though it’s another one-time Mullen quarterback Prescott thinks he compares more favorably to – Cam Newton.

As they left the stadium, one fan waiting called out, “I want to be like you when I grow up, Mr. Tebow!”

“I just want to be like Dak!” Tebow called back.

I asked Tebow about Prescott later that afternoon, asked him what made Prescott a Heisman candidate. Tebow’s response was similar to most when they talk about MSU’s QB: he’s got the stats, sure, but that’s only part of it.

Tebow spoke at length about the type of person Prescott is. He’s watched the same features and read the same stories on Prescott that the rest of us have. Dan and Megan Mullen, who had him over for dinner Thursday, have backed it up by telling their former quarterback what a great person their current quarterback is.

Later that night on Friday, while the rest of us were gallivanting around the Cotton District, Tebow and Prescott were moments away from having a weight room competition after Mullen said he thought Prescott would do better than Tebow. That’s why Mullen says the two are similar. Not because of their playing style, their coach or their number. Because of the type of person they are. Each refuses to be out-worked. Both are natural leaders. To see the permanent smiles they wear and their patience with attention (an ESPN staffer told me Tebow will take pictures and sign autographs for hours straight if they don’t pull him out of the crowd) you’d think neither has ever had a bad day.

6 p.m., Dawg Rally in the Cotton District: After hula-hooping children, cheering cheerleaders, a dancing dance team and some loud music, Mullen arrived at the Dawg Rally, the crowded pep rally in the middle of the Cotton District.

“Have fun tonight,” he told the crowd hanging out of windows and standing on stoops and in the street, “but get there early tomorrow. We need you. You have to cheer us on all the way to Atlanta and the SEC Championship.”

7:30 p.m., VIP tent, Bulldog Bash:

“Dude, is that Jerry Rice?” a guy at my table asked. “Yeah, that’s Jerry Rice.”

“He’s been in town all weekend,” I told him. “He was at Mullen’s radio show last night at The DawgHouse, apparently.”

Rice, from the area, finds himself in Starkville regularly, where his mother still lives. Everywhere else he goes, he’s a rock star. And he still is here, but this is home. He’s a local. He waits in line to get into a crowded restaurant on Main Street just like everyone else. He doesn’t travel with an entourage or security guards when he’s in Starkville. Just him and a friend or two, whoever else is in town he knows.

I popped another hushpuppy as he kept watching the band from his table.

8 p.m.:

“Is that Marcus Spears?” the same friend, Kyle, asked.

Sure is, I told him. The ESPN crew had passes for the night (a list I managed to sneak myself onto, making me feel much cooler than I am).

“Oh, man. I want to meet him.”

8:15 p.m.: I ran into a few of the guys from that crew and asked the producer how the day had gone.

“You get some good stuff for tomorrow?”

“Man, we’re gonna blow everyone else out of the water,” he told me. “The way our guys put this together, everyone is going to want to go to Mississippi State.”

8:30 p.m.: I have no idea who the band was, but their singer was on stage talking between songs.

“Any of y’all feel like you were born 50 years too late?”

A few people cheered, most of the crowd unsure of where he was going with this.

“If you wanna ditch your phone and just go out in the woods with everybody, lemme hear you! If you wanna go fishin’ with nothin’ but string and a cork, lemme hear you! Y’all come see me at the merch stand. I wanna shake yer hand and look you in the eye.”

8: 35 p.m.:

“Seriously, think I could go talk to Marcus? I just want to thank him for coming,” Kyle said. “Like, on behalf of MSU and our fans, all of us people, we just appreciate you coming here. You think it’d be cool?”

“I’m sure it’s fine. He’s talking to fans right now.”

“OK, I’m going in.”

8:38 p.m.:

“I did it! He was cool. He said he’s having a good time.”

Spears on the stage at Bulldog Bash

Spears on the stage at Bulldog Bash

It’s not surprising. Mississippi is Spears’ kind of scene. I overheard him asking a group of fraternity guys at the SEC Nation set Friday if they knew of any good fishin’ holes nearby.

Before long, Spears had somehow found his way on stage, predicted an MSU win (much to the delight of the thousands and thousands of fans at Bulldog Bash) and led everyone there in singing the fight song.

