SEC: Dillon Day
Dak Prescott, Josh Robinson and the rest of the Mississippi State Bulldogs weren't defeated, even in defeat.
They walked off the field in Bryant-Denny Stadium last Saturday in pain. The dream of an undefeated season was over. Their No. 1 ranking would soon vanish. That terrible feeling in the pit of their stomachs? Their coach, Dan Mullen, said to embrace it. Feel it. Let it serve as motivation.
An hour after that 25-20 defeat to Alabama, they met with the media. They were somber, but more determined than ever.
"I still think we're one of the best four teams in the country," Prescott said. "We just played one of the other best four teams in the country. It's an early playoff game, in my mind."
"We're never going to roll over," Robinson explained. "That's not us, it's not in our character.
"I'm pretty sure we're going to see [Alabama] in the playoffs. I don't know when, but we're going to see them."
It sounded unlikely at the time, another "We want Bama" sign in a pile of hundreds. From Ball State to Baton Rouge, everyone wants a piece of the Crimson Tide. Sometimes you'll hear fans chant it in the fourth quarter of blowouts.
But Mississippi State wanted Alabama -- again.
Something about the Bulldogs' 20-6 run and finishing only 5 points shy gave them confidence. In spite of losing the red zone battle, the field position battle and the turnover battle, they were right there at the end. As Mullen said, it wouldn't have taken a "Herculean effort" for them to win the game.
"Everybody felt like if we had five more minutes it would have been a different game," said linebacker Richie Brown. "So I know everybody wants a piece of them again."
If the season ended today, they would.
On Tuesday, the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Alabama No. 1 and Mississippi State No. 4. If everything holds, they'll meet in New Orleans for a playoff semifinal game.
"I didn't see the rankings," Robinson said on Wednesday.
Informed of the situation, his eyes lit up.
"That's fine with me," he said. "Karma, it'll come back to you now."
Mullen didn't watch the release of the committee's newest rankings, either.
"I didn't pay much attention to it because I knew we'd be in the mix anyway," he said. "We're 9-1 with wins over three top-10 teams and our only loss is a 5-point loss on the road to the No. 1 team in the country.
"Your vision is, ‘Hey, wherever they put you, you're still in the discussion.'"
Earlier this week, he told his players just that.
In a meeting with the team's leadership -- a group that consists of Prescott, Jay Hughes, Bernardrick McKinney, Richie Brown, Ryan Brown, Taveze Calhoun, Dillon Day, Malcolm Johnson and Kaleb Eulls -- Mullen set the tone.
He'd step up his leadership this week, he said, but he wanted the message to come from within, too.
"Hey, everything we want is still ahead of us," he told them. "The season didn't end on Saturday. We're 9-1 with two regular season games left with a lot of football left to be played by a lot of other schools.
"The minute you start worrying, you're going to end up 9-3 in a hurry."
In a nice bit of imagery, Mullen put it like this: "You hold that rope and you don't let go. Even if you got pulled across that line in tug-of-war, we're not going to let it go. Get your feet back in the ground and start pulling again."
As Mullen told them, "You get a chance to finish 11-1 and that's a whole different picture."
That starts Saturday against Vanderbilt. It will either culminate the following week against Ole Miss, or it will end with no shot of playing for an SEC title or reaching the playoff.
How the Bulldogs respond to their first loss of the season is up to them.
"I don't think you get over it as much as you move on," Mullen said.
If anything, it has made players more hungry.
"It's kind of a positive," said center Dillon Day. "A lot of people see it as motivation. ... That game opened our eyes that we can get beat if we don't play our A-game."
Which is why they want Bama again. They want to show what their best really looks like.
If only they had a few more minutes the first time around.
"Oh, the outcome would be different," Robinson said. "We just ran out of time."
It looks like maybe they'll get another chance to prove it.
But before there's any rematch, there's work to be done.
2. Mississippi State won't just get back formerly suspended center Dillon Day for this Saturday's matchup with Auburn. The Bulldogs should get receiver Jameon Lewis back, as well, for one of the biggest games in school history. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen is trying to keep things in perspective about State's hot start, but that's no easy feat around Starkville these days. The Bulldogs are confident about defending Auburn's offense after faring well against it in 2013, but the Tigers still pulled out a late win that was a pivotal point in their turnaround that led to an SEC title and a spot in the BCS championship game.
3. Fans often dislike early kickoffs, but Georgia prefers it for this week's visit to Missouri with another long road trip on tap for next Saturday against Arkansas. The Bulldogs requested an earlier kickoff Saturday in order to better cope with those travel concerns. But don't expect to hear any more about it from Georgia's players this week. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt cut off media access to the players -- including Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley -- after Tuesday's media sessions with the pivotal SEC East game ahead. Folks at Missouri had plenty to say about Gurley, however. Just check out the comments in Monday's notes from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Around the SEC:
We all know polls are never wrong, so this is completely relevant. A survey of 800 Kentucky adults showed that 51 percent believed that Kentucky will beat Louisville in next month's Governor's Cup game. Louisville has won the last three meetings between the teams, but got only 27 percent of the vote.
Police in Athens (Ga.)-Clarke County filed a warrant charging wide receiver prospect Darnell Salomon with continuing to use an iPhone that he said he did not steal from a female UGA athlete's dorm room while visiting campus.
The quarterback battle at Florida is not the one we expected after last Saturday's win over Tennessee. It's between Will Grier and Skyler Mornhinweg for the backup spot behind Jeff Driskel.
Texas A&M is extremely happy to be playing back at Kyle Field in Saturday's game against No. 3 Ole Miss.
