Dan Mullen, Geoff Collins visit government classes at MSU

It must be a strange thing as a freshman in college to be sitting in class and have the defensive coordinator of your favorite football team show up and start giving you a pep talk for finals.

unnamedMississippi State defensive coordinator ran down the aisle of a 9:30 a.m. American Government class yelling “TURN UP!” at the hundreds of students in the auditorium.

He was invited, of course, by their teacher Whit Waide, the once-long-haired man affectionately called the People’s Professor at MSU. Every year he surprises his classes with a visit from somebody before finals. Sometimes it’s Bully. Thursday morning it was Collins.

Then, in his 12:30 section of American Government later that day, it was Dan Mullen, the head coach himself. While Collins brought the expected juice and swag in his early morning visit, Mullen’s time on the stage of the Hand Auditorium was more commencement speech than pep rally.

Each talk, however, was a weaving of academics and football on a campus built for one and enjoying the success of the other.

“I believe in the symbolic power of having a great football team,” Waide told his students before introducing the guest speaker. “I believe in the success of a football program bringing success to the rest of the university.”

While Waide, on his side of the school, has seen the momentum come from the athletic side of campus, Mullen said his program has been built on the back of the rest of the university.

Looking around the room, Mullen asked Waide how old the students were.

“We’ve got a mix of everyone,” he replied, “but mostly freshmen and sophomores.”

Mullen, used to speaking with older State fans and alumni, realized something early in his talk.

“You know how great Mississippi State is,” he said, “because that’s how it’s been since you’ve been here. That’s all you know.

“It didn’t just happen,” Mullen told them, beginning to make his point.

The head coach told them about the President, Dr. Mark Keenum, who started the immense growth in success (and size) the school has seen over most of the last decade. When Mullen was hired almost six years ago, he said, the wheels of change were already in motion.

There were those who had trouble adjusting to that change they feared so much, but at the top, where it really mattered to Mullen, he knew he had someone (a boss, technically) he could line up behind.

“We had a great President who believed in building the University as a whole,” Mullen said. “Everybody started to come together about how great we could be. That’s what it takes.”

From there, Mullen turned the focus back on the students.

“They don’t judge this American Government class against the government class at that school up north,” he said. “But in football, they do that, and it’s a great source of pride for our university.

“I’d like to see how your grades would improve if they posted the test scores next to your name on the ESPN ticker.”

unnamed-1Mullen went on to challenge the students in what takes to be great, what it takes to be successful. The difference between wanting and wishing, he said. (“I wish I could lose weight,” he said, “but then they had those cookies with cream in the middle at lunch. If I wanted to lose weight, I wouldn’t have eaten that. But I did, so I guess I’m just wishing.”)

“Here at Mississippi State, we’ve proven a lot of people wrong. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do,” he said as he neared the finish. “Your challenge is to do the absolute best you can and never let anyone tell you what you can’t do.

“I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface of everything we can be at Mississippi State.”

At that point, the scene turned from one speaker with many listeners to a selfie and handshake session with MSU’s head coach and the many students who were surprised to find him in their classroom.

Mullen was natural on that stage, and as Waide later mused, he’d be a great teacher if he ever decided to get into academics.

“Ultimately,” Mullen said in a moment of introspection, “I view myself as an educator. I just teach football.”

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Senior Day stands as one more step on a long road for MSU’s Ben Beckwith

There aren’t many places Ben Beckwith would rather be than the middle of the woods on a cold Saturday morning. It’s nice to be away from the noise and bother of people and cars, though his hometown of Benton, Mississippi would be considered quiet by most (“There are two stop signs, two gas stations and a little barber shop and a little antique store,” Beckwith lists off. “That’s about it.”) In the trees, he can settle in and become part of the terrain that made him who he is. Watchful but calm, he’s at peace.

unnamedWhile most high school students are late to class because they slept through their alarm or stopped for donuts, Beckwith and buddies from his graduating class of 21 people at Benton Academy were late to school and sometimes missed it altogether because they were up early and off in the woods duck hunting. They often learned more out there anyway, nothing against standardized education.

But Beckwith, an admittedly passionate and emotional creature, has more loves than just hunting. His big heart, pumping blood to his correspondingly big body, has been won by a mistress even greater than the chase of duck or deer.

“I’d take Saturday night in Davis Wade Stadium over any time in the woods hunting, for sure,” he said. “They’re close though, I’ll say that.”

Hunting and football, the two loves of just about every small-town Mississippi boy. Most, however, eventually have to settle for just watching the football. Despite their hours after school on practice fields and in rundown weight rooms, or their moments of glory in the school gym at pep rallies and running through painted signs held in front of goalposts before games, the cleats are eventually exchanged for remote controls.

Beckwith, on the other hand, is living that dream. A senior offensive lineman at Mississippi State, Saturday will be the final night under the lights of Davis Wade for the surprise star in Maroon and White. He started his career at MSU as a walk-on no one else wanted, and he’s finishing it as an award-winning starter on one of the best teams in the country.