10:30 p.m.?: Somewhere around here I stopped writing down timestamps in my notebook of observations and eavesdroppings, but if I was tired from a long week, it wasn’t so bad as the guy I saw standing in the middle of the crowd with his head drooping and his eyes completely closed. There’s no way he was anything but fast asleep. Impressive that he was staying on his feet in such a state.

At one time or another, I made a quick run back to my house nearby to welcome a friend who had just gotten to town.

“What time should we get to the stadium?” my brother asked him.

“I want as much Junction time as possible,” Reed responded.

“The Jack Cristil tribute starts a little after 10:30,” I told them. “Video, missing man flyover. Bunch of good stuff.”

“10:30 it is,” they said.

Back at Bulldog Bash, I wrote down a quick snippet of yelled conversation.

“I mean, I like him.”

“It’s OK if you don’t.”

“Yeah…I really don’t like him.”

“No worries, man. You’re not supposed to.”

“I mean, we really don’t like each other.”

“That’s healthy.”

5:45 a.m., Saturday, University Drive: It’s that early point of the morning where you can’t yet see the sun but you get a little bit of it’s light. A truck spraying insecticide drove by, as if trying to clean away the sins of the night before.

Somewhere, a fire truck sounded.

At the end of someone’s sidewalk was an open box with an entire carrot cake, icing untouched.

Further down the sidewalk, it looked like someone had tried to leave a trail of bread crumbs, but instead of crumbs it was entire pieces of pizza, leading all the way to the door of a house where someone surely slept with an empty stomach having lost all their pizza to the ground.

The first group of tailgaters I found was the Rester family, a group of locals I grew up with. The patriarch had arrived at 4:30 in the morning, not because he had to set up, but just because he couldn’t sleep. He was too excited.

“I skipped work yesterday,” he told me (hope this doesn’t get you in trouble!). “I couldn’t do it. I saw Jackie Sherrill at breakfast and thought, ‘Alright, this is an omen.’”

6:45 a.m.: The next group I found one was one which had invited me on Twitter and had a sweet setup. Two tents, TV, bacon on the grill. They were doing it right.

“I had to ride my bike down the highway at 5 a.m. to get here,” Arthur told me. “I had to leave the truck so my wife can bring the kid later.”

Dedication.

6:50 a.m.: I saw a little kid all bundled up in MSU gear with his mom and asked if I could take his picture. He ran away. I’m gonna be a great dad.

unnamed-47:00 a.m., The Junction, SEC Nation set:

“I hope GameDay comes next week,” local celebrity Lee Battle told me. “I’ve got some things I want to say to Desmond Howard.”

Like what?

“Like 52-14, that’s what,” he answered, referencing MSU’s win over Michigan in the Gator Bowl a few years ago.

Elsewhere in The Junction, I talked to a father and son who had driven over at the crack of dawn from Columbus.

“The lights of Davis Wade were brighter than the sun,” they said.

At the tent next door, the matriarch of a mixed bag of college friends and their families said she got up at 3:30 to get everything ready and make it from Jackson.

7:30 a.m.: Food. So much food. Again, as Mullen said, you eat well in Mississippi.

A group led by locals Darrin Dodds and Angus Catchot set up their massive grill, smoker, pots and tables at the intersection near the ESPN set on Creelman next to Dorman Hall. They were cooking 250 ribeyes Saturday. Breakfast sausage, boiled peanuts, chicken legs and brisket, too. Anything they could think of.

“It’s just for whoever wants to come by,” they told me.

“Free game?” I asked.

“Free game.”

unnamed-6For Southern Miss, they had made 400 quartered chickens and 500 sausage dogs. They love to feed as much as they love to eat.

On the other side of the tailgate scene, in front of the police station near The Union and the Chapel of Memories, Guy Bader became my hero.

A big MSU fan, Guy lives in Franklin, Tennessee where he runs Papa Boudreaux’s, a Cajun restaurant. Here in Starkville, he’d brought some of his goodies, including breakfast jambalaya. Yeah, that’s a thing. And it’s incredible. Jambalaya rice mixed with eggs, sausage, cheese and maple bacon. Holy wow. It’s like falling in love. And along with it came his peach-bourbon bread pudding. If the jambalaya was falling in love, the bread pudding was having your first kid.