Tweet of the day:
Alabama Crimson Tide
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
Reason for optimism: The bye week came at the right time for Alabama. It needed Blake Sims, Jarrick Williams and DeAndrew White healthy for Ole Miss on Saturday. And if it needed any extra motivation, Rebs safety Cody Prewitt delivered, telling reporters that, "We don't think Bama has really been as good as they have been."
Cause for concern: Survive Ole Miss and things don't get any easier. You thought that Oct. 11 trip to Arkansas would be a cake walk? Ha! You thought Texas A&M would be an easier out without Johnny Manziel? That's a good one. That schedule you thought was littered with SEC cupcakes like Tennessee now looks more like a minefield.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Mississippi State over Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can upset Texas A&M and Auburn the next two weeks, the West might loosen up some. --Alex Scarborough
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Reason for optimism: Nick Marshall continues to look more and more like his old self. On Saturday, he passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns, and he also rushed for 105 yards. His new favorite target? OK, it’s still D'haquille Williams, but fellow wide receiver Quan Bray has emerged as a playmaker on both offense and special teams for the Tigers.
Cause for concern: There are a lot of question marks as to who’s going to play this Saturday against LSU. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are day-to-day with injuries, and starting right tackle Patrick Miller is questionable with an ankle injury. It also looks like Auburn will be without safety Jermaine Whitehead for the third straight game.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Ole Miss over Alabama --Greg Ostendorf
Texas A&M Aggies
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Mississippi State
Reason for optimism: The Aggies passed a big test by showing that their run defense -- while still having a lot of room for improvement -- can do just enough to help them win after being tested thoroughly against Arkansas, the best rushing team in the SEC. The offense also showed it can win when it’s not at its best and Kenny Hill responded to adversity emphatically, showing poise in fourth quarter and overtime. Health-wise, the Aggies are in relatively good shape, which is critical considering what lies ahead.
Cause for concern: The schedule gets only tougher in the next few weeks. This weekend it’s a trip to Starkville to meet undefeated Mississippi State. They return home the following week to host Ole Miss. Then on Oct. 18 they go to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama. These are all teams and places the Aggies have won before, but now they’re doing it with a team that has a lot of young players in key positions, like quarterback, free safety, defensive end and receiver. This three-week stretch is a monumental test for Texas A&M.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn. (This would help the Aggies jump Auburn in the national rankings and gain an advantage in the standings) --Sam Khan Jr.
Ole Miss Rebels
AP rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: The defense ranks first in the SEC and fourth nationally, allowing 248 yards per game and has 11 takeaways on the season. QB Bo Wallace is also spreading his passes around very nicely. Even with depth an issue at receiver, the Rebels already have five players with double-digit receptions.
Cause for concern: The West is easily the toughest division in college football. There really isn’t a major weak link when it comes to teams on this side of the division, and Ole Miss still has to go through everyone. We’ll find out if Ole Miss has the depth needed to make a real SEC run.
Who they’re rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn --Edward Aschoff
Mississippi State Bulldogs
AP rank: 12
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Texas A&M
Reason for optimism: With an open date between their dismantling of LSU and this Saturday’s showdown with Texas A&M, the Bulldogs have had time to rest and scheme to face perhaps the best opponent they’ve played to date. It had to help their confidence to see A&M struggle against Arkansas the way it did, too.
Cause for concern: Mississippi State’s secondary has been one of the team’s few weaknesses, and that’s a bad weakness to have against a high-flying offense like Texas A&M’s. It also doesn’t help that veteran center Dillon Day will miss the A&M game while serving a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike play against LSU.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over Ole Miss (because why not?) --David Ching
AP rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Missouri
Reason for optimism: The SEC East is still a mess, and South Carolina’s loss to Missouri means the Bulldogs once again control their own destiny in the division. Just win, baby, and the Dawgs are headed back to Atlanta. Also, Todd Gurley seems like he’s getting better and better with each week.
Cause for concern: Passing, whether it’s by the Bulldogs or against them. Hutson Mason admitted Saturday that the chemistry between himself and his receivers isn’t where it should be, especially when it comes to throwing the deep ball. Right now, Georgia’s defense can’t stop any sort of passing over the middle of the field.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Tennessee over Florida --Edward Aschoff
AP rank: 15
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Auburn
Reason for optimism: It seems unlikely that anyone in the SEC West will finish undefeated, so the Tigers can stick around in this race if they start winning. A win in Saturday’s game at Auburn could potentially jump-start LSU’s chances, especially if Brandon Harris goes off as the new starting quarterback.
Cause for concern: Auburn’s running game has to scare LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a bit after Mississippi State had so much success against the Tigers two Saturdays ago. LSU might be able to stick around in the SEC West race with two division losses, but a playoff bid would almost be out of the question if the Tigers fall again.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Mississippi State --David Ching
We're going to start separating the pretenders from the contenders, as division races heat up. It's time to find out a whole lot more about the powerful SEC West, where a whopping six top 15 teams square off. Buckle up!
Game of the week: Alabama at Ole Miss
The No. 3 Tide still have the best chance to win the SEC West -- a 31-percent chance to be exact, according to ESPN's FPI (Football Power Index) -- but their biggest threat of being upset will be waiting at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday. The No. 11 Rebels admitted they were looking ahead to the big game after slogging past Memphis 24-3, but they still turned in another impressive performance by what has become one of the nation's most dominant defenses. Ole Miss kept Memphis out of the end zone and has allowed just two touchdowns on 38 drives this season. The Rebels' run defense was particularly nasty, limiting Memphis to 23 yards on 31 attempts. Alabama is coming off a bye and a dominant, complete performance of its own in a 42-21 thrashing of Florida. It all sets up to be quite a clash in Oxford, Mississippi, the first of what will likely be a handful of glamorous SEC West showdowns.
Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Last time we saw them, the Bulldogs made quite the statement in beating then-No. 8 LSU for the first time in nearly 15 years and winning in Baton Rouge for the first time in nearly 24 years. Prescott showed all of his dual-threat brilliance in carving up the Tigers' defense, and MSU shot up in the polls after a very big win. In order for the Dogs to keep momentum on their side they now have to beat another top 10 foe. Prescott will be the central figure, and the pressure he'll face is sure to be literal as well as figurative. Texas A&M leads the SEC with 17 sacks in four games. True freshman end Myles Garrett has been a force with 5.5, while linebacker Shaan Washington returned from a broken collarbone last week and recorded two sacks in his first game of the year. One more thing: Prescott will be without his starting center, as Dillon Day will serve a one-game suspension for stomping on two LSU players.
Coach under the microscope: Florida's Will Muschamp
Muschamp probably has this category to himself until his Gators start winning and pulling off upsets. Florida's loss to Alabama was not unexpected, but the way it went down -- more ineptitude on offense and a school record for yards allowed on defense -- pushed fans to the brink. Even some of Muschamp's die-hard supporters had to be talked off their nearest ledge. If the noise was that loud after UF's loss to a juggernaut program like Alabama, what would happen if the Gators lose to Tennessee for the first time in nearly 10 years? The Volunteers are an improving bunch. They came oh-so-close to beating Georgia on the road last week, and they're still hungry for respect. Florida, coming off a bye, will have to get its act together in order to pull off a win at Neyland Stadium.
Storyline to watch: Will Brandon Harris start?
LSU's visit to No. 5 Auburn has an entirely different feel after the Bayou Bengals' season-long quarterback controversy took a turn for the decisive. True freshman Brandon Harris was electrifying in relief of Anthony Jennings. Harris was 11-of-14 passing for 178 yards and directed the LSU offense to seven touchdowns on seven possessions. After the game, coach Les Miles declined to name Harris the starter, saying LSU's way is to thoroughly evaluate before making a decision. With all due respect, that's a bunch of hooey. Harris obviously gives LSU its best chance to pull what would be an enormous upset both in terms of the national stage and the division race. It won't be easy against Auburn's improving defense. The Tigers have allowed only three plays of 25 yards or more this season, tied for the second fewest in the FBS.
Intriguing matchup: South Carolina at Kentucky
While the West division deserves all the attention it's going to get on Saturday, the East is quietly trying to sort itself out. Upstart Kentucky finally removed a very large monkey off its back by beating Vanderbilt and snapping a 17-game conference losing streak. In order to earn respect, the Wildcats' next task is to score an upset. Kentucky and its fans will be fired up for this home game, and the Gamecocks are ripe for the picking after blowing a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter against division-leading Missouri. Kentucky's improving offense will stretch USC's struggling defense. But the most intriguing matchup in this one is on the other side of the ball, where the Cats' defense is coming off its best performance against an SEC foe since 1996. UK held Vanderbilt to 139 yards last week. If the Wildcats can contain the Gamecocks' offense, it might not even take a shootout to earn that elusive signature win.
Dillon Day fallout: It will be interesting to see how center Dillon Day's one-game suspension will affect Mississippi State's offense in the Bulldogs' outing against Texas A&M. Quarterback Dak Prescott said he doesn't think it will hurt his play. Archie Muniz is next on the depth chart, but he was responsible for a high snap -- a problem he experienced during spring practice, as well -- that expedited LSU's comeback last Saturday. It's entirely possible that guardBen Beckwith might take over for a game, although he hasn't played center in an actual game since high school in 2008. Regardless of who starts, it will be a position worth watching for the Day-less Bulldogs. Texas A&M's 16 sacks rank fourth in the FBS.
Bulldog nuggets: It was a newsy day at Georgia, particularly on the injury front. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said cornerback Shattle Fenteng probably won't play again this season and might need shoulder surgery, but Richt believes receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- who hasn't played since the first quarter of the 2013 opener against Clemson -- might be back for Georgia's Oct. 4 game against Vanderbilt. Among other Georgia notes, defensive back J.J. Green said he disagreed with the referees' targeting call against him in last week's game against Troy, saying the rule is “taking all the fun out of football.” Green was ejected on the third play of the game and watched the rest of the game from the coaches' locker room at Sanford Stadium. Finally, Mike Lutzenkirchen -- the father of former Auburn tight end Philip, who died in a June alcohol-related auto accident -- spoke to the Bulldogs before Wednesday's practice about making good decisions.
Around the SEC
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said the Big 12 officiating crew that handled the Tigers' win against Kansas State last week operated “a little bit slower than what we were used to.”
- If you missed Ivan Maisel's piece on former Vanderbilt coach Watson Brown, do yourself a favor and check it out.
- Former Georgia cornerback Paul Oliver's family sued the NFL this week, blaming his suicide last year on sports-related concussions.
- Missouri's defense continues to surrender big running plays.
- South Carolina is struggling to generate much of a pass rush.
2. The SEC absolutely did the right thing in suspending Mississippi State center Dillon Day for stomping on two LSU players last Saturday. Let's break this thing down like the Zapruder film, shall we? In this video you can see both incidents:
In his letter to Bulldog fans defending himself, Day said he was "going too fast at 300 pounds to stop." That sounds reasonable. But he goes on to blame the LSU players basically for being on the ground where he was stepping. In the first incident, Day did slow down enough to see MSU quarterback Dak Prescott get tackled (thus ending the play). Then Day chose to blatantly jump onto Davon Godchaux's gut. In the second incident, it's clear that Day could have stepped on the ground between Rashard Robinson's legs but spiked his thigh instead. MSU coach Dan Mullen's reaction might be worse, though. "I didn't see anything wrong with it," he said on Tuesday after the suspension had been handed down. This is the same coach who last year suspended Day for a half against Troy after Day did the same thing to an Auburn player. Hmmm, what could be the difference between Troy and MSU's next opponent, No. 6 Texas A&M? Could be the division title implications, but that's just a wild guess. Later on Tuesday, Prescott tweeted #FreeDDay in support of his center, but this kind of repeated behavior should not be condoned.
3. Staying on our soapbox, let's do a little "Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger" or T-dubs as Stephen Colbert would call it. Cheers to Tennessee head coach Butch Jones for his zero-tolerance policy when it comes to domestic violence. Despite no charges being filed, UT dismissed true freshman running back Treyvon Paulk on Monday after police said he hit a woman in the mouth. Jeers to Auburn and LSU for recruiting ex-Georgia Bulldog Jonathan Taylor, who has the good fortune of being 6-foot-5, 340 pounds and playing the important defensive tackle position. Taylor was dismissed by UGA coach Mark Richt in July (cheers to Richt for that, by the way) after being arrested on an aggravated assault/family violence charge. Police said he choked and struck his 5-11, 170-pound girlfriend. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on Tuesday said he too has a zero-tolerance policy, but it should be noted that Tigers defensive line coach Rodney Garner also recruited Taylor when he coached at Georgia.
Around the SEC
- Aggies QB Kenny Hill said he's heard rumors that his predecessor, Johnny Manziel, will attend Saturday's big Arkansas-Texas A&M game (the NFL's Cleveland Browns have a bye). Confirmed for Saturday's South Carolina-Missouri game is ex-Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw, who will be recognized during the game. Shaw is available because he's on the Browns' practice squad.
- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema didn't like being the only team in the SEC West that isn't ranked in the AP Top 25, but he knows the Razorbacks can fix that on Saturday at Jerry World.
- Meanwhile in the SEC East, Richt said what everyone is thinking: It's wide open. He thinks the division will come down to home-field advantage.
- Vanderbilt starting QB Patton Robinette (concussion) is questionable for Saturday's game against Kentucky. More bad news for the Dores: Jordan Cunningham, their most experienced receiver and one of their most talented players, has taken a leave of absence from the team.
Mean Mississippi State fans! =J= pic.twitter.com/Bli2faVmLY— Belle Es You (@SouthernbeLLSU) September 23, 2014
2. Despite the roller coaster the Gamecocks have already been on in the season's first month of games (you can just see it on Steve Spurrier's face), it should be noted that South Carolina leads the SEC East. Does anybody want to win this division? Maybe we'll get an answer on Saturday when Missouri visits USC. Spurrier isn't sounding too confident after the way his team looked against what had been a dreadful Vanderbilt team. On the other hand, Mizzou is banged up. Starting left guard and fifth-year senior Anthony Gatti tore his ACL and MCL in the Tigers' loss to Indiana. And second-leading receiver Darius White will be out with a strained groin. This one isn't exactly shaping up to be the epic battle for East supremacy that some thought it could be a month ago.
3. ESPN's "College GameDay" is headed to Columbia, South Carolina. Not to be outdone, the other big game in the SEC East -- Tennessee at Georgia -- will be the site of the SEC Network's pregame show "SEC Nation". The Vols have something to prove and will hit the road with a much-improved defense. UT is sixth in the SEC in total defense, giving up 343 yards a game. That should give Tennessee some hope in preparing to face Georgia's star running back Todd Gurley and his SEC freshman of the week understudy, Sony Michel. The Bulldogs are also short-handed with Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley among the injured. The biggest challenge for Tennessee, however, is likely to come on the other side of the ball. Georgia has an intimidating pass rush, and the Vols O-line has given up an SEC-worst nine sacks already this seasons. Buckle up.
Around the SEC
- LSU's stunning pratfall in Saturday's home loss to Mississippi State will prompt some changes. Most notably, the QB battle is back on.
- Mississippi State center Dillon Day, accused of stomping on two LSU players, wrote a letter to Bulldogs fans to defend himself. Day has some history, though. He was suspended for a half last year after he stomped on an Auburn player.
- File this under "Oh, they're friends now." Arkansas coach Bret Bielema to Gus Malzahn after Auburn's win at Kansas State: "Some of you may faint. I shot Gus a congrats text and just said, 'Hey I know how tough that place is. Congrats.' "
- Will Muschamp has fallen off the hot seat and directly into the fire. Here are some ideas for fixing Florida.
This Nick Saban - Regions Bank ad is pretty great: https://t.co/7VZ06EXePH— Chuck Dunlap (@SEC_Chuck) September 22, 2014
Spurrier on GameDay coming to SC: "I heard there was a good chance they'd come if us and Missour won. I guess only one of us had to win."— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) September 21, 2014
2. There wasn't much to learn about Georgia in its 66-0 win against Troy. Or was there? We already knew Todd Gurley was one of the nation's finest players. He hardly broke a sweat on Saturday with six carries for 73 yards, but Georgia hasn't had to overwork Gurley, and still his 9.8 yards per carry leads the FBS. We knew the Bulldogs had some talented youngsters, but who knew true freshmen Sony Michel and Isaiah McKenzie were ready to completely overshadow another injury to former five-star running back Keith Marshall? It seems the only question surrounding Georgia is wither the passing game, fellas? Georgia welcomes Tennessee this weekend along with the chance to see if Hutson Mason needs to do anything other than hand off. For their part, the Vols enjoyed a perfectly timed bye week after three nonconference games and can now go about the business of clawing their way back to SEC relevance.