Beckwith is proof a country boy can do much more than just survive. This country boy has thrived.

“He’s Mississippi State in and out,” friend, teammate and quarterback Dak Prescott said. “A guy who had to walk on and fight for a position and fight for a scholarship … I love being on the field with him and having him protect me.”

unnamed-3Beckwith’s path from walk-on nobody to SEC somebody is a journey mirroring the steps of his life as a person. Growing up, Beckwith kept to himself. As much as he could in a town like Benton, anyway, where everyone keeps up with everybody. (“We had four girls in our class,” Beckwith says. “Once you date one girl, everyone knows your secrets.”)

But just as football helped him make a name for himself in high school (he played with the varsity team as a ninth grader), it’s done the same at MSU, where he’s gone from the hairy guy in freshman classes to Ben Beckwith: SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week, Burlsworth Semifinalist and State football’s co-favorite head of hair. The goofy personality he always kept hidden to all but close friends has blossomed in Starkville.

What’s funny, though, is that he didn’t always want what he has now. Football was great, but of his many loves, baseball was once the greatest of them all.

Beckwith was a first baseman, third baseman, pitcher and clean-up hitter (“I was the power in the lineup,” he said, gesturing to his sizable frame.)

“My dad always said I had a knack when I was little kid for catching a ball,” Beckwith said. “I always had a ball in my hand.”

That athleticism ran in the family, it turns out. Beckwith’s older brother, who he refers to as B-Dub, was a two-sport star, as well, and went on to play baseball in college. Trying to keep up with big brother, who is six years older, middle school-age Ben would get in the batting cage his family had and crank the pitching machine up to 85 MPH just so he could try and match his brother. Age and experience be damned, Ben wanted to beat his larger and stronger sibling at everything, hopeless as it sometimes was.

“That made me who I am,” Ben said. “I get mad when I lose in Monopoly on Friday nights in the hotel. That competitive edge with my brother made me the athlete I am.”

It’s a spirit that eventually led to Beckwith’s arrival in Starkville. In high school, his parents explained to him, as gently as possible, that he was “getting pretty big” and might want to focus on football. Shortly after that speech, Beckwith suffered an arm injury which sidetracked his baseball career, so he followed their advice, going from camp to camp on the football recruiting circuit whenever and wherever he could, knowing that relatively few colleges were going to happen upon him at Benton Academy.

One of those stops included MSU, where a friend of Beckwith’s named Kaleb Eulls was committed to play as a four-star defensive lineman and a man he hadn’t yet met was unknowingly waiting to become his next coach: John Hevesy, the new offensive line coach under Dan Mullen.

“Coach Hevesy told me he thought I had a lot of potential,” Beckwith said. “He told me he didn’t have a scholarship to offer me, but that he would like for me to walk on.”

It was a reality Beckwith knew was coming, and one he was too stubborn to avoid. He flat out refused to go to junior college or a lower division of four-year football.

“I knew I could play in the SEC,” he said. “So I walked on here … Ever since then I have done everything [Hevesy] has told me to do and it has worked for me.”

So here he is, Ben Beckwith, the man who avoided the What-Ifs and Coulda-Beens of so many like him. He’s a fitting representative for this Mississippi State team, a brotherhood home to several with a similar story.

523506d8ed4d3-imageThese Bulldogs have become one of the best in the country on the backs of people who had the same combination of confidence and stubbornness. They, as Beckwith said leading up to his final home game, have a point to prove.

“This whole team is made up of guys that came from nowhere, came from nothing, nobody really wanted them,” Beckwith said. “We were the last picks. We all have that resemblance to each other and connect on that level. We came into this together and want to make it better than it was when we came in.”

Ask any of them, and they’ll say the same. Their pride in where they are comes out of love for where they’ve been. For Beckwith, it’s Benton. It’s the woods. It’s the place that shaped him, molded him, chiseled him and prepared for him where he stands now.

“Coming up in Mississippi has made me who I am,” Beckwith now says. “It made me a hard working person. It made me want to strive to be better in life and better in everything I do.”

It’s that life experience that made it so easy to connect with his new teammates in Starkville, guys he practiced, played and hunted with the last five years.

“I still have a group chat that I have had with these guys for two or three years now. Mark Melichar, D.J. Looney, Addison and Cameron Lawrence, John McMillian and Zach Smith,” Beckwith says. “They took me under their wing … They are the reason I am who I am. They taught me the ropes and taught me to be tough. I love those guys. They will be people I talk to until the day I die. They are life long friends. Guys like that are the reason we are here today. They built up State into what it is now.”

unnamed-2They’re all connected for the same reason. They’re made from the same stuff, born of the same earth. The Lawrence brothers are from a place called Coldwater, Mississippi, population 1,700 and named so because of the Coldwater River which, yes, is a river of cold water. Mississippi has never been particularly subtle. But she’s always been honest, always been strong, whatever befalls her.