9 a.m.: Back in The Junction, I was trying to make my way through to the SEC Nation set as the show had just started. The Dawg Walk was at 9:10, so it was kind of difficult get around. I somehow found an open path to walk and that’s when possibly the coolest moment of my life happened.

unnamed-5I should’ve realized where I was, but I just wasn’t tracking. The reason that sidewalk was open was because it was the actual path the Dawg Walk takes place on. Either side of the pavement was lined 10-deep with State fans waiting on Mullen, Prescott and all their favorite Bulldogs to pass by. At the moment, all they were getting was me. A security guard probably should’ve stopped me from my mistake, but apparently none noticed me.

A few strides down the sidewalk, a group of guys I grew up with saw me and started yelling and high-fiving me, because why not. It was a happy day. The problem was, everyone else heard yelling and saw movement and assumed the Dawgs must be there. All the fans nearby started yelling, too, ringing cowbells, shouting, screaming and reaching out for high fives and handshakes.

As they yelled, I walked on through with arms out returning the greetings and feeling for about three seconds what it must be like to be Dak Prescott all the time.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the cheering to stop once they realized it was just some skinny dude with glasses and backpack.

unnamed-711 a.m., Davis Wade Stadium: I think the game itself has been discussed enough, so I’ll just share one quote I overheard in the press box.

“I’m sorry, Mississippi State,” someone said behind my shoulder. “I was very, very wrong.”

4:30 p.m., The Junction: Seemingly every tailgater in Starkville had found their way to a TV to watch Ole Miss and Alabama play, a highly-entertaining game just a couple hours northwest.

I stood in a circle with close to a dozen old college buddies, everybody breaking down the game and projecting the rest of the season based purely on the outcome of Saturday afternoon. Hard to blame them, of course.

During a timeout in game play, one friend at the next tent over offered an observation on the group styling itself ‘The Juice Boys,’ the group of injured and redshirting MSU players who wear sweats in the bench area during games.

“Those boys on the sideline are awesome,” she told me. “They get the team pumped up. They get the crowd pumped up. They’re great.”

Midnight, Starkville:

“We’re gonna be the first 15-0 team in college football history,” one fan said, keeping his expectations realistic.

10:00 a.m., Sunday, my living room:

“Yesterday was fun,” my brother James said.

“Yes it was,” I replied.

“I can’t imagine how next week can top it,” he mused.

“And it probably will,” I said.

“Yep.”

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MSU’s win over A&M an emotional day for Mullen

It was a perfect day. It really was. The sky was clear, light blue. The clouds were wisps of pure white. It was 65 degrees and sunny by halftime of Mississippi State and Texas A&M’s football game.

And that game. Man. It was a night game under the light of day, truly.

“That was the best atmosphere Davis Wade has ever had,” one fan said after the game.

And that meant everything. To Dan Mullen, the head coach who is finally seeing the realization of a future he planned nearly six years ago. To Mark Keenum, the President. To Scott Stricklin, the Athletic Director. And especially to the players.

HJOMBJXVVFIRPQO.20141004182958Dak Prescott walked through the Dawg Walk first thing in the morning in shades, a bow tie and a maroon sweater, with two security guards flanking him.

He was a rock star. He was John Lennon in the middle of Beatlemania and the Maroon and White throng could’ve been Times Square at midnight of New Year’s Eve instead of Starkville, Mississippi early on a Saturday morning.

“I don’t know if I’ve heard a louder Dawg Walk,” Mullen said after the game, “and that was at 9 a.m.”

It’s hard to tell if he was trying to hide it or just let it go without caring, but Mullen was as emotional as he’s ever been in a post-game press conference on Saturday afternoon.

He beat LSU two weeks ago and he came into interviews happy, but with a twinge of annoyance. On Saturday, after beating A&M, the littlest things made his voice crack, halted his words while he caught his breath. It wasn’t about the Aggies, though. It mattered that they were a Top-10 team, certainly, but it’s not as if Mullen had been harboring some soul-clenching desire to beat Kevin Sumlin.

In fact, it had shockingly little to with any of the people on the sideline or on the field. Mullen opened his press conference with a rush of gratitude and praise for the 62,000 people in Davis Wade Stadium around him.

ZGNXUNKZOLPOLSX.20141004202651MSU’s head coach delivered an improvisational and extemporaneous monologue straight from the heart, where that perfect day meant the most. He was asked a question and spoke quickly, no delay between thoughts and words.