3. That sound of laughter you're hearing off in the distance? It's Lane Kiffin basking in the afterglow of Alabama's 42-21 smackdown of the Gators. His offense so thoroughly dominated Florida's defense, the Gators set a record for the most yards allowed in school history. Dating to his time as head coach at Tennessee, that kind of performance against the hated Gators was something Kiffin could only dream about. On Saturday, his quarterback threw for 445 yards -- second only to Scott Hunter's 484 in Alabama history -- and his money wide receiver was the clear winner in a much-anticipated matchup with one of the best cover cornerbacks in college football. Today, receiver Amari Cooper is a legitimate Heisman candidate. We suspected he might be the best wideout in the country, but there is now a totally different perception of quarterback Blake Sims (who deflected some of the praise to Kiffin, by the way). If Alabama's offense can keep up this kind of balance and ruthless efficiency, the only sound we'll be hearing will be the chattering teeth of defensive coordinators.
Around the SEC
- Mississippi State center Dillon Day stepped on two LSU players on Saturday. He was flagged once.
- Arkansas is clicking in all phases. The Hogs' next test -- against Texas A&M at Jerry World -- offers a chance to break their 13-game SEC losing streak.
- Vandy played much better on Saturday, albeit in a losing effort. Derek Mason is still looking for his first league win, as is his next counterpart, UK's Mark Stoops.
- There wasn't much to learn about Texas A&M in its romp against SMU, so the national media turned its attention to a cadet saving the Aggies' canine mascot.
- Les Miles took the blame for his Tigers' big loss at home: "I've got to be a better head coach."
Fairly disappointing to see ONLY 4 SEC West schools in top 10 in new AP poll.— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) September 21, 2014
Mississippi State’s head coach carefully studies the movements -- or lack thereof -- of sophomore defensive lineman Chris Jones. The crown jewel of Mullen’s 2013 recruiting class is supposed to be this prodigy player sent to Starkville to make mincemeat of opponents.
Not on this play. No, Mullen flashes a half-disappointed smile as he rewinds over and over a play where his young phenom is getting abused by a double team. Yes, it’s a double team, but even Mullen knows Jones is better than this. Jones shouldn’t be stopped this easily, even if it is two behemoths in his way.
Mullen is still looking to get the most out of Jones, who was rated the nation’s No. 6 defensive end and an ESPN300 member by ESPN’s RecruitingNation in 2013. Mullen sees the potential for greatness, but he also sees inconsistent technique and raw talent that hinders his game.
It’s still very early in Jones’ Mississippi State career, and the good news is he understands that he is still a work in progress, which is a scary thought because many pegged him as a preseason All-American performer.
"Still a lot to work on technically to become a great, every-down player," Mullen said. "He makes big plays, but still has a lot of work to do to become a great, technical, every-down player."
Last season, Jones was a little lost inside defensive coordinator Geoff Collins' defense. Attempting to get his technique down, Jones moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he struggled to adjust to his new position.
The funny thing is Jones said he was tricked into playing extensively at defensive tackle by Mullen. As Jones recalls, Mullen told him they would try him inside for the first four games and then move him back outside. Jones agreed, but after four weeks, he was still at tackle and felt he was underperforming.
"I was thinking 'I can’t do this, man. This is not for me,'" Jones said. "I came in at D-end, I need to stay at D-end."
But Mullen had different plans. He felt Jones could do more inside, so he posed an important question to his freshman.
"You wanna be great, don’t you?"
Well, how could Jones say no?
"I was like, 'Yes sir, anything to be great,'" Jones recalled with a boyish grin.
With Jones transitioning inside, he finished his freshman season with 32 total tackles, including seven for loss and three sacks. But to Jones, his season left a lot to be desired. He still thinks about what he could have done differently on certain plays, which fuels his work ethic now.
His technique is coming along, but he’s moving fast, working within the framework of the defense and is thinking less. He took his training more seriously in the offseason, slimming down from the 315 pounds he played at last season. To improve his fundamentals, Jones took time to watch his own film over and over during the offseason ... by himself.
It paid off in fall camp, and his sophomore year has already started well -- he had three tackles and a sack in the Bulldogs’ 49-0 opening win against Southern Miss.
"When you’re learning what to do, you can’t get your full potential," Jones said. "When you know what to do, you can just ball out."
The Bulldogs are hoping he continues to do just that in Year 2. The talent is there, and as senior center Dillon Day puts it, Jones has that special ability you don’t see from a lot of players. Sometimes it’s hidden, but when it erupts, watch out because he can hurt you.
"I guess you can say you’re getting better [by playing against him], but he really is a freak," Day said. "You can only do so much. ... Once he gets everything down, I don’t know what you can do [to stop him]."
With Jameon Lewis, Robert Johnson, Joe Morrow and De'Runnya Wilson, there were plenty of wideouts to draw from.
But if there was one area where Mississippi State needed to stay healthy, it was the offensive line. Depth, coach Dan Mullen pointed out late last week, was a major point of concern.
"That's the one position during the season that we can't afford any injuries," he said.
It turned out to be an auspicious statement. On Monday, we learned that projected starting right tackle Damien Robinson tore his ACL and will miss the season.
The Bulldogs were banged up enough as it was with starting guards Justin Malone and Ben Beckwith missing practice time during fall camp. Throw in the noticeable absence of Gabe Jackson, and it's hard to imagine what the Mississippi State offensive line looks like in Starkville today.