Coming from a place where everyone back home knows what you do one way or another, it’s lucky for Ben he’s done so well. Most of the time, anyway.

“Everyone keeps up with me and tells me how proud they are of me,” he said, “but when I got the personal foul the other night, everyone was telling me I had to watch it.”

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Big picture: Looking at postseason scenarios for MSU

Good news for Mississippi State: the Playoff Committee kept them in the top four, checking in at that magic No. 4 spot.

Going forward: things are still murky.

NGOTKWKNTGPUXCZ.20140906202720It’s good for Dan Mullen’s team to see it’s still in the playoff picture after its first loss of the season (a five-point road loss to No. 1 Alabama). But, at the risk of being too obvious, it’s the final ranking on December 7th that will matter. Where will MSU stand by then?

Some say it’s possible the Bulldogs could fall out of the Top Four simply by other teams enhancing their résumés and therefore jumping the Dawgs. Others insist a one-loss SEC West team would be tough to keep out, conference champion or not.

While there are only two regular-season weeks left for MSU, plenty of options remain. The key for State, obviously, is to win out. That might be a lot to ask, especially with a road trip to Ole Miss in two weeks, but they’ve done a lot to be in this position already.

So, let’s look at some possibilities if MSU does finish the regular season with wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi.

MSU could still win the SEC if they win out and Alabama loses to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. If the Bulldogs go to Atlanta and beat whoever comes out of the SEC East (again, emphasis on IF), they’d have to be in, one would think.

If Alabama and MSU both win out and the Tide win the West, things get more dicey for the Dawgs.

As it stands now, there are four one-loss teams who would appear to be fighting for the same final spot. Let’s look at what each of those teams have remaining.

  • No. 4 MSU: vs. Vanderbilt, at No. 8 Ole Miss
  • No. 7 Baylor: vs Oklahoma State, vs Texas Tech, vs. No. 12 Kansas State.
  • No. 5 TCU: at Texas, vs. Iowa State
  • No. 6 Ohio State: vs. Indiana, vs. Michigan, potential Big Ten championship game vs. No. 14 Wisconsin

Under the assumption that the current rankings reflect what the committee thinks about each team’s body of work to this point, it’s what they have left that could bring about change.

If that’s the case, MSU would have the “best” possible remaining win if opponent rankings holds. So, as much it may pain them to do, State fans might want to cheer for the Rebels against Arkansas this weekend in the hopes of getting a more impressive final win in the Egg Bowl.

Ohio State gets an edge by being able to play an extra game by means of the title match, though a potential neutral site win over Wisconsin currently projects as slightly less impressive (in terms of opponent rank) than an MSU road Egg Bowl win would, if examined in a vacuum like that.

Neither TCU or Baylor would have the advantage of a title game, but one of them will be able to claim the title as Big 12 Champion, which would weigh against MSU if it’s not the SEC champ.

And that’s a question, too. If all teams win out and have the same 11-1 regular season record, can the committee fault those who are in tougher/weaker/different conferences for not getting the same title as the others? To be sure, at this point, MSU has the “best” loss of the bunch coming to No. 1 Alabama, while Baylor and Ohio State’s losses came against unranked teams. TCU’s loss to Baylor stands clear as the second best among the losses. The hard part for MSU is that the loss to ‘Bama is also the most recent of the losses in question.

Debate remains about the merits and quality of wins each team has already, but our only option is to presume the current playoff rankings reflect the committee’s opinion on those when stacked against each other.

Of course, there’s the possibility for all teams involved to lose a game between now and December 7th, in which case the committee may need the Rosetta Stone to translate the meaning of the season’s results. It’s also possible, say, that No. 3 Florida State loses a game. If that happens, how many of the one-loss teams we’re looking at right now would jump the Seminoles?

The point is to say, at the moment, we know the possibilities, but guessing which ones come to fruition is next to impossible. At the very least, it ought to be an entertaining and likely stressful few weeks for college football fans.

Here’s the link for the full rankings.

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Live-blog: Dan Mullen press conference, Vandy week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with the media for his weekly press conference. No. 4 Mississippi State lost to Alabama last weekend and hosts Vanderbilt on Saturday at 6:30 on SEC Network for Senior Night.

Live updates to follow. In the meantime, the latest episode of This Is Our Plate is linked below, making jambalaya with Chef Elvis, the chef of the premium seating at Davis Wade Stadium.

—————————————-

Mullen’s here. Let’s rap.

He starts off talking about Senior Day.

“They’ve set a lot of records at Mississippi State,” he says. “A great day to come out and honor them.”

On to Vanderbilt, Mullen says “they’ve got a very, very young team. I think they’ve really made some strides.” Adds that “they’re a tough defense, play hard, play physical.”

Mullen asked how the team has responded to the loss.

“We had a good practice yesterday.” Team is off today, back at practice tomorrow.

“I think we’ve handled winning very well this season, so we’ll see how we handle adversity.”

