As much as Hog fans like to complain about being overlooked by the national media, I'd wager the Auburn Tigers would love to send a share of that attention west. In a year when the SEC's marquee programs have struggled, Auburn's been the bright shining hope. But their bulb is flickering.
"Drinking the Kool-Aid" never registered for me as an entirely appropriate use of historical tragedy until I watched the Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare stadium this week. The extent of their delusion is so alien and radical and befuddling that you can only look on helpless. It's hard to blame them for being indignant, but at the same time it's hard to understand their lack of concern.
I imagine Arkansas fans might be tempted to treat a stud-ly transfer the same way if it meant a national championship, but that wouldn't make their rhetoric any less hollow. And I'm not sure that we'd readily sabotage the next several years of Arkansas football to a confirmed one-and-done. The blanket denial, the circling of wagons, the appeal to "family," all that talk about overcoming adversity — it just mischaracterizes the whole situation.
Cecil Newton asked somebody for money, and that's a problem for Auburn. It's distracting. It's frustrating. It's probably unfair. But it's not adversity.
Adversity is what Dan Mullen and the Mississippi State Bulldogs have been facing. When Nick Bell was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer, his teammates likely lost some sleep. They may have been unable to keep their heads straight during practice. One of them found himself starting in Bell's spot — his dream became a nightmare.
When just over a month after his diagnosis, Nick Bell succumbed to the disease, who knows how his teammates took the loss? These are young men, elite athletes who may have been confronting mortality for the very first time. Some may have even sought counseling, if they were blessed enough to recognize the need.
At the same time, they had to live through the longest bye-week ever, prepare for a game on the road against the defending national champions, and deflect countless tedious accusations from the Auburn faithful because several months ago they did the right thing and blew the whistle on some shady business.
That's adversity, and it likely tanked MSU's chances against a beatable Crimson Tide.
Dan Mullen was already one of the best coaches in the league when he was hired a couple years back. If anybody can make something happen for the Bulldogs, it's him. He's good at playing to the strengths of his personnel, he's a good motivator, and he's a good recruiter. He's already put together a very dangerous team.
Given a better arm, Chris Relf would be a pretty good approximation of Cam Newton. Mullen's spread option allows the 240-pound scrambler to make up for that limitation on the ground, and he shares the bulk of rushing yardage with the short and stocky Vick Ballard. The best news about that tandem is how often they fail to make it beyond the line of scrimmage, which they owe as much to slow development as lack of execution. When the running game is sputtering, Mullen may bring in 6'5" freshman Tyler Russell to try his luck downfield; he has a boatload of ability but gives the ball away too often. Relf gives them a better chance to win, especially against the Hogs.
While the defense is very strong on the line of scrimmage, they're not so much disruptive as disciplined, with 73 tackles for a loss in 10 games. Their secondary is aggressive but raw, giving up a lot of yardage and getting crossed up often, and they're good for at least one or two 20-plus-yard passing plays per game. The defense as a whole can be so physical and reckless that fate plays a hand in their success. The Bulldogs lead the conference in turnover margin, which might be familiar to the Hogs, who benefited from the same good fortune last season. If the offense can keep the ball off the ground and stop leaving passes up for grabs, they should defuse a lot of MSU's explosiveness.
But don't overlook the Cowbell Factor. Our offensive line gets jumpy in loud environments, and that constant ringing could steal some yardage and a few conversions from the Hogs. With a team like the Bulldogs, one distraction might be all it takes for them to ruin all that talk of a BCS bowl.
Follow Derek Jenkins throughout the week and during games on Twitter @aboynamedsooie.