Now the second-string linemen Mullen was hoping he wouldn't have to call on until next season are suddenly being put to the test earlier than expected. "They're growing and they're growing quickly," Mullen said last Friday. But will they progress enough between now and the start of the season?
"They're going to be the huge group of inexperienced players that you'd love the opportunity to slowly build them in instead of having to throw them into the fire immediately," Mullen said.
Look for Justin Senior and Rufus Warren, two inexperienced reserves, to be the top candidates to replace Damien at right tackle. Mullen, when reached Tuesday morning, said there's also the possibility of moving a tackle to guard and working with different combinations on the interior of the line.
The good news is that there are 11 days until the opener and the first three weeks of the season don't look to be a huge challenge with non-conference cupcakes Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama. That means there's plenty of time for whoever wins the job to get comfortable enough in the offense before SEC play begins Week 4 at LSU.
Dillon Day, a three-year starter and Rimington Trophy watch list center, said he's looking forward to the run up to the season. Before Damien Robinson went down, Day said he was feeling good about the numbers on the offensive line.
"I've seen good things already," Day said. "Guys have been rotating in that haven't played, like Devon [Desper]. That was a big thing to have not just five guys but eight guys that can play.
"We have a lot of depth that can play now. That's a big thing, getting new guys in there and letting them play with the ones. And so far everyone has done really well with that."
With Damien Robinson out, that depth will be tested. And like any inexperienced player, we won't know how they'll perform until the pressure is on during a game situation.
If Mississippi State is going to finally break through in the SEC West, the offensive line is going to have to drive the train. Without them, the depth at receiver and running back is meaningless. Without them, Prescott could get banged up and his dark horse Heisman Trophy campaign could fall off the tracks.
There's a lot to like about the Bulldogs this year. The only question was how the O-line would hold up, and so far it's not off to a good start.
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs:
2013 record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC). Beat Rice 44-7 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Final grade for 2013 season: The Bulldogs had a very subpar start to the season and looked out of bowl contention after beginning November 0-3, getting outscored 105-64 in the process. But after finishing the regular season 2-0, including an overtime win over archrival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs trounced Rice in their bowl game, giving them a C for the season.
Key losses: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, OL Gabe Jackson, OL Charles Siddoway, DT Denico Autry, LB Deontae Skinner, S Nickoe Whitley, P Baker Swedenburg
Instant impact newcomers: LB Gerri Green, DT Cory Thomas
Breakout player: Receiver De'Runnya Wilson has a chance to really make a name for himself this fall, but I'm going to go with Robinson. The compact, 5-foot-9, 215-pound wrecking ball of a player could be very, very fun to watch this fall. He's spent two years learning from Vick Ballard and Perkins and is primed to have a big year for the Bulldogs. He can grind out yards between the tackles and has excellent speed to get to the outside and make plays in space.
Key position battle: The Bulldogs will have quite the fight on their hands at right tackle. Senior Damien Robinson arrived as a highly-billed recruit, but has yet to live up to that label. It's now or never for him, but he'll have to compete with sophomore Justin Senior, who the coaches are pretty excited about. However, if neither works out veteran Justin Malone, who is coming back from a season-ending foot injury, could move from right guard to right tackle. That wouldn't be ideal for the Bulldogs.
Most important game: If Mississippi State is really going to turn the corner and actually compete for the SEC Western Division title, the Bulldogs have to get a win in Baton Rouge against LSU on Sept. 20. The Bulldogs return 18 starters, have better depth than coach Dan Mullen knows what to do with, and won't be afraid of a trip to Tiger Stadium. With that said, this is a must-win if this team is going to have a chance at making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. The Tigers are an enigma this season, but could be dangerous down the stretch. Getting them early is huge, and the Bulldogs have to take full advantage of that.
Biggest question mark: While right tackle is a concern for the Bulldogs, finding some consistency in field-goal kicking would be nice. Devon Bell and Evan Sobiesk combined to go an unflattering 9-for-20 on field-goal attempts last season. They were a combined 1-for-6 from 40-plus yards out and each had a kicked blocked in 2013. Transfer J.J. McGrath will compete for the starting job, but he's a ways behind Sobiesk at this point. Still, Sobiesk still has a long way to go in the consistency department.
Upset special: Again, in order for Mississippi State to take the next step as a program, the Bulldogs need to beat one of the league's best. After Texas A&M comes to town on Oct. 4, the Bulldogs host reigning SEC champion Auburn. And the Tigers could be pretty fatigued after a game against LSU. Talk about the perfect time to take one from Auburn. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to Auburn last season after Nick Marshall orchestrated a late, game-winning touchdown drive. You better believe revenge will be on the Bulldogs' minds.
Key stat: What Mullen has done in five seasons at Mississippi State has been impressive, but he has struggled against ranked opponents. In the last three seasons, the Bulldogs have gone 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls.
They said it: “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency. I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.” -- Mullen
ESPN Stats & Information: 8.45 wins
Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins
Our take: This is the deepest team Mullen has had at Mississippi State. The offense can run and pass for days with the weapons and experience coming back, while the defense is loaded with underrated talent. The schedule isn't too daunting with an incredibly easy nonconference slate and Auburn and Texas A&M at home. Having to go to Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss isn't ideal, but if the Bulldogs can take two from that road trio, they'll be in contention for the West title. The Bulldogs will challenge for the division and finish the regular season 9-3.
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Eleven of the 14 starting centers in the SEC were among the 66 players on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which is presented annually to the top center in the country.
Talk about being the center of attention.