Mullen talking about Jameon Lewis now, said the trainers thought he was in good shape after the game. He loves having Tubby back.

On rankings, Mullen says, “there’s so much football to be played this year … I’m more focused on trying to beat Vanderbilt and I’m sure they’re more focused on trying to rank those 120 teams.”

Being asked about interceptions, Mullen bristled a bit, didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Said they were all different and you can’t offer one answer to all of them.

As expected, Mullen asked about how he handles going from hot seat last year to being a hot name this year.

“I live in reality. My reality is finding a way to win football games here at MSU … I don’t live in the chat line, blog line, call-in radio show world.”

On postseason future, Mullen says, “All you can control is this week’s game … When you start worrying about too many other big things, that’s when you start losing.”

Mullen adds that leadership has been good this year in the locker room and he’s not concerned about motivation or looking ahead. he trusts his leaders and captains to keep the team focused.

 

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Bump in the road, not the end of it, for MSU after loss to Alabama

Dak Prescott, eyes unfocused, looked somewhere over the heads of the reporters surrounding him and asking questions about a game in which he threw three interceptions and his previously-undefeated Bulldogs suffered loss for the first time all season.

“It sucks,” he said. “Regardless of how we’ve done before. I don’t like this feeling.”

No one around him did, not in the locker room. Not on the sideline, either, and certainly not in the collective hearts of the Mississippi State fans who thought this trip to Alabama was going to be different. UDATDCVZSZNYGQS.20141115232932But it wasn’t. Not in the final score, anyway – 25-20, home team. No one in history has beaten MSU more than ‘Bama. The Tide haven’t had as much success against anyone all-time as they have the Bulldogs.

State was determined to break the pattern, but history, as it so regularly seems to do, repeated itself. It was different this time, though. Far different for MSU, team and fans alike. The Bulldogs were undefeated, No. 1 in the country for the first time in their 100-plus year history of fielding teams. That made the buildup up to Saturday better than ever. And it made the loss harder than almost anything State fans have experienced, simply because there had never been so much on the line, dreams of National Titles and Heismans dancing in their heads.

Lord Tennyson suggested it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. With the disappointment and seemingly-broken dreams they have now, might it have actually been worse to have been first and lost than to have never been first at all for these Bulldogs? As terrible as MSU feels now, a world seemingly thrown into darkness in the middle of the day, Dan Mullen’s words to his team offered no hint of the end being near.

“We should feel awful right now. We just lost a football game,” Mullen said. “We should embrace that feeling, that sickness in our stomach right now. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

That’s the option the Bulldogs have now. With two games left in the regular season, Mississippi State and its fanbase can accept the Shakespearean ending, drink the poison and die together, or they can stand back up, fight the forces standing against them and re-enter the battlefield hand-in-hand. Josh Robinson knows the choice his gridiron brothers will make.

“I know my teammates,” he said. “We have that bond. We’re never gonna roll over. That’s just not us. It’s not in our character, it’s not in us.” Said Prescott, “We know the team we are. I still think we’re one of the best four teams in the country, we just played one of the other best four teams in the country. I consider it an early playoff game.”

QMJCSBYHUGAHFFG.20141115232932If it actually were the playoffs, Saturday in Tuscaloosa would have been the end for MSU. But with more season left, State has the rare opportunity to suffer devastating loss and come back stronger.

They may need help to do it, but the Bulldogs have things to build on. Especially coming out of a game where Prescott totaled nearly 400 yards, despite his three interceptions, and in a game where MSU’s defense looked championship-caliber for nearly the whole show, tiring just once when Blake Sims and TJ Yeldon worked third down magic again and again to strike the final blow.

The road is harder, yes, but the 9-1 Bulldogs are still alive for the playoffs, still in reach of the best season in school history, and heck, they’re still tied for first in the SEC. They don’t need that much help.

Hope is not lost where passion remains. MSU is down for the night, but far, far from out.

“We haven’t felt this way in a while and I don’t want to feel this way again,” Prescott said. “I’ll remember this feeling I have in my stomach.”

Hope can be a dangerous thing to lose, but motivation is a far more powerful tool to wield.

“Every goal we have,” Mullen said, “is still intact.”

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MSU’s season-opener tonight Ray’s first real show

Today marks the start of year three for Rick Ray at Mississippi State when his Bulldogs host Western Carolina at 5:30 on college basketball’s opening day.

YZGKCFJQZRZMOHW.20141002153256Technically year three, that is. But in practice (of all sorts), while it’s year three of basketball under Rick Ray, it’s year one of Rick Ray Basketball.

Tonight, even without two starters who are two of his better players, Ray will showcase for the first time the kind of basketball he envisioned when he was hired to take over MSU’s program.

He has to be tired of the constant questions about the roster mess he inherited, a offseason mix of transfers, injuries, graduates and early-entry NBA hopefuls. But Ray doesn’t show it, politely and intelligently answering the questions, which all go in some variation of the same query.

How does it feel to actually have a full roster for the first time?

