September 30, 2012 2:00:16 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- The buzz on the Mississippi State University campus is starting to get more pronounced.
After the MSU football team's first 4-0 start, it's natural for fans, players, and coaches to start talking about 2012 as a special season.
MSU coach Dan Mullen, who was hired more than four years ago to provide this kind of excitement about the program, has his team nationally-ranked as it completes its bye week and begins preparations for its game next week at the University of Kentucky. MSU likely will be favored in that game and the next two after that.
"We've put ourselves in a position to take that step," Mullen said. "We've got an opportunity with a lot of football left to be played. Now, people aren't going to let us just take it. We're going to fight for it."
Fourteen years ago, MSU won its first eight games on its way to a 10-win season. Jackie Sherrill, MSU's coach at the time, sees a lot of similarities between the 1999 team and the current Bulldogs.
"Cornerbacks (Darius) Slay and (Johnthan) Banks are the best corners in the league," said Sherrill, who worked as a color commentator last Saturday for MSU's 30-10 victory against the University of South Alabama.
The comparisons of Banks to former first-team All-American Fred Smoot have been talked about for some time, especially since Banks, a former two-star prospect from East Webster High School, has said he talks and texts with Smoot every day since arriving at MSU.
"If I texted Fred right now, he'd call me back almost immediately, and having somebody like that in my life as a tutor has really helped me become a better football player and a better man," Banks said. "Fred is like one of us now, and he ain't going to sugarcoat anything and he'll tell you right then if you work on something now, so I appreciate him for having that passion."
Sherrill, the school's all-time leader in victories with 75, took over a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1986, and hadn't had a winning record in Southeastern Conference play since 1981. Sherrill said in a phone interview this weekend he has been impressed by Mullen's ability to develop talent and to maintain a nationally ranked program.
"What Dan has recognized is at Mississippi State, you're not going to beat every program for the star players," Sherrill said. "What he's done is an excellent job of evaluating talent and then developing them into stars once they arrive on campus."
In 1999, Sherrill led MSU to a No. 12 ranking in The Associated Press poll, the highest final ranking achieved by any Football Championship Subdivision, formerly referred to as Division I-A, school in the state of Mississippi in more than 30 years.
The 26-year head coaching veteran laughed when asked if he felt like a 4-0 start, or an 8-0 start like his 1999 team, felt different around the MSU campus because of its uniqueness.
"I think it's special and a different feeling for everybody, and I mean 8-0 doesn't happen many places," Sherrill said. "What I'm impressed with about Dan is he is beating people he's heavily favored in by large margins. The '99 team won five games by an average of 2.5 points."
Sherrill said he also sees a lot of similarities in the teams' defenses. He especially likes the defensive line play of East Mississippi Community College transfer Denico Autry and senior tackle Josh Boyd.
"This MSU team looks to have big, tall, thick defensive lineman that you have to have in this conference to compete," Sherrill said.
Those athletic linemen have allowed No. 21 MSU (4-0, 1-0 SEC) to hold its first four opponents to the lowest point total through four games since the 1999 team. While facing more traditionally based running offenses in the SEC, the 1999 team allowed just 13 points per game, which ranked third in the country. The 2012 team is 17th among all FBS schools (13.3 ppg.).
The only difference between the teams may be the philosophy and the responsibility given to the quarterback. MSU junior Tyler Russell has a higher completion percentage (55.7), more yards per game (206), and is just five touchdown passes short through four games of the total Wayne Madkin and Matt Wyatt had the entire season.
"This whole team is different, and it's not just me," Russell said Sept. 8. "We all work harder and have bigger goals now than we've ever had. This is a new Mississippi State, and right now things are going well."
Sherrill's '99 team was coming off a Western Division championship and a Cotton Bowl appearance, so it was expected the following year would prove to have quality players returning.
Back-to-back bowl appearances for Mullen's program have given MSU fans a different set of expectations.
"It's almost like this was expected, which is actually good, and I like that," Mullen said. "I like that type of feeling. Not that our fans take it for granted, not that the fans in town or our student body or our team takes it for granted but I do feel that way. This is where I planned us to be. I was planning on being 4-0 and the fan base of our people are a similar way."
The only difference is the attitude among the teams. The current MSU team seems to want to downplay its current success, even though they likely will be favored against Kentucky, the University of Tennessee, and Middle Tennessee State University before traveling to face the University of Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team and defending national champion.
"I remember before the game at Vanderbilt where the student paper put together something that said the geniuses versus the jucos because we had so many junior college players," Sherrill said. "We had players like Smoot that shouted at a Vanderbilt receiver that, 'If you do my homework, then I'll let you catch a pass' and he shut them down."
Maybe after a couple more victories the 2012 MSU team won't be as shy about pronouncing its chances at having another special season.