And while it’s true that we all get caught up in the skill players -- the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- it all starts right there in the middle of the offensive line.
If you’re good at center, everything else usually has a way of falling into place up front offensively.
“The thing I like best about it is that you’re in control of five guys, and really, the success of those five guys is sort of on your shoulders,” said Auburn senior center Reese Dismukes, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy a year ago.
“You hear a lot of people say the center is the quarterback of the offensive line. That appeals to me. I like being in control, making the calls and making sure everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not making the right calls, somebody’s going to be on the wrong page, and it only takes one person being on the wrong page for it all to go bad. I like having that pressure on me.”
Dismukes’ SEC cohorts on the Rimington Trophy watch list include Georgia’s David Andrews, Missouri’s Evan Boehm, Mississippi State’s Dillon Day, Florida’s Max Garcia, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Texas A&M’s Mike Matthews, LSU’s Elliott Porter, Kentucky’s Jon Toth, Vanderbilt’s Joe Townsend and South Carolina’s Cody Waldrop.
They’re all a little different, some more experienced than others, and some bigger than others. But they’ve all perfected the rarest of crafts, which is being able to successfully snap a football (usually a shotgun snap in this day and age) with a 300-pound plus defensive tackle itching to step on their throat as soon as the ball is snapped.
“You’re doing a lot of different things at once and processing a lot of information very quickly,” said Boehm, who started all 14 games last season at center after starting all 12 at left guard as a true freshman. “It’s a big responsibility as an offensive lineman to touch the ball every play. Everything starts with you, and you have to be vocal up there.”
Dismukes, a preseason All-American, is part of an Auburn offensive line that should again be one of the best in the SEC. The 6-3, 295-pound senior has been a fixture up front for the Tigers from the day he walked onto campus and has started in 37 of his 39 games.
Ask him how much he’s grown up during that time, and he offers a hearty chuckle.
“Light years,” he said. “This game makes you grow up fast, or it will shove you right out of it.”
Whereas Dismukes has been a center ever since he can remember, Boehm didn’t start playing the position until last season. He actually went to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and requested the move after playing left guard as a freshman.
“I felt like it was the best thing for the team and best thing for me, and I appreciate Coach Pinkel for having enough trust in me to make the move,” said Boehm, who was actually a fullback when he first started playing football in the seventh grade.
Boehm isn’t the only SEC center who’s relatively new to the position. Garcia is making the transition as a fifth-year senior at Florida after splitting his time last season between guard and tackle. He began his career at Maryland and started all 12 games at left tackle in 2011 before transferring to Florida.
But regardless of the path a player takes to the center position, there’s a fraternity of sorts, a pride thing that transcends size, speed, and even looks.
Boehm and Dismukes know each other from the recruiting process, as Dismukes was Boehm’s host when Boehm visited Auburn.
Dismukes and Georgia's Andrews also stay in touch and will occasionally share tips on upcoming opponents. Between them, they have 64 career starts. Mississippi State’s Day has 34 career starts. So if you throw Day into the mix, that’s a combined 98 starts among the SEC’s three most grizzled center veterans.
“We’re not the strongest or most athletic or any of that stuff,” Dismukes said of his center brethren. “Maybe we’re a little weird, but we just love the game.”
They love their hair, too.
Boehm and Day are running a tight race for the “locks” award. Both are known for their trademark hair as much as they are for locking down opposing defensive linemen. Boehm has the bushy look going -- beard and all -- while Day is sporting the long, blond-rocker look.
Of course, it’s not like either is overly concerned with style. Technique, maybe, but certainly not style, not with some of the monsters they have to block in the SEC.
“With the defensive line culture in the SEC, you better also create that same culture in the offensive line, and that starts in the middle,” Boehm said. “The great thing about this league is you’ve got guys like Reese and David and all the other guys, and you can study their moves and why they’ve been so successful and try to incorporate it into your game.
“It’s an honor to be among them.”
And even better to be front and center.
Today we have the lists for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center.
The SEC well represented on both lists, with seven players on the Mackey list and 11 on the Rimington. Here is a rundown:
Rory Anderson, South Carolina
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
O.J. Howard, Alabama
Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
Jay Rome, Georgia
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn
David Andrews, Georgia
Evan Boehm, Missouri
Dillon Day, Mississippi State
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Max Garcia, Florida
Ryan Kelly, Alabama
Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
Elliott Porter, LSU
Jon Toth, Kentucky
Joe Townsend, Vanderbilt
Cody Waldrop, South Carolina
The robust 6-foot-4, 300-pound wall resembles a jacked 80s rocker with long golden hair and colorful tattoo sleeves slathered on both arms.
In a league predicated on the success of its line play, you need that look and that feel from your center. You need a beast in the middle to direct your line and claw his way around the trenches.
But the fifth-year senior, who has started 45 games for the Bulldogs over the past three seasons, wasn’t always such a menacing player. The first days were unbearable at times. When he was the one getting pushed during his very first set of collegiate two-a-days, he almost quit.
“It was horrible,” Day told ESPN.com in March. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought that this wasn’t the life for me.”
For a player so used to dominating at the high school level, Day was trying to climb his way out of a valley as a true freshman. The former West Monroe (La.) standout was physically and mentally beaten down during his first summer in Starkville. The practices drained him, and the workouts defeated him.
The good news was that Day, who worked out at guard after playing tackle in high school, was redshirting his first season. He’d have time to grow.
But when Year 2 rolled around, Day felt overwhelmed yet again. Thinking his body would have adjusted better, Day said workouts were tougher as coaches expected more and pushed even harder because of his prospects to start; this time at center.