Well, he can actually make substitutions now. That’s a nice change.

“The unique thing about our team,” Ray said, “is when we sub we actually get longer, quicker and more athletic.”

In years past, the only time MSU had enough bodies for more than one lineup was in practice when assistant coaches and managers put on jerseys.

The other nice thing for Ray is that he’s got quality subs, too. As he jokes, he’s had to send in a 6-foot walk-on to guard future NBA Lottery picks in the past. Nothing against those guys, of course, but that’s about the perfect example of the knife brought to a gunfight.

Ray saw the change, the presence of depth, in MSU’s exhibition last week.

“There was no one,” he said afterward, “that didn’t deserve minutes.”

Just watching the game, there was hardly any dropoff from the starters to the next group in. The fact there even is a next group in is nice, let alone that they’re good. The infusion of talent happened quickly, too. No longer just depending on the trio of Craig Sword, Fred Thomas and Gavin Ware, Ray has a whole bench full of playmakers.

Shooters and drivers, physicality in the post and finesse in the post, mismatches big and small.

But the most important thing, the biggest difference those watching this year will see, is one word: defense.

“That’s all we work on,” Thomas said. “Defense, defense, defense.”

So, when asked if this MSU team is the first who will really display the type of basketball Ray envisioned, that’s where he went.

“I think what you’re referring to is our ability to stretch the defense and use all 90 feet,” Ray said.

Exactly. That’s how he wants to play. Press defense, forcing opposing teams to use the entire court and as much of the shot clock as they can.

The idea is that such a defense turns into an offense on its own, transition buckets off turnovers being the big moneymakers. And in set offenses, MSU has the playmakers to run the motion Ray wants and be effective, as well as dangerous.

BWKVRVXZIBTSFVC.20141107030009Either side of the court, MSU is quickly developing. There’s something, players say, to that whole iron sharpens iron thought. It’s been evident in preseason preparation.

“The thing that we’ve been able to see is our practice intensity has maintained a lot longer than it has in the past because we have that depth,” Ray said.

Moreso, he added, there’s actual competition. In the past, if you were healthy, you played. There was little motivation to work harder and get better. Now, with a full compliment of players, your spot can be taken as soon as you slip.

Then there’s also the idea that it’s no longer a one-man show. Or a few-man show, as it were. Having talent surrounded by talent only makes that talent better.

Ware offers power in the post, while Fallou Ndoye now adds the finesse to pair with it. Where Sword and freshman Demetrius Houston are athletic guards who can get to the basket, Thomas and freshman Maurice Dunlap can take the dish on the perimeter and hit big shots. Both are talented defenders, as well. Ray himself said he expects Thomas to be All-SEC defensive team by year’s end.

Then there’s junior Travis Daniels, who MSU hasn’t had anyone like. He starts at three spot, but he’s got enough size to play in the post as a four, as well as enough to skill to bring the ball up the court and fulfill the same duties as any other guard.

He’s got experience point guards in Trivante Bloodman and IJ Ready and a wily veteran in senior forward Roquez Johnson.

For the first time, he’s got the necessary pieces. Now that MSU actually has depth and talent, Ray can’t wait to use it.

“That’s something we want to see,” Ray said. “Continually wear down the other team with our length and size and athleticism.”

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Back to being underdogs, Mississippi State is angry as it heads to Alabama

There’s a little something beneath their words this week, a hint of passion they can’t quite hide. Mississippi State receiver and Birmingham, Alabama, native De’Runnya Wilson is usually pretty good about not saying too much in interviews.

“I didn’t want to go to Alabama,” he told reporters this week, referring to his high school recruitment.

But he may have given himself away immediately after.

“I grew up liking Alabama.”

RVUTUCVJSJSBPQI.20141102033732In fact, Wilson remembers his first phone call from those in Tuscaloosa. It was the Friday after one of his Thursday night high school games, and the Crimson Tide were one of the first schools to contact him. He talked to an assistant for a few minutes. And they never called him again.

“That’s the last time I heard from Alabama,” Wilson said.

But if he has his way, it won’t be the last time Alabama hears from him. A piece of that anger he tried to hide slipped out just in interviews this week, and Wilson is one of many who have a similar story – men who never got the attention they felt they deserved from the coaches on the other sideline, players who heard from no one but Mississippi State.

LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M; those were the first stops for these Bulldog mercenaries as they paved a path of bitterness and revenge, leaving destruction in their wake.

“We’re the underdogs,” running back Josh Robinson said. “Always gonna be the underdogs. Even though we’re No. 1, we grind like we’re No. 2.”

Tuscaloosa is up next.

“I just wanted to come here and beat Alabama,” Wilson said. “That’s my dream. That’s what I want to do as a football player.”

Hell hath no fury like a receiver scorned, it seems.

RGSULKZUNPCJHYU.20141011224422And here MSU is, No. 1 in the country, expected to lose on the road. The undefeated Bulldogs, winners over three-straight top-10 opponents early in the season, find themselves on the wrong side of the supposed safe money against a one-loss team in their own division.

But as Dan Mullen said earlier in the week, they’re used to that. This team wouldn’t be who they are if anyone outside of those wearing maroon and white believed in them.

“We’re all we got!” senior captain Jay Hughes yells before games.

“We’re all we need!” his teammates chant back.

State had an odd few weeks following their win over then-No. 2 Auburn in which people actually were picking them to win, and expecting them to do so in grand fashion. Three games later, they’re still undefeated, but for whatever odd and appropriate reason, they’d rather be road dogs against the nation’s elite than home favorites against Homecoming fodder FCS opponents.

“We’re back to the team we were to begin the season,” junior quarterback Dak Prescott said, “where nobody expected us to win, didn’t think we could win. We were underdogs in all those games, so it feels good to get back to that rather than us expected to win by a huge margin and if that doesn’t happen, then everybody’s questioning. It’s good to be back to ourselves and be who we are.”

Seemingly always underrated – or never-rated in the case of some of these Bulldogs who no one else wanted – what else does MSU have to do?

They took down top conference foes, both at home and on the road. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, both on the blue grass of Kentucky and the green grass of Scott Field. Ranked opponents, undefeated opponents, struggling opponents and surging opponents. MSU has taken down the hapless and the hopeful alike.

It’s strange to ask why there’s no respect, when even those with the shortest of sight can see the big No. 1 next to their name. But it seems like people are waiting on one more thing, one last expectation to defy: beat Alabama.

It’s understandable, to a certain degree. MSU hasn’t yet accomplished the feat since Dan Mullen arrived. But they hadn’t beat LSU, either, nor A&M. They hadn’t beat a winning Auburn team in any of their better years. Not until this year, of course.

“We can overcome anything,” Wilson said. “I feel like we’ve done that all year. It’s only gonna get better and only gonna continue. We’ve got great leadership, man. I don’t think this team has ever been this good, simply because of the leadership we have.”

DXEUCRBIUOEAQKL.20141026001359Guys like Prescott and Hughes, to name just two, fill those leadership positions, and they are players whose roles were much smaller than the last time State met the Tide under similar circumstances. And it’s that memory which may be damaging the confidence those on the outside have of the Bulldogs on the inside.

Everyone in Starkville knows the game and remembers it with an emotional stew of bitterness, disgust and regret. MSU was 7-0, top 15, going into Tuscaloosa proclaiming ‘We Believe!’ and rallying the faithful in anthemic support. Then the Bulldogs got crushed. That 7-0 team limped to an 8-5 finish, losing five of six games beginning with that 38-7 mental and physical beating by Alabama.

That memory still exists in the corners of brains where State fans store the worst from years of disappointment in cheering for their team.

But that game never happened as far as the current Bulldogs are concerned. Half of them weren’t even there. Wilson wasn’t. Neither was fellow Alabama-native Beniquez Brown. Defensive end Chris Jones was just being discovered as a high school star in Houston, Mississippi. Even the ones who were there, weren’t what and who they are now.

The name on the jerseys may be the same, but the team is far from similar, in any fashion.

“This ain’t the same Bulldog team,” Robinson said. “This ain’t the same Mississippi State you’re used to seeing.”

They get yet another chance to prove it this Saturday, and they really don’t care if you believe or not.

“Any field we approach, any game we approach,” Wilson told reporters, “we’re not gonna go there timid. We’re gonna attack and hit the other team in the mouth.”

Said Robinson, “That’s what we live for. That’s the reason we came to play for Mississippi State.”

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MSU vs. Alabama sets up as Mullen’s way vs. Saban’s

It’s not David vs. Goliath anymore, not like years before, but Mississippi State-Alabama this weekend is still some kind of competition of styles. It’s a left hook vs. a quick jab, spread vs. I-formation, paper vs. plastic, moneyball vs. straight up money.

It’s the upstart Bulldogs and the program Dan Mullen has slowly developed vs. the empire that is Alabama football built by Nick Saban.

FATGFPUBWUROCUB.20141108233651In MSU’s rise to the top of college football this season, much has been written about the way Mullen did it – signing players no one else wanted and turning them into stars, developing them over years and targeting a specific type of temperament in his recruits. Not that he doesn’t want the obviously great players, of course, but as he said Monday, it’s about using the available resources.

“I don’t think there’s one exact way to build a program,” Mullen said. “It’s kind of what your school is. What you are, who you have, what you can recruit, how you can build it and how you want to design your program.”

For State, ‘What you can get’ is typically a buffet of under-evaluated (or completely non-evaluated) players from rural areas of a state which is already rural to begin with.

On the other sideline Saturday, ‘Bama will be the complete opposite. A roster full of those who were once the nation’s elite high school players battle each other for their coaches’ eyes and trust so they can get on the field.

“Nick has kind of the model program in the country right now,” Mullen said. “They probably have more five star players sitting on the bench that can’t get a rep on their team than we have on our entire roster.”

