John Cohen can see him in training every day.
The Mississippi State Athletic Director has watched the Bulldogs improve daily. How they became more and more comfortable with each other and with the coaching staff. How they excelled in the field despite detailed and rigorous practices.
âThese kids are getting better,â Cohen said.
That’s an understandable assessment given the significant improvement in Mississippi State’s midseason. With only one game to go – the Liberty Bowl against Texas Tech on December 28 – Cohen believes the Bulldogs are set for even more success in 2022.
He is not the only one.
âWe’re on the rise,â said head coach Mike Leach.
Mississippi State (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) closed its regular season by winning four of its last six games, including victories over Kentucky and Auburn. The Bulldogs also had victories over Texas A&M and North Carolina State; all four opponents spent time in the top 25.
MSU will regret missed opportunities against conference enemies such as Arkansas and Ole Miss, but entrenched themselves as a capable player in SEC West, finishing fourth in the division.
Cohen pointed out that the Bulldogs’ record could have been much better than 7-5 in any other lineup.
âSEC West is the best division of the best conference in the whole country,â he said. âYou can be a very, very good football team and not have the winning and losing numbers that you want to have. I think everyone in our league at some point has been through this in SEC West. “
Now, the Bulldogs will face a Big 12 team for the first time since their loss to Kansas State on September 14, 2019. The Red Raiders (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) meet them in Memphis at 5:45 pm. December 28.
With one win, Mississippi State can take a second straight bowl game and finish with eight wins for the first time since 2018 under Joe Moorhead.
âI think it always brings a little bit of momentum into the offseason,â said Leach. “Like all teams, I think it’s really important, and I think it helps to energize the offseason.”
The former Texas Tech and Washington state head coach tied his bowl record at 8-8 after beating a ranked Tulsa team 28-26 in last season’s Armed Forces Bowl.
The game marked Mississippi State’s 11th consecutive appearance. This year’s Liberty Bowl will be the 12th.
âIt’s a sign of continuity in your athletic department and then obviously in your program,â said defensive coordinator Zach Arnett. âThis place has been 12 bowl games in a row because it has some really good football players on the program.â
Regardless of the Bulldogs’ Liberty Bowl outcome, Arnett recognized that the bowl streak is a key recruiting selling point.
“When you’ve got something like that to recruit, and you can show the rookies that bowling is the expectation, and the program has done it 12 years in a row, and that’s the standard that players have fixed before them, that makes it really easy to recruit because the rookies can see all the beautiful things that come with bowling every year, âsaid Arnett.
What not everyone sees, said Arnett, are the struggles that have unfolded in the season, the growing pains that a young team has gone through.
The Bulldogs needed a 20-point comeback to beat Louisiana Tech in their season opener and lost to Memphis, an American Athletic Conference average team. They started the year just 2-2 after losing the following week to LSU.
âSometimes failure is the best learning experience you can have,â Arnett said. âWe kind of hit our stride. “
The Bulldogs have won five of their last eight games. They took to the road to beat A&M, then beat Kentucky again in Starkville. They came back 25 points to beat Auburn inside the Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The next step? Don’t be behind 28-3 in the first place, of course.
âWe always have to be consistent,â Leach said. âWe need to become a more mature and polite team. But I think we’re getting there. We are getting there. We are heading in the right direction. We are certainly not there yet.
But Cohen thinks the Bulldogs are close. He said MSU is a “very good football team without a lot of experience”.
By 2022, that should change. And the Liberty Bowl may be another stop on the way.
âI think we have the opportunity to have one of the elite attacks in the whole country, and I think our defense speaks for itself,â Cohen said. “I think once this team has the experience we need, we have a chance to be a very, very good football team in 22, but we have a bowl in front of us, and we would like to get through that. next step in this ball game too.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi state sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.