“We certainly didn’t make that easier on him -- yelling and screaming and grinding on him,” coach Dan Mullen said.
The idea was to break him into being that “every-down, perform-at-a-high-level guy” who was going to lead the entire offensive line. Mullen couldn’t have a soft center. He needed someone with a chip on his shoulder, someone with grit and mettle.
But Day’s tough-guy attitude that he exuded in high school seemed to wash away. The mental side was crumbling, and in turn, his physical nature suffered. But the coaches kept pushing.
Halfway through two-a-days, Day decided his time was up with the Bulldogs. But as soon as he thought he was out the door, his parents talked to him. Day said they continued the trend of pushing him, this time to strike back with his own play and attitude. They motivated him to stay and prove to himself that he could conquer the madness that was the preseason.
“My bags were packed,” Day said. “I was about to go right back to Louisiana. I stuck it out and then I got my number called my redshirt freshman year, and it’s been clicking ever since.”
Going from unranked high school prospect to three-year starter in the SEC is the definition of clicking. Day picked himself up and marched up the depth chart into a valuable role with a Bulldogs team that has enjoyed a steady climb under the guidance of Mullen.
It was his realization years ago that he had to be a fighter that helped get him to the final stage of his career in Starkville.
“I don’t scream at him as much,” Mullen said with wicked grin. “He understood that by being the center, his standard of play has to be above everybody else because he’s the leader of that line. It’s all going to go through him. Where he sets the bar, that’s where the bar’s going to be. However high he sets it, that’s where our success level is going to be.”
Day now relishes that spotlight. As he puts it, he’s “the brains of the offensive line.” He’s become a fundamental cog with help from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach John Hevesy. He’s learned how to own his presence up front with guidance from guys like Gabe Jackson.
So much has happened since Day packed his bags. As he looks at his final days in Starkville, he’s now looking to leave Mississippi State in another fashion.
“That’s just life. You have to stick through the battles,” Day said.
“I’m here my fifth year and just the other day I was here as a freshman trying to quit. It does hit home with you.”
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When Dan Mullen first took over as Mississippi State’s head coach before the 2009 season, the goal was very simple: Make it to bowl games.
For a program that lacked the historical success of the SEC’s big boys, a bowl game here and there was something Mississippi State was more than happy with.
But those were simpler times in Starkville.
Now, as Mullen enters his sixth season with the Bulldogs, just becoming bowl eligible isn’t good enough. When you make it to four straight, it’s time to take the next step, and the overwhelming feeling around the program is that the time is now for Mississippi State.
“When we got here, we talked about winning a championship,” Mullen told ESPN.com last week. “And guys thought that was good talk and was something they wanted to do, but they weren’t sure that it could [happen]. There’s still that hesitation of 'Well, it sounds great, but how real is it?'
“You look at this team, and our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year.”
And this isn’t just an up-and-coming team puffing smoke about the place. This is a team that returns 20 of 22 defenders who were on last season’s bowl roster. It has a potential All-SEC quarterback and lost five total starters from a 2013 team that finished on a three-game winning streak that included an overtime victory over archrival Ole Miss and a bowl blowout of Rice.
When Mullen approached his team shortly after the Bulldogs’ 44-7 drubbing of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, he found an anxious group. Players wanted back on the field. The months before spring practice were too long, and they couldn’t even comprehend the thought of not smashing into someone not dressed in maroon for another nine months.
The momentum this team got from the tail end of the 2013 season has fueled players like no other season has, veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. Center Dillon Day said there’s a lot more trust throughout the roster with the improved depth at just about every position.
“We aren’t really given a shot with those types of teams, but this year I definitely feel like we’re going to be a factor to deal with,” Day said. “We definitely can beat those teams.
“This year, we have all the factors; we have every position filled up.”
Mullen understands that confidence alone won’t take the Bulldogs to their second SEC title game. Games have to be played and wins have to appear. Mullen might own the program’s highest winning percentage for a coach (36-28, .563) since the late Darrell Royal in 1954-55 (.600), but he has yet to even sniff the SEC West crown.
During his impressive 9-4 season in his second year, he finished just 4-4 in SEC play. He hasn’t eclipsed that many conference wins in a season since and has had losing conference records three times.
Mullen has had four straight winning seasons but hasn’t hit the double-digit mark for wins. On paper, the Bulldogs are a blip on the SEC’s radar, but to Mullen, he’s seen growth, development and an incredibly inspired team.
For a program littered with former two- and three-star high school prospects, the Bulldogs could prove to be a formidable opponent this season with so much experience coming back. Mullen sees it, players see it and fans are expecting more wins in the treacherous SEC West.
“I want those expectations,” Mullen said. “I want our fans to have those expectations; I want our people to have those expectations. I like it on the national level, having those expectations.”
It’s hard not to blame the Bulldogs’ for being confident. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who has already earned the dark-horse Heisman moniker from national pundits, ended last year with two very gutty performances against Ole Miss and Rice and returns his top-five receiving targets, including senior Jameon Lewis, who registered 923 receiving yards last year.
Running back LaDarius Perkins is gone, but Mullen said he’s pleased with the talent and depth he has at running back, which starts with potential breakout candidate Josh Robinson.
Then there’s that defense that finished 2013 fourth in the SEC and 18th nationally in total defense. The Bulldogs, which lost just two defensive starters from last year, held their final four opponents to 20 or fewer points and allowed an average of 296.3 yards during that span.
Mississippi State won’t get much real national championship talk, but the SEC title isn’t out of the question. With the unknowns surging throughout the league, the Bulldogs are set up to rub shoulders with and maybe push around the SEC’s elite.
“I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said. “I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”