STARKVILLE, Miss. -- You have to be a little bit crazy to work inside these four walls. There are no windows to glimpse humanity. No one on the outside can hear you scream. Listening to Linkin Park is OK, if not encouraged. There's gibberish scribbled everywhere.
A photo of Inspector Todd from "Beverly Hills Cop" is taped to one wall. A printout of a wide-eyed, blushing emoticon wearing a Philadelphia Phillies hat is pinned to another. Who knows why? The only thing that can explain this is that when a bunch of overly energized men sit in a room together for hours on end, strange things happen.
This is where football lives. This is where Mississippi State's Psycho Defense begins.
Geoff Collins sits at the head of the table in his defensive war room Tuesday, champing at the bit for this weekend's showdown with No. 2-ranked Auburn. The 43-year-old defensive coordinator -- the "Minister of Mayhem," according to his official Mississippi State bio -- has a large cup of sweet tea beside an unopened can of Diet Mountain Dew. The over/under on the number of slime-green soft drinks he consumes in a given day is seven, he says. He keeps two 24-packs under his desk at all times. He had an extra-large coffee earlier this morning and will squeeze in a 5-hour Energy at some point before heading home around midnight.
He's crazy all right, players and fellow coaches say. If his sideways hat and unlaced bright orange shoes don't convince you, just have him list his priorities on defense.
"Having fun, flying around, energetic, violent, a little bit crazy," he says.
As soon as Collins leaves the room to meet with coach Dan Mullen in his office, the energy of the space goes down a notch. Two graduate assistants peck away at computers while someone's version of a pump-up mix plays in the background. G.A. Justin Hinds says there's a genius to Collins' eccentricity. Behind those wild blue eyes -- the kind that stare at you with so much intensity they seem to shake -- is a coach who knows how to fire up his players, and more important, gets them to understand what can be a complex system by boiling down the most intricate details into easily digestible parts.
"It's like 'A Beautiful Mind,'" Hinds says, gesturing toward a wall-to-wall white board filled with coverages and blitzes diagrammed on every available inch of space. "He's a unique thinker."
* * *
Collins takes off his hat, brushes back his hair and puts on, of all things, tortoise shell reading glasses. The Psycho is gone. Sitting in an afternoon staff meeting covering special teams and recruiting, he's transformed from the ringleader of a caffeine-fueled circus to a calm and collected assistant.
Only once do coaches mention defending Auburn's vaunted spread offense. There's a respect for Gus Malzahn's system. It's simple but genius, they say. You can know what's coming and still not stop it.
On third-and-long, Collins tells everyone to look for No. 1 and No. 18. It almost always goes to Sammie Coates or Duke Williams, he says. The numbers bear that out: On third down and 6 yards or more, Williams and Coates have been targeted 12 and nine times, respectively. No one else has been targeted more than twice.
Mississippi State's defense ranks second in the SEC with a third-down conversion percentage of 26.5. Against Texas A&M's high-powered offense last weekend, it forced seven punts. Through Saturday, the Bulldogs lead the SEC and rank fifth nationally in disrupted dropbacks, which combines sacks, passes defended, interceptions and batted balls.
Dak Prescott may be a Heisman Trophy contender and Mullen's offense may be flying high, but make no mistake: Mississippi State is a program long built on defense. Collins, with his Swag Chalice (see right) and Juice Points (awarded to whoever has the most "juice" on a given play), has taken it from good to great by putting his own spin on things.
"That's what Coach Mullen likes, he doesn't want a robot," assistant head coach Tony Hughes says. "He wants exotic.
"Geoff is a 21st century, cutting edge coordinator that thinks out of the box."
* * *
The players start off low: "Psych-o .... defense ... psych-o ... defense."
Before long it's a full-throated yell coming from the locker room.
"It just builds and builds and gets louder," Collins says. "By the end they're jumping up and down and screaming."
Mississippi State's defense plays with energy because that's what its coordinator demands.
"It's mayhem," redshirt sophomore linebacker Beniquez Brown says. "It's juice, excitement, just having fun. Psycho Defense is going crazy for the man beside you."
Cornerback Taveze Calhoun's first impression of Collins might say it all: "He's got a lot of swag."
"It's rare," he says. "Most coaches want you to do technique. He tells you to play with passion, have swag, play with juice, play with excitement. He brings a different feel to the game."
But don't let theatrics fool you. Behind the adrenaline and masculinity lies a thinker who traveled to Paris during the offseason and visited the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. As a G.A. at Fordham University and Georgia Tech, he did his post-grad studies in psychology.
Football is all a chess game, he says, "with kids that run 4.4 and are 6-5 and 300 pounds."
"The psychological point has always been fascinating to me: the motivation, the X's and O's, the cerebral part of the game," he says. "But with that, you still have to get kids to have fun and play hard. The balance between those, being a high-level thinker but then still having enough juice and energy to relate to 18-22 year old kids."
Richie Brown has seen both sides. A lover of psychology himself, the redshirt sophomore linebacker and his defensive coordinator have bonded over discussions of how the brain works. Recently Collins lent Brown a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink."
"It's just about precognitive recognition," Brown says, "knowing something before it happens, anticipation, knowing that your brain knows things even if you're not consciously aware.
"For example, seeing a play in a certain formation and certain depths and widths of players and understanding and knowing and anticipating what's going to happen."
That lesson seems to have paid off. Last week, Brown set a school record with three interceptions of Texas A&M's Kenny Hill, who entered the game having thrown 17 touchdowns and just two picks.
"He's the foundation," Brown said of Collins. "He's really developed us as players mentally as well as physically."
Maybe the Minister of Mayhem, the architect of the Psycho Defense and the carrier of the Swag Chalice is on to something. He may seem like the guy forever bouncing off the walls, but at the same time he's a free thinker.
That balance is what connects. It's what gets players to buy in and allows Mississippi State's Psycho Defense to drive the rest of the SEC nuts.