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BCS talk and rankings will matter if we take care of business the next three games. We especially have an opportunity to prove we're legit when we face UT. Start 7-0, and then it's serious.
The first sign that the Mississippi State Bulldogs might actually have a pretty good team? The players don't seem all that enamored with their 4-0 start.
"Our guys have not been pleased with their performance as a complete team yet," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen told me this week. "They keep themselves in check. They say, 'Hey, this is not good enough yet.' "
That's probably fair, to some extent. Mullen reminds me that Mississippi State, which is off this week, still hasn't seen a ranked team on its schedule -- although defeating Auburn a few weeks back was something of a mini-breakthrough for a team that's trying to climb up the SEC West ladder.
There are reasons, whether it's personnel or the team's schedule, to believe Mississippi State might be something of a darkhorse to get to 10 wins -- and maybe, just maybe, sneak into a BCS game as an at-large team. (I'll get to a few other quiet contenders for BCS berths a bit later in this post.)
Mullen doesn't want to look too far down the road, but I'll do it for him. The team's next three games are at Kentucky and at home against Tennessee and Middle Tennessee. That means there's a pretty decent shot at the Bulldogs being 7-0 when they go to Tuscaloosa for an Oct. 27 meeting with Alabama.
That might not seem like a big game now, as we sit here in late September, but it easily could pick up steam in the next month. Is there any way the Crimson Tide, who face LSU the week after playing Mississippi State, could get caught looking ahead?
Mullen and the Bulldogs sure hope so, because the coach knows there are exactly two instances in the current Western Division landscape that could send the program's trajectory rocketing: beating Alabama, and beating LSU.
"We've kind of taken care of our business so far," Mullen said. "For us to make a splash, those teams are going to roll up on our schedule. If we beat one of those teams, if we do that, we finally will make that splash."
Can the Bulldogs do it? Coaches I've spoken with around the region like Mississippi State's generally increasing talent level, but they're not sold on that level of an upset. Still, it's not out of the question.
Mullen's peers are high on Tyler Russell's evolution as a leader and passer, and they like the veteran secondary, led by future pro Johnthan Banks.
"He's as good as there is in the league," one SEC assistant said of the potential All-America cornerback, "and I would have said that if (Tyrann) Mathieu were still at LSU."
MSU's remaining schedule
Sept. 29 BYE
Oct. 6 at Kentucky
Oct. 13 Tennessee
Oct. 20 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 27 at Alabama
Nov. 3 Texas A&M
Nov. 10 at LSU
Nov. 17 Arkansas
Nov. 24 at Ole Miss
Mullen called Banks the team's vocal leader and said "guys believe" in Russell. They're the backbone of a team that features about 25 juniors and seniors on the two-deep chart.
"When we recruited what's now our junior and senior classes, we told them they could come here and make a difference," Mullen said. "Those guys believed that."
Where that's manifesting itself is late in games. Mullen pointed to numerous instances in the first four games in which the Bulldogs responded to adversity -- a turnover, a score by the other team -- with something decisively positive.
It wasn't always like that in Starkville, Mullen admitted.
"Guys in the past would say, 'OK, who is going to make the play?' " he said. "Now they all think they're going to make the play."
We'll see how that translates when it comes time for this challenging final stretch: at Alabama, Texas A&M, at LSU, Arkansas and at Ole Miss. If the Bulldogs find a way to win three -- or even four -- of those games, State might be worth hailing.
A 10-win season would by no means guarantee a BCS berth, but the Bulldogs could follow a similar path as that of Arkansas in 2010, riding a surprising two-loss season to an at-large selection. And even without a BCS shot, a 10-win campaign would be a big statement for Mississippi State in a division that features two powerhouses (the Tigers and the Tide) and four programs in various states of flux (Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M). Don't think that wouldn't have a positive impact on Mullen's 2013 recruiting class, which currently features four four-star prospects and 12 three-star players.
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