- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Eight just doesn’t feel good enough in Starkville.
Looking back at a 2012 season that saw Mississippi State’s football team start 7-0, reach its third straight bowl for only the second time in school history and reel off at least seven wins for the third straight year, players, coaches and administrators can’t help but want more after an 8-5 season.
“I remember when it was acceptable for Mississippi State to win four games, beat Ole Miss and everything was fine,” fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell told ESPN.com last week. “Now, if you don’t go to a good bowl game -- and win a bowl game -- it’s like you don’t have a successful season. That’s great.”
It’s great because expectations are higher and people believe that under Dan Mullen, who will coach in his fifth season at Mississippi State this fall, the Bulldogs can push through and become real contenders in the SEC.
It’s not something that was ever supposed to be quick, but Mullen hasn’t strayed from his patient plan of slowly building up this program. In his four seasons, Mullen has gone 29-22, is 2-1 in bowl games, and has watched as the Bulldogs have sold out 23 straight home games. He’s also beaten eight of the 11 other SEC teams that were around when he arrived at Mississippi State in 2009. The school has even thrown $75 million into expanding and renovating Davis Wade Stadium.
“I can see that things have changed since I’ve been here,” Russell said. “Three years, four years ago, nobody would have said anything (negative) if we would have had the season that we had last year. They probably would have been happy that we won as many games as we did.”
But fans -- and just about everyone in and around the program -- are craving more. Three straight winning seasons for the first time since Mississippi State and four straight from 1997-2000 has Starkville beaming about the future, but last year’s late-season stumble brought plenty of concern.
After a 7-0 start and a rise to No. 11 in the BCS standings, the Bulldogs limped to a 1-5 finish and were outscored 188-81 in the process, conjuring past feelings of the historical inconsistency this program has had. All their losses were by double digits and none were closer than 14 points (a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl). A 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss also stopped the Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak over the Rebels.
A soft early-season schedule helped mask glaring defensive issues this team had, causing Mississippi State to go from a force to a phony in a matter of weeks.
Russell, who went from being one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country to throwing nine interceptions to five touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ five losses, said players got complacent after seven wins and developed an almost invincible mindset.
“I wouldn’t say you don’t work as hard, but I feel like we were like, ‘We can’t be beat,’” Russell said. “Then, you take that first loss and everything goes down hill and you try to catch back up.”
Mississippi State didn’t catch up, but with the 2013 season approaching, confidence is being restored. A slew of starters are gone, questions surround a much younger receiving corps, the defensive front has to make major strides this year and the secondary lost three valuable weapons, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. But core players like Russell, 1,000-yard back LaDarius Perkins, linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Deontae Skinner, safety Nickoe Whitley, and four starting offensive linemen return.
Mullen has endured some backlash since the season ended. Foolish talk of him being on the hot seat has made the rounds, and athletic director Scott Stricklin couldn’t be more annoyed by it.
“Well, that is silly because he’s not on the hot seat,” Stricklin told ESPN.com Sunday night.
Mullen isn’t even in a hot room, according to Stricklin. Sure, he wasn’t thrilled with last November or a poor bowl experience, but Stricklin believes in Mullen’s product and loves the organization and structure he has behind the scenes.
“All of those pieces of it are phenomenal,” Stricklin said. “Dan has the traits that all really good coaches have. He’s very bright, very smart and he’s very organized. That’s a pretty powerful combination.”
What Stricklin wants -- and expects -- is consistent play to build a championship-like program. That means regularly moving past the eight-win mark, annual bowl trips, keeping a recruiting edge and being more competitive in the SEC West, where Mullen has beaten just three teams -- Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss.
There will be more stumbles along the way, but Stricklin truly sees a program built for long-term success under Mullen.
“You don’t see a lot of Johnny-come-latelys having great success at a high level in this league,” he said. “It’s the schools that are there year after year after year, and that’s what we want to be.”
18hTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney