In the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve, Preston Smith sat awake at Mississippi State’s hotel in Memphis as nearly a year of preparation and work for two very different things came to a head.
Upon her arrival, Smith listened on the phone as those at the hospital told him how beautiful Lauren Marie Smith was, his newborn daughter he could hear crying in the background, a life and person he had helped to create, breathing and moving all on her own.
Daddy had pictures of his baby sent to his phone, cementing her transition in his mind from something seen only in a sonogram to a real-life little girl, still-red skin with a head full of dark hair and her very first diaper on.
Nothing could match that feeling, Smith told reporters later that night after the Liberty Bowl. And he very much doubted anything could ever top the 24-hour run he had on December 31, 2013, welcoming baby Lauren into the world, only to have one of the best games of his football career a few short hours later, earning defensive MVP honors as his Bulldogs won huge in Memphis, cementing a winning season and finishing their season on the highest of notes.
The only bad thing to happen to him all day was a penalty he earned in the game – it was for excessive celebration. After the day he had, can you blame him for being excited?
Smith’s morning of becoming a dad seemed a bit symbolic as it preceded MSU’s 44-7 victory of Rice that evening.
“I told our team, tonight we lay to rest the 2013 team,” Mullen said after the game. “Each team has a one-year shelf life. The 2014 team is born on January 10th when we report for our first team meeting, and we have one year to go show what we can do.”
For as enjoyable as the win in itself was for Dan Mullen’s team, the conversation behind every big play, every defensive stop and every running or passing touchdown was about the year that started mere hours after the last second ticked off the Liberty Bowl clock.
With each Dak Prescott touchdown, as Jameon Lewis racked up yard after yard and while underclassmen starred over the course of the game, those watching from the stadium and on ESPN couldn’t restrain their optimism for the future of Mississippi State football.
Spring practice for 2013 had begun in March nine months prior, starting a laborious stretch of preparation, playing, and in some cases, yes, disappointment.
Injuries plagued Mullen’s Bulldogs, with over 120 collective starts missed due to injury over the course of the year. The youth of the squad, particularly after those injuries, left an inexperienced team facing the nation’s elite on a weekly basis.
To be certain, the first half of the season was difficult for these Bulldogs as they struggled to find themselves. But as the season wound on, better things began happening. Sparks and signs of life popped up and became more frequent, finally ending with back-to-back overtime wins to finish the regular season and, of course, culminating in dominant postseason victory.
“Before the season,” Mullen said, “people kept telling me, ‘They’re not gonna make a bowl game, they’re not gonna have a winning record, they’re not gonna do this.’ And with a very young, impressionable group, they didn’t listen to any of that. They grouped together, they battled, they fought through unbelievable injuries and adversity throughout the year. We played the third-hardest schedule in the country. To do that and finish with our fourth-straight winning season is very, very special.”
Like the birth of Preston Smith’s daughter, New Year’s Eve was the birth of nine months of optimism, excitement and unbridled anticipation. Even before the Liberty Bowl ended, maroon-clad fans couldn’t wait for the first game of 2014.
After only getting four wins in their first 10 games of 2013, MSU ended the season with three-straight victories, including two over SEC West opponents and one over a conference champion in a bowl game, nearly doubling their win total in only three days of gameplay.
That finish and the players who made it happen are what turned everything around – the record, the season and the collective morale and excitement of both team and fans.
Mullen watched on Tuesday as Dak Prescott and Jameon Lewis combined for five touchdowns and 628 yards, 220 of which they shared as Lewis set the all-time single-game record for receiving yards at MSU.
An impressive display on its own, but even more exciting for Mullen as he knows the duo returns for 2014.
On New Year’s Eve, his team started only three seniors on offense and two on defense. Beyond those, the Bulldogs have three one-time starters who missed the game from injury and will be back for next season.
As young as the Bulldogs were in 2013, MSU will be as experienced, deep and talented as they’ve ever been at every position on the field in 2014, led by a charismatic and respected group of veterans at the top.
State fans couldn’t hold their excitement back as the sun set on 2013 Tuesday night, and Mullen doesn’t want them to.
“Our expectations are to find a way to win the SEC West and represent Mississippi State and the whole state in Atlanta,” Mullen said when asked about the year about to begin. “I think we embrace those high expectations as a program. I know our players do. We’re gonna make sure we work to meet them.”