COLUMN: HOOVER, Ala. — As Dan Mullen took the podium for his fourth installment of SEC Media Days as head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, much had changed since the former Florida offensive coordinator had taken the job in 2008, but where Mullen and the Bulldogs now stand is largely a matter of perspective across state lines.
In Mississippi, MSU and Mullen have been an unquestioned success, capturing three straight Egg Bowl titles and making up substantial ground in recruiting while Ole Miss imploded under Houston Nutt.
But there’s that pesky stat that’s kept anyone outside of the Magnolia State from buying into what Mullen’s selling: Other than the Rebels, MSU is 0-for-the-SEC-West under Mullen. And only one of those wins against Ole Miss came against an above .500 Rebel squad.
But hey, that didn’t stop Mullen from talking about a national title on Wednesday.
“When you look, the great thing I guess in our program, the SEC West, we’re not far off from there, which means we’re not far off from the national title. As you’re developing, as you’re building the program, the confidence that comes in our guys, I think they see that,” Mullen said. “They see that, ‘Hey, we’re not far off from these teams, and these teams have won the national title, are ranked in the top five in the country. We can be right there.’ I think that builds and gets into the program.”
Such a bold claim was met with a healthy amount of grumpy disbelief from the few hundred reporters gathered in the main ballroom of the Wynfrey Hotel, especially since the topic at hand had first been State’s struggles to get over the hump early in conference play, specifically with perennial September opponent Auburn.
“Obviously that’s huge for us, to find a way to win that first game this year and put ourselves in position hopefully to make a run at an SEC championship,” Mullen said.
Auburn game is crucial
Two years after the Bulldogs were a Cam Newton third-down conversion from upsetting the eventual national champions on a Thursday night, the Tigers will return to Starkville in Week 2. For Mullen, beating Auburn is the key to creating a string of wins against the Alabamas, Arkansas and LSUs of the conference.
“I mean, we’ve had the opportunity to beat every one of those teams, right down to the fourth quarter, last plays of the game. The big difference for us is we have to make those game-winning plays,” Mullen said. “We have to have guys step up and make those game-winning plays. I think three of those teams have won the national championship.”
So as Ole Miss has crumbled and Mullen has gone a perfect 3-for-3 in Egg Bowls, his much-bandied “State of Mississippi” rhetoric has faded out across SEC country, at least outside of the Starkville-Oxford-Jackson bubble. That’s not to say he isn’t still reveling in his success. Acknowledging the headlines made from MSU’s “aggressive” billboard marketing campaign, Mullen (who stated that his favorite billboard was actually the one touting the Bulldogs’ run of three straight “Miss Mississippi” pageant winners) still hasn’t forgotten how important it is for Mississippi State to feel important in Mississippi.
“I have the one on my desk, they give me a mini version of whatever they’re putting up. Our marketing department has done a fabulous job of creating excitement around our program, around the state of Mississippi,” Mullen said. “The billboards I think are just part of the excitement they’ve created and the buzz they’ve created in the state for us.” (July 19, 2012, Page 6)