By Brian Hadad – 2012 Football Preview – The term “crossroads” holds a special place in the lore and history of the State of Mississippi. It conjures up images of the Delta, of blues music, of the supernatural. The famous crossroads in Clarksdale, where Tommy Johnson (yes Tommy Johnson, look it up) allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a guitar that could play any song he wanted, is one of Mississippi’s most famous attractions. The crossroads represents the choices we all make, and the path those choices take us down. In Mississippi, when a man says he is at a crossroads, it carries a little more weight than it would outside our state.
In Starkville, there is no famous crossroads, no mythology connected to Highways 12 and 82 coming together, no story to tell at University and Old West Point. But this year, there is a crossroads for Mississippi State, and it will run right down the 50 yard line at Davis-Wade Stadium. Dan Mullen will stand at that crossroads, and the path he and the Bulldogs will take will be set in stone by the time the clock runs out on the Egg Bowl in November. This season will tell the tale of Mullen’s career, and either send the Bulldogs onto that next step they have talked about taking last season, or loop back around to the same old same old State fans have tread water in since time immemorial.
You have to preface remarks like that. Dan Mullen certainly isn’t on any kind of hot seat, regardless of what “experts” on random web sites would have you believe. As long as Mullen keeps his teams in bowl games, he can coach in Starkville as long as he likes. Mississippi State won a total of 39 games in the 2000’s, the administration would never let go of a coach that averaged 6 wins or better, for however long that period may go. Only Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier enjoy better job security than Mullen, where only an NCAA investigation could push you out. Mullen is safe, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t at a career crossroads.
The facts are these. State entered 2011 with big expectations, and found themselves unable to meet them. The August dreams of contending in the SEC West were left on the field at Auburn, as the Bulldogs came up short against every ranked foe they played last season. They played those teams well in most cases, but simply weren’t able to make a play, or stop a play, when it really mattered. While the wins versus Ole Miss and Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl soothed the sting of disappointment, it wasn’t enough to remove the bad taste of losing a top 20 ranking and missing a New Year’s Day bowl.
State will enter the 2012 campaign with lower expectations from the national media, but here in Mississippi, we know the Bulldogs are talented, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Josh Boyd, Cameron Lawrence, Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield, and Nickoe Whitley have All-SEC potential. Denico Autry was one of the most highly sought after players in the country. There’s depth along the lines and in the secondary. As LSU and Alabama showed us last year, the road to the SEC title is still paved by the defense. State isn’t quite to that level, but can certainly be a tier behind them. Offensively, State seems to have finally found some playmakers, albeit inexperienced ones. This will likely be Mullen’s fastest team at MSU. The offense has been tweaked to take advantage of Tyler Russell’s passing skills, and it’s likely State will at least attempt more passes than they have in recent years. The Bulldog’s schedule is also conducive to a quick start. All four non-conference games are against teams outside the BCS, and the first three SEC games are against teams likely to start the season outside the top 25. State may be favored in its first seven games. A Dan Mullen coached team has only lost once when it was favored, against Auburn last season. If that trend holds, the Bulldogs could be undefeated and nationally ranked heading into Tuscaloosa, set up to finish the season with 9 wins or better for the first time since 1999.
So that sounds good and all, but we were saying a lot of similar things last year, and that busted out on us. State may be a bit under the radar this year, but expectations within the fanbase remain high. Most MSU fans I have heard from think this team can win 8 or more games, and expect to do so. So the onus is now on Mullen to produce. The Bulldog nation wants to know if Dan Mullen can deliver a start to finish good, if not great season, in Starkville. Can he take the “hasn’t beaten anyone but Ole Miss” monkey off his back? Can he get State to a Cotton or Capital One Bowl? Can he finally put some passing numbers into the record book that look like they came from modern days? These are the questions he’ll have to answer this season, and I say if he can’t, if State muddles through another five loss or worse campaign, that Dan Mullen may just be what his record says he is. He may just be an slightly above average coach who can get teams to bowl games on the back of a weak non-conference schedule, but can’t get his teams to that proverbial next level. He may coach at State for many years, not because he chooses to, but because he doesn’t show enough to get bigger schools truly interested in him as their next head man.
State will kick off the 2012 season against Jackson State. This game will not give us any clues into what we can expect going forward, but just as it has been the past three years, we will not have to wait long to know. The Auburn Tigers will roll into Starkville in Week Two. They will probably be coming off a loss to Clemson. They will be an underdog in all likelihood. Davis-Wade Stadium will be packed and loud, and Dan Mullen will lead his players onto the field and in doing so, he will take his spot at the crossroads. A win would be the proof that this season will be a different one in Starkville, that the hopes and dreams we all entertained in 2011 were only delayed in arriving. But another loss to Auburn, and the path is set that this season won’t be much different than last. – MSM