STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen wants the pressure. He wants gaudy expectations and anxious fans.
Mississippi State’s head coach is entering his sixth season in Starkville, heading a team viewed as a legitimate contender in the SEC Western Division. It’s not something this program is used to and situations like this for programs like this usually don’t work out, but this is the exact position Mullen wants his team to be in.
“Hopefully we have a lot of pressure Week 10, 11 and 12 of the season and then we’ll see how we deal with it then,” Mullen said.
“These guys want to win a championship. They want to get to Atlanta and go play for that title. The expectations on the outside don’t get to them. … In their minds, this is what we want. There’s no pressure on them, that’s their goal to go out and accomplish this right now.”
And why not? In a league that has seen the talent gap from the top to the middle tighten in recent years, both divisions really are up for grabs. And the Bulldogs return 18 starters, 16 of whome are upperclassmen.
Mullen has a potential All-SEC quarterback in the very versatile Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs’ top five receiving targets from last year are back, and the defense is finally stacked with an SEC-caliber lineup in its two-deep.
The naysayers point at past failures this program has had, most notably it’s tumble in 2012. That’s when Mississippi State started the season 7-0 and rose as high as No. 11 in the AP poll before losing at Alabama 38-7. The Bulldogs then went into a full free fall, losing four of their last five games.
A year earlier, the Bulldogs went 7-6 after a 9-4 season that included wins over Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss and an absolute thrashing of Michigan (52-14) in their bowl game.
This is a program that has made it to one SEC championship game (1998) -- and lost -- and it hasn’t won 10 games in a season since 1999. In the past three seasons, Mullen is 0-15 against teams that finished the season ranked in one of the final polls, and SEC West foes Alabama, Auburn and LSU have a combined 36-3 record against Mississippi State since the start of the 2000 season.
History hasn’t been kind to the Bulldogs, and it certainly isn’t on their side, but players don’t care. They’re concerned about the present and foresee a special season in Starkville.
“To be honest, we don’t care about respect,” redshirt junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney. “We’re just going out there to play to win. We know what we can do. People are going to put us down, but that’s just a part of life.”
To Mullen, who is 36-28 during his five years with Mississippi State and owns the highest overall winning percentage by a Mississippi State coach since 1956 (.563), this is the most complete team he’s had in Starkville. For the first time, Mullen feels like he can rotate quality depth in and out at just about every position, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
He has an All-America-caliber defensive lineman in Chris Jones whom Mullen could see sharing a handful of reps this fall because there isn’t a lot of drop off with the players around him. He’s happy with playing five of his safeties and six of his linebackers this fall.
Jones might be the biggest talent on the team, but Mullen finally sees a deep, collective group of quality players who can carry this team in 2014.
“I don’t think we have superstars. I don’t know if were a team loaded with first-round draft picks, but I think we’re loaded with a bunch of really good football players,” Mullen said. “I like having that depth instead of having five superstars and then role players around them.”
On paper, Mississippi State’s nonconference schedule is an absolute cakewalk, but road trips to LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss could thwart their Atlanta hopes. But the Bulldogs aren’t running from it. They know that in order to be relevant in the SEC West in late November, this team has to take down the big boys.
There’s the opportunity to catch a relatively unproven LSU team on the road in late September, while Texas A&M and Auburn will visit Starkville. Then there’s that road trip to Alabama on Nov. 15, which could hold the Bulldogs’ SEC fate.
To senior cornerback Jay Hughes, the team isn’t even looking at its schedule. It’s looking at the players in the locker room and the coaches around them. That’s where their focus is, and where their confidence is bred. Hughes believes there’s something great in Starkville, and he can’t wait for the Bulldogs to show it.
“It’s almost like we know, man,” Hughes said. “We have as good of talent as anybody with the numbers that we have and the experience we have on the field. We have the talent, we have the numbers, so what are we going to do?"