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The Partisan: Fear and Loathing in StarkVegas

We traveled to Starkville, found a hidden gem of a town, and got our butts kicked.

Somewhere, right this instant, this gentleman is ringing this bell.
Somewhere, right this instant, this gentleman is ringing this bell.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Cellular service inside of Davis Wade Stadium is excellent.  Spectacular, really.  The modern miracle of full-throttle 4G gave ample ability to review twitter, peruse real-time statistics, and otherwise ignore the kind State fans that had brought us to the game, and were now aggressively ringing double-barreled cowbells approximately four inches from our ears.

This paragraph is more or less where I envisioned an opening salvo on the Golden Triangle area of Mississippi, but expectations make for horrendous pets.  For all the skepticism that Starkville provokes, the rolling green hills and towering evergreens that frame Highway 25 through the Tombigbee National Forest certainly try their best to reframe narratives, especially when driven through at dusk on a Friday.

Upon arriving to campus early Saturday morning, our host stopped and surveyed the scene, replete with acres of tailgating, standard-issue sorority dress, standard-issue terrible fraternity haircuts, and noted arsonist Paul Finebaum holding court from the SEC Network set in the middle of the circus.

Ole Miss fans will casually dismiss this, but two more Bloody Marys and we could have easily been in Oxford, with tents strewn across campus as far as the eye could see, early morning trashcans piled high with coffee and Captain Morgan, and maroon.  So, so much maroon.

Pregame shit-talking was relatively light: halfway through mocking my A&M hat, a coed suddenly stopped to tell me that bottles are frowned upon, and I really needed a plastic cup if I planned on finishing that Fat Tire, and crap, hold on, she'd go get it herself, and GOTOHELLOLEMISS.  The Bulldog fanbase clearly hasn't experienced enough success over the years to realize that open container tickets are a staple of welcoming visiting fans to town.

Inside the stadium, the crowd was as electric as could be hoped at 11AM; the introduction video looped highlights of teams past, featuring standouts such as Fletcher Cox, Jonathan Banks, and, uh, Marvin Byrdsong.  The Davis Wade DJ, in a kind-hearted attempt to make up for being stuck in 1994, played all songs at maximum possible value.

This is normally where I might point out how much more incredibly physically prepared State was for the game than A&M.  It might be germane to the discussion to wonder why our 6'5", 240 pound wideout was actively avoiding contact, or perhaps where exactly the receiver's heads were at while dropping approximately 27 balls.  (Exact numbers are hazy.)

RUN THE F'ING BALL is the battle cry of an internet simpleton, weaned on Madden, confused by simple X's and O's, and one that has very little to no idea what an offensive staff is attempting to accomplish via a gameplan.

It can also be correct.

This past Saturday, the A&M running backs ran for 126 yards on 19 carries, several of which came in garbage time.  There were not back to back running plays called until late in the 3rd quarter. That total - even allowing for a game in which the Aggies were playing behind for most of the contest - is absurd.  Occasionally, even the most gifted of Air Raid offensive coordinators confuse the Tombigbee National Forest for its respective trees.

With no apparent running threat, the State safeties were happy to sit idly 12 to 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, clamp down on A&M slots, and basically dare young Kenny Hill to beat them over the top, which didn't happen until the game was far out of reach.  The checkdown to the running back was available pretty much all day, but that read doesn't appear to be allowed and/or taught in this offense as of yet.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line actually held up halfway well across from a talented upperclassman Bullldog offense.  Myles Garrett continues to get better every week, even as promised depth rotations have mysteriously disappeared.  (Thanks for playing so well the first couple of weeks Zaycoven Henderson, see you in 2015.)  The secondary, while clearly physically outmatched, is playing with far better eye discipline than last year, and simply is in need of a severe talent upgrade, which seems to be on the horizon.

At linebacker, this is normally where I would bring up Mark Hagen's six-figure salary, but doing so only presents a tremendous disservice to overworked high school coaches that teach World History, and somehow still manage to instruct their players to scrape, pursue, maybe fill a correct gap, or perhaps just actually run in the direction of the play. A&M is now in year 3 of this defensive coaching staff, year 2 of this linebackers coach, and the two-deep and on-field play to this point can only be called a complete systematic failure in identification, recruiting, and development.

And yet.

In spite of a coaching staff that collectively choked clock management and timeout usage for the second week in a row, in spite of a staff that couldn't decide whether it wanted to raise the white flag and punt or onside kick in the 4th quarter, and in spite of a staff that decided to light a dumpster on fire instead of developing a coherent game plan for MSU, A&M still features the same roster that went to Columbia and made South Carolina look downright foolish.

There are disturbing trends afoot everywhere one looks at this A&M team, but the beautiful part of college football - and especially the ridiculous, beautiful, SEC West this year - is the chance to hit reset on the narrative button immediately. As we drowned our joys and sorrows at Mugshots in the middle of charming downtown Starkville, we watched fanbases in Norman, Tuscaloosa, Lincoln, Baton Rouge, and Los Angeles trudge to their respective message boards, and worry that they might not have the right guy at the helm Pawwwllll.

For the first time in 32 games as a head coach at A&M, Kevin Sumlin got his pants pulled down, his lunch money stolen, and dirt kicked in his face last weekend.  As poor as the performance was, as real as the issues facing the back 7 on defense are, and as silly as the clown show coaching linebackers remains, the Aggies are currently 5-1, ranked #14, and favored by 2 points over the #3 team in the country this weekend.

For the first time, College Station features a huge game, at night, in front of 106,000.  Embrace the chaos.  Ole Miss is coached by a small, yet terrifying woodland creature. Beat the hell outta Faulkner.