For Mississippi State’s players and coaches, it probably seems like an eternity since the Bulldogs last played a football game.
Think back to everything this program has endured since Mississippi State defeated Kentucky 24-17 on Oct. 30.
Three days after the Bulldogs’ sixth straight win, senior defensive end Nick Bell died after a short bout with cancer. He’d played and started for Mississippi State five weeks earlier against Georgia and was on the sidelines for the UAB game two weeks earlier.
But last Saturday, when the Bulldogs were supposed to be enjoying an open date, they were burying their fallen teammate.
About the time the memorial service was being held on Mississippi State’s campus for Bell last Thursday, the story broke concerning Auburn quarterback Cam Newton being allegedly shopped to Mississippi State for money during his recruitment.
The NCAA is investigating and has talked to several former players and officials at Mississippi State.
It became a full-blown firestorm this week with Mississippi State acknowledging that it turned over information to the SEC concerning Newton’s recruitment and then former Mississippi State players Kenny Rogers and Bill Bell saying on Thursday that Newton’s father, Cecil Newton, did reach out to them for money in exchange for Newton to sign with the Bulldogs.
All the while, Dan Mullen has been trying to get his football team ready for Saturday’s visit to Alabama.
Despite everything going on around them, Mullen thinks the Bulldogs are itching to get back out there and play again.
“It’s been a tough go, but our team has responded and I’m pleased with how they’ve prepared for this game and the focus they’ve had in getting ready to play a big-time football game despite all the other things that have gone on,” Mullen said.
This is the kind of game that could be the difference in a good season and a great season for the No. 19 Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2). Following this weekend’s trip to Alabama, they return home to face Arkansas on Nov. 20 and travel to Ole Miss to end the regular season on Nov. 27.
Mississippi State hasn’t won eight games in the regular season since 1999. That’s also the last time the Bulldogs had a winning record in SEC play.
Mullen has deflected questions about Newton and the NCAA’s investigation into Newton’s recruitment. He said his focus has remained on the “players on our team.”
He conceded that last week was unlike anything he’d ever dealt with as a coach and made it a point to give the players plenty of time for themselves.
“After the funeral, I think there was a feeling that they’re ready to move forward and learn from what Nick taught us in his life about achieving your goals and things you want to achieve in life,” Mullen said. “This week, we’ve been able to turn the focus back to game-planning.”
Junior safety Charles Mitchell, who roomed with Bell at one point during their college careers, will wear Bell’s No. 36 jersey number Saturday against Alabama. All of the Mississippi State players will wear a patch on their jerseys in honor of Bell.
More than anything else, Mitchell said he knows Bell would want the Bulldogs to finish out this season the right way.
“I just hope I can play for him and let him play through me,” Mitchell said.