“You know what, it was pretty special,” Mullen said. “The first thing – I remember getting here six years ago. I always bring it up. I said, ‘Listen. To build a winning program, you need to sell out [games].” The fans. It’s not win first. Fans show up. If the fans show up and start believing in the program and supporting the program, then the wins will come. And it’s so rewarding. They believed me. We started the sellout streak back in a season that we went 2-5 at home and our fans started believing. Now, right here, Starkville, Mississippi, Davis Wade Stadium has become a hard place for teams to come play, and that is all due to our fanbase. You know what, and them believing is pretty special. It shows that all of us together – from Dr. Keenum to Scott Stricklin to our entire fanbase – everyone bought in to what we needed to do to build a winning program. It’s so rewarding to see that.”

This particular game seems to mean so much to you, Dan, one reporter observed, remarking on his emotion. Why is that?

“Oh, goodness. Because it’s hard to win. It is hard to win in the SEC, you know what I mean? It is. I tell you what. Honestly, I think game day, it’s like getting on a roller coaster. Pre-game is like climbing up to the top of that roller coaster. In post-game it stops and in between it’s a straight downhill drop for three-and-a-half hours.

“It’s emotionally exhausting out there on the field. I put everything into this. My family puts everything into this. Our coaching staff and their families put everything into it. Our players put everything into this performance on the field. To get a win is just so rewarding.”

It wasn’t just Mullen who noticed it.

His players saw the same scene. They felt the same feelings.

“It felt like a night game the whole time,” fifth-year senior Ben Beckwith said. “There was never a lull. We feed off that. Best day crowd I’ve ever played in front of in my five years. Probably one of the best wins in State history.”

FWXPEKPHNLCFVUH.20141004185209The crowd was electric, but it was a performance which equaled that of the team they cheered on as the Bulldogs trounced the Aggies, embarrassing the No. 6 team in the country on national TV.

Their previous win over LSU was the coming out party. This week was the record-breaking sequel, the first time in history MSU has beaten two Top-10 teams in the same season.

And it was a team-effort, clichéd as that may sound. With two-and-a-half minutes to go, MSU led 48-17, though the score finally settled on 48-31. The defense played lights out and the offense played like the lights were on all day.

As great as the overall performance was, though, it was the show put on by one individual which received the most attention. It’s funny, because he hates it.

“I just don’t want people to overlook my team in the SEC West,” Dak Prescott said when asked about the Heisman, deflecting any praise people would try to heap on him.

NJZCASOHEULHLCN.20141004185209And oh yeah, that thing. That golden trophy. The big one. The questions were natural after he totaled five touchdowns and 352 yards on such a big stage. He’s got nearly 2,000 all-purpose yards and is responsible for 20 touchdowns in only five games so far in 2014.

But, Beckwith warns, don’t utter that H-Word around the guy who is one of the favorites to win it right now.

The Heisman is Dak’s Voldemort – it’s the Award That Must Not Be Named.

“We never bring it up in front of him,” Beckwith said. “He gets mad.”

All the more reason that he’s up for it. When former winner of the You Know What Trophy Tim Tebow was in town, he said Prescott is a favorite for it not because of the numbers (which he’s got) but because of the kind of person he is. He’s every bit as impressive off the field as he is on it, and the college football world has noticed. They’re continuing to notice as the hype is building.

But Prescott was representative of his team Saturday. Seemingly all of the college football media descended on Starkville and Mississippi this week. Some asked if it was too much, if it would be a distraction to the Bulldogs who weren’t used to such things.

Mullen, Prescott and all 100-plus players, coaches and staff answered the question decisively.

We are ready,” Saturday seemed to say. “We are here and we’re not going away.”

NDLXFQWJUQJEWQG.20141004205939In part, it’s that attention which has made it so special to MSU. It’s the faith and support from their fans.

And as big and unprecedented a week as this was, the next week will only be bigger when undefeated Auburn comes to Starkville, two of the three teams tied atop the conference facing off for a leg up in the SEC West race.

“We’re gonna have people sitting on the top of the Jumbotron,” junior running back Josh Robinson said. “The Bulldog Nation, we love them to death. Cold, sleet or snow, they support us no matter what.”

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