Sounds like coach-speak hyperbole; is actually true.

Going by the 247 Sports composite ratings (an averaging of rankings from across the recruiting services), the rosters line up almost exactly as you’d expect for Mullen and Saban.

At MSU, there are three players in the starting 22 who were rated higher than a three-star coming out of high school.

At Alabama, there are only two in the starting lineup who weren’t ranked as four or five stars when they signed with the Crimson Tide.

Mullen doesn’t have a single starter on his offense who was any higher than a three star, and that’s where the difference is most clear. From left to right, MSU’s offensive line consists of a two star, a no star, a two star, a three star and a three star. What averages out to a two-star line will be facing an Alabama front whose three-man defensive line is two five stars and a four star. Two more four stars and two more five stars are behind them at linebacker. Same story in the secondary.

UHSBBHDUUIWOXJP.20141102032530But it’s worked for MSU so far, as the Bulldogs are rushing for 250 yards per game behind all those offensive linemen no one else seemed to want.

And that’s part of it, too. That immeasurable but quite-important attitude coming from a team full of players who weren’t good enough for most of the teams they’ve beaten on their way to 9-0 and No. 1 in the country.

That team full of unwanted overachievers has won 12-straight games. Their last loss? Alabama.

Maybe that’s why the Tide are favored on Saturday. Or maybe it’s because, no matter the success MSU has had so far, people can’t rationalize the thought that Mullen’s band of also-rans could be better than Saban’s stock of prizefighters.

“It’s in every article you read, everywhere you look,” Mullen said, “that we’re the big underdog going into this game. And we’ve done that before. We know that role. We’re gonna be OK with that. Our guys will come in and play with great effort and play with that chip on our shoulder.”

State seems to play better that way. It’s their mentality as a whole, but to pretend all 100-plus on the roster came from the same background is, at the least, misleading.

While the starting lineup is low on stars, it’s heavy on talent with an NFL-ready middle linebacker in Benardrick McKinney, a Heisman-candidate quarterback in Dak Prescott, the conference’s second-leading rusher in Josh Robinson and three-time SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week winner Preston Smith, an NFL prospect who was once a two-star signee.

And beyond those starting 22, there is a much deeper well of talent than a lazy narrative would suggest. The lone five star, defensive lineman Chris Jones, finds himself a backup, though he plays significant reps. A four-star receiver, four-star cornerback, four-star running back and four-star defensive tackle are all role players for MSU, even if they’re not [yet] listed as starters.

And while MSU certainly does find players in small Mississippi towns who went unnoticed (2012 Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks comes to mind), Chris Jones stands as an example of a small-town guy everyone wanted.

MSU has four stars from Mississippi and two stars from Louisiana just as much as it has four stars from Texas and no stars from Somewhere, Mississippi.

IHSGERRXFFQMWHL.20141102032530But whatever recruiting rankings, Top 25 polls or talking heads suggest, MSU’s coaches and players will take the 90-mile bus ride to Tuscaloosa as underdogs on Saturday.

And that’s exactly how they want it. Very few believed in the players who have gotten MSU to this point. They’re just fine if no one believes in them now.

“Every week, no matter the rankings or what anyone else is predicting,” Mullen said, “we want to come in and play that way as a team.”

After a month as the favorite, the ‘Dogs are back where they want to be.

“This is the reason I came here,” defensive end Ryan Brown said. “I have jitters even thinking about it.”

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Live Blog: Dan Mullen press conference, Alabama week

At 1 p.m. today, Dan Mullen will meet with reporters for his weekly press conference. No. 1 Mississippi State beat UT Martin over the weekend and travels to No. 4 Alabama this weekend with first place in the SEC West on the line. The game will be broadcast on CBS at 2:30 ct and ESPN’s College GameDay will be in Tuscaloosa.

We’ll have live updates from Mullen here. In the meantime, here’s this week’s episode of This Is Our Plate, making beef brisket sloppy joes at Little Dooey’s in Starkville.

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Mullen’s here.

“We’re excited, this is a big game … It’s what it’s all about.”

Adds, “It’s gonna be fun and hopefully becomes the norm for us.”

On Alabama, Mullen says they have one of if not the best defenses in the country. Said they’re big, fast, physical and deep, which are most of the good words one would think to use for a defense.

He adds the secondary is long and can cause trouble and that their rush defense is very strong, requires great focus by MSU’s offensive line.

Offensively, Mullen offers high praise to ‘Bama’s deep stable of running backs. Said he doesn’t think it matters if none are hurt or if five are hurt, “They’ll roll another five star in.” Also said he’s very impressed with quarterback Blake Sims.

Really, Mullen said, it’s the depth and level of talent that stands out.

“They probably have more five stars sitting on their bench that can’t get a rep than we have on our roster.”

“We’ve had really good energy the last couple weeks of practice,” Mullen says, implying he’s not worried about players getting too excited. “The energy is gonna be high all week at practice and I don’t really have to worry about it. This is a game our guys have been looking forward to.”

