We're all scratching our heads. Are we good, bad? What's the deal?
I've spent the last couple of days stewing about the Egg Bowl loss. It was really tough to take. I knew our mini-streak over them would come to an end eventually...but it didn't have to be like that - not in that fashion. I could go into detail about what went wrong in that game, but that has been discussed at length, and I'm sick of thinking about it at this point. What we can discuss is where we are as a football program, right now.
It's hard to imagine that it is even possible for a SEC team to go 8-4, yet only beat one bowl team....and that bowl team was from the Sun Belt (Middle Tennessee). I didn't think this conference could produce such a pile of crap at the bottom, but then again there are some great teams at the top. MSU finds themselves in the middle. As disappointed as I am with the last month of the season, many consecutive years of being terrible is still fresh in my memory - so being in the middle isn't that bad.
It's tough to build a program into a consistent winner when they are a traditional loser. I'm not saying MSU is a loser program, or that Dan Mullen inherited a loser program. But in the first 86 years of the program (prior to Jackie Sherrill), State only went to six bowl games. The lack of winning and the poor decisions made by the administrations of the past put State in a hole - that is a fact. So it will take time. It took time for Bill Snyder to build Kansas State. It has taken South Carolina a decade with two hall of fame coaches to build one. So it's not going to happen overnight at MSU like Florida and Alabama can rebuild, it will take time. Two 8-4 seasons in three years is a great start.
A lot can be said about the weak schedule MSU played this year. As I mentioned above, the Bulldogs only beat one bowl team and none of the SEC wins were against bowl-eligible teams; in fact, the four wins came against teams with a combined 3-29 conference record. But no matter how much people discount wins against Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee, those programs were falling back while MSU was maintaining itself. It is important that the program continue to go to bowl games and maintain a winning tradition without any losing seasons. Steve Spurrier spent five seasons tallying up six and seven wins a year before he took off....and that was after Lou Holtz re-molded the program for six years.
All that said, where is State right now?
Dan Mullen may have lost a lot of his supporters over the last month, and especially after the Egg Bowl. I was talking with a Tennessee fan yesterday and he was suggesting they may want Mullen. I thought to myself that maybe I wouldn't be too upset about that. But in all honesty, Mullen has done an excellent job of building a winning team and promoting MSU. He isn't going anywhere unless he leaves on his own accord, so there's no sense in even discussing it. Not even Auburn, who has fired their last 3 head coaches (who all had undefeated seasons) upon their first losing season, would fire a coach after an 8-4 year.
But most people are calling for either Les Koenning or Chris Wilson's head. I think that is a fair assessment based on performance, although I'm on the fence about it.
Koenning's play calling in the Egg Bowl was atrocious. In the four loses, State only averaged 15 points per game. The running game was non-existent in all of them....55 yards per game. I've thought about Mullen needing to give the special teams up and start play calling so he can plan the plays out ahead of time. While he can ultimately veto any of Koenning's calls, Les is the one who is planning out the next 3-4 plays so it doesn't make sense to continually over-rule him. So this one is all on Mullen - is Koenning calling the correct plays? Mullen game plans with him, it's Mullen's offense, do we need a better play caller, should Mullen take the reigns, or is Mullen happy with Koenning's play-calling in big games? If it's the last of those three I'd be pretty disappointed.
The defense was a complete disappointment this year. State doesn't have the raw talent that other teams do, but they've spent the last 4 years building a solid group of players that are ready for the SEC. There were times this year when the effort wasn't there, but most of it is coaching. I don't really agree with Chris Wilson's defensive philosophy, but I can deal with it until his decision-making becomes a problem. The bad play calls, the lack of adjustments, the lack of proper preparation....it's not good. And then the defensive line, which he coaches, was a major disappointment this year. I think Wilson is a good coach, but I'm not sure he is very good - and MSU is trying to make the transition from good to very good...can he hack it?
Part of me says Mullen should work with these coaches and fine tune them, make improvements and they will get better. I don't think Wilson has reached his peak as a coach, he is only 43, there is always room to learn and grow. Koenning is a smart man, he can make some adjustments and learn from mistakes. And maybe the biggest reason I'm fearful of swapping out coordinators is seeing what it has done to other schools. Look at what happened to Auburn this year, Tennessee's defense, Arkansas changed everything up but you've got to think having the two new coordinators only added to the instability that broke them.
But then again, if you can make a quality hire, it could be a great thing. I wouldn't mind getting a guy with some intensity, especially on the defensive side of the ball. I ran out of fingers this year trying to count how many games State got lulled to sleep or they weren't focused for 60 minutes, lack of emotion on the sidelines. Maybe that is partly the fault of the seniors, but it's got to rest on the coaches as well. I think an aggressive, emotion-filled defense would be welcomed by MSU fans. The offense did set some records this year, and was prolific for MSU standards, perhaps a veteran offensive line will help solve some of the problems next year.
In conclusion, I think Mississippi State football is still headed in the right direction. I don't know how long it will take me to get over the Egg Bowl, but in the end I just can't be too upset with 8-4, no matter who we played or how bad we lost those four games. It takes time to build a program that consistently competes at a high level, but along the way adjustments have to be made...this may be the time. In what form or fashion Dan Mullen makes them I don't know, but I hope he does make them because he wants to win a championship as we do. This program needs to regain the fire and the hunger it had two years ago - let's get it back.