TUPELO – So, Mississippi State, here is your moment. It’s all set up so perfectly. Tonight, a captive ESPN audience (minus die-hard NFL fans), an SEC opener against a ranked Auburn team, the afterglow of a season-opening beatdown of Memphis.
All that’s missing is Erin Andrews – but Jenn Brown will do a fine job patrolling the sidelines.
It’s not just an early September game. It’s potentially a benchmark moment for MSU football.
This team hasn’t started 2-0 since 2000. Seriously. That was on the tail end of Jackie Sherrill’s string of strong seasons, and the Bulldogs have had only one winning campaign since then.
A win against the No. 20-ranked Tigers could put MSU’s season on the fast track.
(Stop! The previous claim was made with the assumption MSU will use a win today as a springboard and not go in the tank the next five games.)
Coach Dan Mullen knows how important this game is, but he isn’t going to hang the season’s hopes on it.
“When you’re trying to win your side of the conference in the SEC, that first game to start off 1-0 in conference play is a huge advantage, and a huge motivating factor, and a jumpstart into the rest of the season,” he said. “I think it certainly is going to catapult us toward our goal this year, but I don’t know if it’s a real make-or-break game for the season. There’s so many.”
But this is the first one, so right now, it’s the most important one.
Relf and Russell
– The Chris Relf and Tyler Russell Show continues tonight. Relf will start again, but Mullen plans to play Russell in the first half.
In last week’s 49-7 win over Memphis, Relf started and took the first two series, then Russell took the next two, then it was Relf for a series and a play-it-by-ear approach thereon out.
They combined to throw for 372 yards and five touchdowns.
“I expect to play Tyler in the first half of the game again, but it’s not as set a plan of how many series each guy’s going to get this week,” Mullen said. “We’re going to get Tyler in the game and then play it by ear a little bit.”
Speaking of Russell, Mullen said Wednesday that there were times last season he strongly considered putting him in the game, which could have cost Russell a redshirt season.
As best he can recall, Mullen came closest to making the move against Houston, when starter Tyson Lee committed four turnovers in a 31-24 MSU loss.
After one of those turnovers, Mullen turned to Russell and said, “Go get ready, put your helmet on, you’re going in next series. We’re done. You’re going to be our guy.”
It would’ve been a brash move, and if you believe Russell about how clueless he said he was last year, then it probably wouldn’t have worked. Nevertheless, fascinating stuff.
Making quick work
– Mullen has been involved in more than a few non-Saturday games. During his days as an assistant coach, his teams played on Thursday or Friday eight times, and they won seven of them: 5-0 at Utah, 2-0 at Bowling Green, and 0-1 at Syracuse, when he still had “graduate” attached to his title.
So, he’s learned how to develop a plan for short weeks. The one for this week, he said, is working perfectly.
“We’ve had a real solid week of practice,” Mullen said. “I felt like our guys really understood the plan, understood how to prepare for a short week, which is a critical deal.”
And if I may shamelessly use the journalistic device known as the “tie-back,” Mullen said the enormity of this game hasn’t affected his players’ focus.
“I think our guys had great focus this week. I think part of that, they’re certainly excited to play this game, and they’re going to be fired up, but they’ve really understood you’ve had to focus because you don’t have a full week to prepare for the game when you’re on a short week.”
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal