There is a familiar feeling in Mississippi State’s football facility this summer. A team that had more downs than ups last season before finishing strong with back-to-back wins in the Egg Bowl and St. Petersburg Bowl is entering the 2017 season with more confidence than most outside the building believe is appropriate. In fact, most outside the state of Mississippi probably don’t even realize there is any particular confidence inside of MSU’s locker room.
After all, what should a team picked at or near the bottom of the SEC by nearly every media outlet in college football have to be excited about? Perhaps the only player for whom those across the country have high expectations is junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, and the dual-threat star isn’t surprised at all by the lack of respect for his team. And that hasn’t diminished his confidence at all.
“Mississippi State is always someone that’s been doubted,” he said. “It’s always been a program that we play with a chip on our shoulder. We’re always kind of the ‘picked last’ kind of team. I think we’ve just kind of embraced that. We’ve used that to motivate us. It doesn’t really matter what people outside these walls think because we know what we have is special and we know what we can do.”
So, back to that familiar feeling. Every season, every team across the country goes into the year with high expectations for themselves. They expect to win games, or at the very least are making plans to do so. They wouldn’t be playing if they thought they were going to lose everything. However, players can always tell the difference between hoping their team is going to be good and believing their team is going to be good, if they’re being honest with themselves. Whenever teams have those Cinderella seasons, it seems inevitable that players will tell all who listen that they knew from the start what they were capable of doing.
It’s easy to say that after the fact, but often it’s true. In 2014, MSU’s most recent Cinderella season, there was video evidence of such belief. When the unranked Bulldogs were about to run out of the locker room for a game against Top-10 LSU in Baton Rouge, head coach Dan Mullen told his team, “They don’t know what’s about to take this field.” Mullen knew. His team knew. It’s just that no one else did. Not yet, anyway.
I’ve covered MSU since Mullen took over in 2009, and over the years you start to learn how to read the vibes, for lack of a more specific way to put it. Being around the players and coaches before the season, you can usually get a pretty good idea of how the next five months are about to go. I’ve had it in my head since spring practices that the feeling around this team was similar to that 2014 preseason. I didn’t voice it, but I’ve asked players what the mood is like around the team, how they feel. Redshirt junior running back Aeris Williams, great quote that he is, unknowingly confirmed the hunch.
“It feels like my freshman year when I first got here,” he said. “When we were No. 1, it feels the same way. We’ve got a lot of leadership out here and we’ve got a lot of players that are gonna step up and make plays. It’s gonna be a great season.”
There are some similarities in the specifics of the two teams, most notably that both featured one of the country’s best and most dynamic quarterbacks, but for the most part the two teams are built very differently, and the schedules are not at all familiar. What’s the same is the feeling around the team.
Hearing college students talk about chemistry might seem a little more natural in the chemical engineering department rather than the athletic department, but that’s what these players are basing so much of their confidence on – beyond the great deal of talent they believe the roster has.
“Taking last year’s team for example,” Fitzgerald said, “I think that we weren’t exactly very cohesive. We weren’t very together. There were a lot of different cliques, a lot of people that didn’t work well with each other. This year it’s completely different. The second we stepped in the facility in January we knew that if we wanted to be good we were going to have to work together, build that chemistry up and be a team that was all around each other and all about each other. Live and die for each other, that kind of thing. And I think that’s what we’ve become. We’ve gotten really close. We’ve all made good friendships. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody hangs out with everybody. I think that’s really helped.”
It’s that facet that the Bulldogs have worked on as much as anything over the course of spring and summer and now fall. They’re working in the weight and film rooms too, of course, and they’re putting in maximum effort in each rep of practice, as well. And they’re doing that because they want to get better, not just for themselves as individuals, but for the team as a whole. They have a genuine belief, expectation even, that they are going to be great in 2017.
In a sentiment echoing that of the leadership on 2014’s team, no one wants to be the guy who lets the rest of the team down when they know they have the ability to do something special.
“We’re closer this year,” sophomore defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons told reporters. “Being a football team, being a championship team, you have to be close and be one unit. I feel like we came a long way. We worked hard this summer.”
Junior safety Brandon Bryant, like Fitzgerald and Williams, was a redshirt freshman back in 2014 when he watched his teammates take down three-straight Top-10 opponents and ascend to No. 1 in the country for five-straight weeks. He was there for College GameDay, for the Dak hype, for the Sports Illustrated covers, and most importantly, he was there for the moments in the locker room and on the practice fields that helped create those successes.
Whatever that intangible, unspecific commonality is, whatever good vibe is floating around the Seal Complex, Bryant feels it, too.
“This season is going to be special,” he said. “This season is going to be special because we came together this summer. The whole team just bonded together. Everybody just jelled together all as one. I think this is going to be special. This is one of the best feelings I’ve had about a team since I’ve been here.”
“I know,” Williams stated confidently, “that we’re going to have a great season this year.”