- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Dan Mullen says it doesn’t get to him.
He says he’s too busy to think about it, let alone worry about it.
But the fact still remains: Mississippi State has yet to beat an SEC Western Division team not named Ole Miss since Mullen took over in 2009.
“I don’t sit there and mull over which great teams we’ve beaten and which great teams we’ve lost to,” Mullen said. “I worry about how we’re improving as a team and how we can win this game this week.”
Deep down, you know it has to irk him a little. He won’t say it publicly, but for a man as confident as Mullen, it has to be a tough fact to swallow each season.
It’s not like Mullen’s teams haven’t come close. There was that 30-26 loss to LSU in his first year. Year 2 brought a 17-14 loss to Auburn and a 38-31 double-overtime loss to Arkansas.
Of course, there was last season when the Bulldogs’ suffered a heartbreaking 41-34 loss on the Plains to Auburn. Mississippi State literally fell a few inches short when quarterback Chris Relf was stopped at the goal line on a run as time expired.
But with a new season here, Mullen could shake his label this weekend -- against those same Auburn Tigers.
Like 2011, the Bulldogs are riding high off of a blowout win against an overmatched opening opponent, but they’re playing an Auburn team that is coming off of a tough loss to Clemson in Atlanta. The Tigers had a little pep in their step after squeezing out a tough opening win against Utah State last season.
This year, the Tigers have their backs against the wall. Saturday is more of a must-win for Auburn, considering the potential for an 0-2 hole, but Mullen knows how important this game is from a mental aspect and a standings aspect.
“I know our guys know how important it is to win that first conference game,” he said. “If you want to make a run to win the conference championship, the first game is an absolutely critical part of that.
“It can give you a huge momentum swing or a huge momentum knock in that first conference game.”
This game could put a team two games ahead of the loser. Auburn coach Gene Chizik has been on the victorious end of this game for two straight years and knows the advantages of winning it.
“It’s huge. It’s really big,” Chizik said. “This game is very important to both sides. It really sets the tempo for certain ways for the year.
“I know it was big for us last year -- and certainly the year before as well -- but the importance to both sides is definitely at a premium.”
For Auburn, the Tigers aren’t just trying to get over the mental side of the Clemson loss, they are trying to prep for what should be a very physical game with the Bulldogs, who should be quite fresh this weekend.
Mullen rotated a lot of players in against Jackson State and estimated that 17 freshmen played. Energy shouldn’t be an issue for Mississippi State, and that could be a problem for the Tigers, who were gassed against Clemson.
Things are stacking up in Mullen’s favor, and he has to sense it. He has to feel closer to that elusive "other" SEC West win. And it's so important, because a win Saturday could help catapult Mississippi State to a 6-1, maybe, 7-0 start before facing Alabama in late October. It’s very possible, but it starts with Saturday.
A loss, and it’s the same old story ... and Mullen knows that.