COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In the aftermath of a 13-point SEC road defeat, Mississippi State couldn't help but wonder what-if.
What if they didn't make key mistakes at important times? Would their 30-17 loss to then-No. 14 Texas A&M at Kyle Field on Saturday have concluded differently if not for errors they feel were self-inflicted?
"I have a sick feeling in my stomach," junior receiver Fred Ross said afterward. "We shot ourselves in the foot. We're a much better team than that."
The missed opportunities were easy to spot and increasingly frustrating for the Bulldogs.
There was their first offensive drive, trailing 7-0, when Gabe Myles ran down the middle of the field with nobody around him. Quarterback Dak Prescott spotted him and threw it to Myles, but the Aggies' pass rush perhaps forced Prescott to release it a split-second quicker than intended and the ball sailed well over Myles' head. Instead of a touchdown, the Bulldogs eventually settled for a field goal on that drive.
"I missed that throw, I think that was huge," Prescott said. "If I make that throw, it's probably 7-7. I don't know, it could be a different game at that point."
There was a fourth-and-3 at the Texas A&M 35 late in the first quarter when the Bulldogs elected to go for it and Prescott and an open Ashton Shumpert couldn't connect in the flat for the first down. Had they done so, the Bulldogs move the chains and maybe get points out of that drive.
Then there were the two biggest momentum-killers to start the second half. As the Bulldogs moved the ball down the field, 49 yards on their first third-quarter drive and 72 yards (into the red zone) on their next, both ended with fumbles recovered by the Aggies. Those plays helped Texas A&M hold on to the win rather than Mississippi State battling in a close game in the fourth quarter.
"I think we stopped ourselves," Prescott said. "Nothing they were doing was stopping us or making it hard for us to move the ball. They were just self-inflicted mistakes."
Can they correct those types of mistakes moving forward? The answer will determine their 2015 fate.
The Bulldogs came out of their first five games -- a tough stretch that included three road games and two games against Top-25 teams -- at 3-2 (1-2 in the SEC) with the losses coming to LSU (No. 7) and Texas A&M (No. 9). It's not quite what they wanted, but they feel like they're getting closer to the performance they're seeking, if they can only eliminate those miscues.
"We're an inch away," linebacker Richie Brown said. "I'm sure the media will see it differently, but we're a few plays away from being the team we want to be. We just have to correct that, young guys are going to have to play and understand what they have to do when they get in and we're just going to have to come together as a team and don't defeat ourselves, and come out to play a game that we know we can play."
Effort is not a question, execution and accountability must improve according to coach Dan Mullen.
"We have guys that will fight and play hard," Mullen said Monday. "The one thing we have to learn how to do is to go expect to make plays. We have guys expecting to make plays, but we have a lot of guys who are looking around at somebody else to go make plays. As we go forward, they will get a lot less worried about 'Am I doing the right thing?' and just letting it go and playing at 100 miles an hour. If we get 50 guys playing that way, we’ll be a really good team."
The nature of the SEC gives the Bulldogs hope that, despite two league losses, they can still be part of the SEC West conversation come season's end if they improve -- and win out. Only two teams are without a loss in the division, but that can change. The Bulldogs have only two road games remaining (at Missouri and at Arkansas) with the rest coming in the friendly confines of Davis Wade Stadium. They have two non-conference clashes (Troy and Louisiana Tech) in the coming weeks before resuming SEC play on Oct. 24 vs. Kentucky.
"There's a lot of football left to be played," Mullen said Saturday. "This year in the league, it wouldn't shock me if the SEC champion went undefeated and it wouldn't shock me if they had three losses. There's so much football to play. The margin from top to bottom in the West is so small. There's a lot that can happen and a lot more going on down the road for us."