One thing most Bulldog fans will tell you is that the national media rarely expect the Bulldogs’ football team do much of anything special. For the most part, that statement has been pretty accurate. In 1998, they were picked by many to finish toward the bottom of the SEC West and ended up winning the division. Despite the success of the 1998 team, there were few that thought they would be able to replicate that success in 1999. The Bulldogs finished 9-2 in the regular season and a victory over Clemson clinched one of the few 10 win seasons in Mississippi State history. Some thought the Bulldogs would do well in 2000, but many did not see the Bulldogs being in position to win 9 games in the regular season for a second straight year. A disappointing game against Arkansas in some of the worst conditions I have ever seen, and humbling loss to the Rebels in the Egg Bowl had Mississippi State finish about where most thought they would that year, but they were close to having another special year.
Reality Comes Crashing Down
After 2000, national media started to think highly of the Bulldogs. They had just finished their 4th straight winning season and third straight bowl appearance. Jackie Sherrill was rumored to be one of the candidates to land in Tuscaloosa after his impressive showing with the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs had a four year starter at quarterback in Wayne Madkin who had a solid if unspectacular season in 2000. The Bulldogs boasted one of the most productive running back tandems in the country in Dicenzo Miller and Dontae Walker who combined for over 2,000 yards from the line of scrimmage the previous season. Mississippi State was poised to take their place atop the SEC West with many of the elite programs. Most people were picking them to finish second, a few picked them to win it, and the Bulldogs were in the back half of the Top 25 entering the season.
The 2001 season began with Memphis, a team that was supposed to be a warm up for the Bulldogs as they welcomed the BYU Cougars the following week. The Bulldogs 30-10 victory over the Tigers wasn’t as convincing as it looked on the scoreboard. The Bulldogs played sloppy most of the game, and didn’t pull away until the end. The Tigers used four turnovers by the Bulldogs to stay in the game, and give Mississippi State a scare they weren’t expecting. Most thought it was just opening season rust and a case of looking to the next opponent, BYU.
As we all remember, football became a minimal concern the Tuesday after the opening weekend of college football. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon followed on September 11 that year and led for all major sporting events to be cancelled until the following week.
What was supposed to be Mississippi State’s third game of the year became their second because of the attacks on 9/11. It was a nationally televised game against South Carolina on a Thursday night, and would be the first College football game played since the horrible attacks. How much of that had to do with the way the season played out will never be known, but the impressive Mississippi State team many expected to see didn’t make its way to the field that year. Construction on the second deck of the east side of the stadium was being completed during the 2001 season, so many of the student section seats were unusable. The school added the north end zone bleachers as a temporary solution that became a permanent fixture until the most recent expansion. I sat in those bleachers for the first time for the South Carolina game and saw what many had thought might be possible for the first time.
Joe Lee Dunn was the defensive coordinator and had turned the Mississippi State defense into the #1 unit in the country in 1999. The creeping fear was that Dunn’s defenses had a history of working their way to being one of the best in their conference but eventually other schools would figure them out. That happened in 2001. As I watched from the end zone, the Gamecocks were opening huge holes for their running backs to run through all night long. Andrew Pinnock averaged just over 8 yards a carry and Corey Jenkins averaged just under 7 yards a carry that night. All told, the Gamecocks rushed for 230 yards and played keep away with the Bulldogs offense. Mississippi State would lose that game 16-14.
The next week saw the wheels start to really wobble. Mississippi State traveled to Gainesville. The previous year, Mississippi State had beaten a top 5 ranked Florida Gators team in convincing fashion. Steve Spurrier welcomed the Bulldogs with an intimidating offense and nasty defense that had its sights set on revenge from the previous year. Mississippi State might have had a better chance of winning if they hadn’t even showed up. The Gators piled up 640 yards of offense and stomped the Bulldogs 52-0.
The Bulldogs would fall out of the Top 25, but there were still some who were suggesting the Bulldogs could still have a good year as they had just run into some good opponents early on. The only other ranked team on the schedule was BYU, so there would be some winnable games on the schedule. Auburn would follow the Gators and the Bulldogs needed a win. What the Bulldogs got was another poor performance and 16-14 loss. Everyone predicted that the Homecoming game against Troy the week after Auburn would help get the Bulldogs back on track. Things don’t always go as planned.
The game against Troy was played in terrible weather. At least one tornado warning was issued that I can remember and pools of water were on the field because so much rain was hitting the area at once. There were a total of 9 turnovers in the game, many of which were aided by the terrible playing conditions. The game would go down as one of the worst losses ever. The final was 21-9 in favor of Troy, and there was no denying that the Bulldogs’ season was a lost cause at that point. The Bulldogs would finish the year 3-8, with the only other wins coming against Kentucky and Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Jackie Sherrill would be forced into retirement two years later, and this season ushered in one of the worst stretches of football in the history of the school.
The Spotlight is Back
Since the 2001 season, most people have shied away from writing too many positive things in the preseason about the Bulldogs. Even after a surprising season in 2009, most didn’t think the Bulldogs would do more than obtain bowl eligibility in 2010. As we have approached our season opener against Southern Miss tomorrow, that has started to change. We may have been picked to finish 5th by the media at SEC Media Days, there is talk of Mississippi State surprising people. Much of the offseason has also centered around the possibility of Dak Prescott being a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. There are people who believe this Bulldog team can accomplish something special this season.
If we want to learn anything from the 2001 team, it’s that being well thought of and actually doing well are totally different animals. How we are predicted to finish will play no part in how many games we win or lose, but it can have an impact on how recruits see your team and how soon award voters look at your players. We were on the cusp of great things in 2001 and missed the opportunity. The same can be said this year. We need to make sure we don’t fall short this time.