For the first time, it felt like football season in Starkville on Saturday. It was cool and it was clear. But Mississippi State was in Mobile, Alabama. There, near the coast, it was 90-something degrees and it was as muggy as early August. So did the football weather in Starkville count for MSU?
No, the Bulldogs played, and won, in South Alabama. That moment didn’t hit until they stepped off the bus in Starkville late Saturday night. That ‘Now This is What Football Feels Like’ moment.
Following non-conference games against Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama, Dan Mullen’s team is about to hit the meat. Dak Prescott and Benardrick McKinney spent all summer preparing their team for this, the beginning of Southeastern Conference play. State stepped off the bus and into cool air on Saturday with five-straight SEC battles lying in front of them.
“The preseason is over,” Prescott told reporters outside the locker room in Mobile. “It’s time for SEC now.”
It starts next weekend at LSU and the stretch will take MSU all the way into November before it pauses for a week, only to pick up again with three more weeks of southeastern heavyweights bouting on the gridiron.
While it was 65 and fall-like in Starkville, I got in my last moment of summer in Mobile on Saturday morning. It was very calm walking along the bay. A few small boats passed by, but the massive barges and their colossal counterparts in the water sat still. All but one of the cranes in the shipyards lining the water hung stationary.
The coffee was hot, and so was the bench I sat on. It was nice having that moment, one of the benefits of road trips where you find yourself with random 45-minute periods to waste as you wish.
But after this peaceful Saturday morning, I knew, the shipyard would come to life. Massive constructions weighing near a hundred tons would fire up somewhere deep in their insides and get moving, somehow floating despite all the weight they carried.
Seemed fitting as the team I was there to watch was enjoying its last similar moments of relative calm. Down in South Alabama, MSU had dipped away from the coming Football Weather. But, starting as soon as they got back Saturday night, the action picked up. Mullen, Prescott, McKinney and their teammates must find a way to hold the same weight as those tankers while somehow managing to stay afloat.
“When you get into SEC play,” Mullen said, “you’ve gotta learn how to win.”
To this point, MSU has done that. When it needed momentum-stopping or seizing plays in the first three weeks, it got them. Touchdowns, interceptions, big sacks or blocked kicks – the Bulldogs stepped up when they sniffed danger.
But now, as Mullen and Prescott alluded to, they won’t be playing games with one or two of those key moments. Every play is that big, from here on out. The game can be won or lost at any point and it’s unlikely you’ll get a second chance if you don’t come up when you need to.
It all sounds very difficult and depressing, but the Bulldogs have no reason to believe they aren’t prepared or that they won’t make those plays.
MSU is averaging 44 points and over 500 yards per game. They’re holding opponents to 12 points per game, have created eight turnovers and have already scored two non-offensive touchdowns.
Prescott, completing 60 percent of his passes, has thrown for 696 yards and nine touchdowns, while he’s also run for 273 yards and two touchdowns. He even caught a touchdown, a 24-yard throwback pass from Jameon Lewis on Saturday.
Preston Smith is having as good a start to the season as any defensive end in the country. The senior has two interceptions, two blocked kicks, two sacks, three passes defended, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble through only three games.
Defensive production has come from all over as MSU has 10 players with double-digit tackles, and Smith isn’t one of them. 11 sacks as a team, plus 17 quarterback hurries, five interceptions and three blocked kicks.
Yes, there’s plenty to like. Plenty to offer optimism for the Bulldogs.
But summer is over. Quiet, lazy days on the water are done.
The SEC slate is here.
“We got to LSU just like we wanted to be,” Prescott said. “3-0. It’s time to go show them what we’ve got.”