October 19, 2010 8:24:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- It''s time to see how the Mississippi State football team handles success.
The No. 24 Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) are ranked for the first time in nine years and are one win away from bowl eligibility after beating then-No. 22 Florida 10-7 Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.
The Bulldogs'' four-game winning streak is the longest since they started 8-0 in 1999, and went on to beat Clemson in the Peach Bowl to finish 10-2.
In a game that produced a handful of notable firsts, MSU''s win against Florida gives it a new challenge on top of a list of improvements coach Dan Mullen noted Monday in his weekly press conference.
MSU must deal with the new-found national attention and distinction ahead of homecoming against the University of Alabama at Birmingham (2-4, 1-2 C-USA) at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN). A win against UAB and a win against Kentucky the following week would send MSU into Alabama on Nov. 9 with a 7-2 record. The Bulldogs have a bye week before facing the Crimson Tide.
So how do you keep a team from getting the "big head" and stumbling against UAB?
Put strength coach Matt Balis on the job.
Balis has been lauded for his strength and conditioning methods, but has earned coaches'' and players'' respect for helping build mental toughness.
"Matt Balis and I talked -- they lift before they come out to practice -- and I made sure he reminded them of what got us here," Mullen said. "There were some interesting faces walking out of that weight room when he finished working them out yesterday. He got his point across."
Mullen said Sunday his players have done a solid job of bouncing back from defeats and returning to practice determined to outwork the next opponent on the schedule.
After beating the Gators, the Bulldogs'' confidence is at an all-time high. However, the team can''t afford to have a dip in practice production, Mullen said.
"You''re successful because we work hard, we prepare," Mullen said. "Believe in the man next to you. Our guys have bought into that. That recipe can''t change in the future, and that was our focus, and I saw that. There were some smiling faces in practice, and there''s nothing wrong with being happy after winning a big football game, but what I saw was the focus we needed when it was time to get back to work."
Mullen downplayed UAB''s record by pointing out the team''s one-point loss to Florida Atlantic and three-point, double-overtime loss to Tennessee. But MSU will be favored to win before it returns to conference play against Kentucky, a team it has beaten two out of the past three years.
Looking ahead to bettering its ranking and improving its stock for a bowl game can be dangerous for a team with new-found fame, Mullen said. He noted UAB''s motivation to beat an SEC team and the confidence derived from its 21-6 win against the University of Texas at El Paso on Saturday as reasons to consider the game to be tougher than it might appear to be on paper.
"We''re very motivated to win one game -- that''s this week''s game," Mullen said. "That''s all we''re motivated to do. If we can go 1-0 this week, we''ve reached our goal. If you can really concentrate on the present, a lot of great things are gonna happen to you in the future."
Bell recovering from brain surgery
MSU defensive end Nick Bell is recovering well from emergency brain surgery performed three weeks ago, the school announced Monday.
The sophomore from Bessemer, Ala., recently underwent surgery at Vanderbilt University to remove a mass on his brain, which was discovered the week MSU played Alcorn State.
MSU athletics media relations released a statement from Bell''s surgeon, Dr. Allen Sills, who said the mass was discovered by MSU physicians after Bell developed headaches and hand weakness.
"There was evidence this mass had caused some bleeding in the brain prior to surgery," Sills said in the statement. "At surgery, the blood and the mass were removed. He (Bell) is recovering well and has returned home."
Sills said tests indicate the mass found on Bell''s brain is a form of skin cancer related to a lesion removed from his forehead two years ago. Further treatment for the mass will continue.
"His physicians remain hopeful that he can return to football in the future when his treatments are completed," Sills said. "He will miss the rest of the current football season."
Bell has missed the past three games after the mass was discovered. He was enjoying a stellar start to his sophomore season, racking up seven tackles and two behind the line of scrimmage.
Despite playing without starting center J.C. Brignone and losing starting safety Charles Mitchell midway through their win at Florida, Mullen is confident both players can return against UAB.
Brignone, who suffered a sprained knee two weeks ago at Houston, told trainers he felt like he could play against the Gators after going through warmups.
"He wouldn''t have been 100 percent but he could have played," Mullen said. "We''re hoping he''s ready to go Saturday."
Mitchell has a concussion and will be held out of contact drills today. The Bulldogs practiced Sunday but typically take Mondays off.
"Charles is day-to-day. You never know how that goes. He was feeling good yesterday," Mullen said.
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