Injury updates: WR Jameon Lewis and OL Justin Malone will be full-go in practice this week. No other injuries to speak of. MSU has been without consistent reps from Lewis since he was hurt against LSU.

Asked about the fact Alabama is favored and many are picking them to win, Mullen says, “We know that role. We’ve been there before. Our guys will come in and play with a chip on their shoulders.”

On playing a big game on the road at Tuscaloosa, Mullen says, “Our guys have been in stadiums with big, hostile crowds. That gives you some confidence as a player to walk into a stadium with a loud, hostile crowd.”

Mullen was asked about Alabama struggling against dual-threat quarterbacks and sort of shot down the notion. Did concede that MSU needs big plays from Prescott for MSU to win.

 

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MSU’s Homecoming win less about the present, more about next Saturday and Alabama

“I’m gonna go watch the game now,” Dak Prescott said.

Admitted defensive end Ryan Brown, “I was calling my LSU friends about it last night.”

The Game, as of this writing and those quotes, is nowhere close to over, but it’s all anyone in Starkville is thinking about. The object of attention is LSU and Alabama.

Specifically, for those Starkvillians, it’s ‘Bama. The Tide, the White [and Crimson] Elephant, the last SEC West team Dan Mullen hasn’t taken down since arriving at Mississippi State.

FATGFPUBWUROCUB.20141108233651It doesn’t even matter what happens in Louisiana. I mean, it does. It matters a great deal. But not really. Tuscaloosa is the last stop on the Mississippi State Revenge Tour. They’re the last team to beat for the unwanted, once-scorned three-star, two-star and no-star Bulldogs. Sure, there are more games after this weekend, both of them conference tilts. The Egg Bowl is the biggest game of the year every November, in at least one way or another.

But for the first time in a while, perhaps since MSU beat Auburn nearly one month ago, no one is looking ahead. If we’re being honest, State probably hasn’t been as singularly focused as it should be since taking down the then-No. 2 team in the country (and thereby rising to No. 1 themselves) at the beginning of October. And if we’re really being honest, it’s showed.

MSU hasn’t been bad. But they haven’t exactly been great, either, as they’ve moved through these last three games, beating Kentucky, Arkansas and UT Martin in succession.

MSU has been standing on the shore of redemption, knee-deep and feeling The Tide pull toward Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs are already in the driver’s seat for the West. Win this, and they’ve got every seat on the bus.

“This is the reason I came here,” Brown said. “I have jitters even thinking about it.”

Those comments came minutes after MSU’s Homecoming win Saturday night. But that’s not at all what he was talking about. He’s got Alabama on his mind. Just like everyone else in the locker room.

XCWHYZYHBCHNIIE.20141108233651It’s hard to focus on the Skyhawks when the Crimson Tide is on the other side. Mullen admitted as much Saturday evening before he left to go watch the big game.

“You know in the back of their mind what they’re thinking,” he said of his team’s mentality in preparation for UT Martin, “and they’re thinking about next week’s game.”

How could they not be?

“They’re gonna be hyped for that game,” Mullen continued. “This is what you play for. You’re going to be in the middle of November competing for first place in the SEC West … That’s what you come here for, that’s what we want our program to be like.”

What’s funny, some MSU players have noticed, is that people around the country have already picked them to lose that game. Before Alabama even played LSU. Before they could even get home from Homecoming and watch next week’s opponent in this week’s game.

ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, in picking Alabama to beat LSU, went ahead and said they wouldn’t lose another game this season. Despite the fact they’ve got the No. 1 team coming to their place next Saturday.

“It really doesn’t bother us,” State receiver Fred Brown said. “We know we can come in as the underdog even if we’re the No. 1 team.”

As a short-lived professor once said, “Fame is a fickle friend.”

It’s too early, just now, to try and preview next week’s game. While others didn’t quite have the patience, we ought, at least, to wait until both teams have finished their games this week.

But finally for MSU, the top-ranked Bulldogs don’t have to be concerned about looking too far ahead. Now, they’re just looking. And planning. And doing so with a confidence no one has expected or thought them worthy to have since this so-far magical season began.

“Now it’s time to look forward and focus on next week. Playing big-time games in November means you’re playing for championships,” Prescott said. “That’s all my focus now, on Alabama and being prepared to beat them … I don’t think it’s ‘We Believe.’ Rather, we know we can.”

YWHZQIYOHVYPXZO.20141108232646It’s expected for Prescott and his teammates to speak and carry themselves with such bravado. Great players always expect to win.

But the rest of us, those of us not on the field, have to ask the question all of MSU’s uniformed players believe to be unnecessary.

Is this Mississippi State team different than those before it, is it the one to break the chain, is it the group to stand up to The Tide and seize hold of the prize it so greatly desires and believes it deserves?

“I guess we’ll find out next Saturday, won’t we,” Mullen said.

Yes we will. One week.

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