STARKVILLE, Miss. -- When Dan Mullen first took over as Mississippi State’s head coach before the 2009 season, the goal was very simple: Make it to bowl games.
For a program that lacked the historical success of the SEC’s big boys, a bowl game here and there was something Mississippi State was more than happy with.
But those were simpler times in Starkville.
Now, as Mullen enters his sixth season with the Bulldogs, just becoming bowl eligible isn’t good enough. When you make it to four straight, it’s time to take the next step, and the overwhelming feeling around the program is that the time is now for Mississippi State.
“When we got here, we talked about winning a championship,” Mullen told ESPN.com last week. “And guys thought that was good talk and was something they wanted to do, but they weren’t sure that it could [happen]. There’s still that hesitation of 'Well, it sounds great, but how real is it?'
“You look at this team, and our guys expect to compete for the SEC West championship this year.”
And this isn’t just an up-and-coming team puffing smoke about the place. This is a team that returns 20 of 22 defenders who were on last season’s bowl roster. It has a potential All-SEC quarterback and lost five total starters from a 2013 team that finished on a three-game winning streak that included an overtime victory over archrival Ole Miss and a bowl blowout of Rice.
When Mullen approached his team shortly after the Bulldogs’ 44-7 drubbing of Rice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, he found an anxious group. Players wanted back on the field. The months before spring practice were too long, and they couldn’t even comprehend the thought of not smashing into someone not dressed in maroon for another nine months.
The momentum this team got from the tail end of the 2013 season has fueled players like no other season has, veteran linebacker Benardrick McKinney said. Center Dillon Day said there’s a lot more trust throughout the roster with the improved depth at just about every position.
There’s a familiarity within this team that has players salivating over improving on a 7-6 season that brought Mullen one win away from tying for second all-time at Mississippi State. The theme of this spring is gaining even more ground on the perceived SEC front-runners.
“We aren’t really given a shot with those types of teams, but this year I definitely feel like we’re going to be a factor to deal with,” Day said. “We definitely can beat those teams.
“This year, we have all the factors; we have every position filled up.”
Mullen understands that confidence alone won’t take the Bulldogs to their second SEC title game. Games have to be played and wins have to appear. Mullen might own the program’s highest winning percentage for a coach (36-28, .563) since the late Darrell Royal in 1954-55 (.600), but he has yet to even sniff the SEC West crown.
During his impressive 9-4 season in his second year, he finished just 4-4 in SEC play. He hasn’t eclipsed that many conference wins in a season since and has had losing conference records three times.
Mullen has had four straight winning seasons but hasn’t hit the double-digit mark for wins. On paper, the Bulldogs are a blip on the SEC’s radar, but to Mullen, he’s seen growth, development and an incredibly inspired team.
For a program littered with former two- and three-star high school prospects, the Bulldogs could prove to be a formidable opponent this season with so much experience coming back. Mullen sees it, players see it and fans are expecting more wins in the treacherous SEC West.
“I want those expectations,” Mullen said. “I want our fans to have those expectations; I want our people to have those expectations. I like it on the national level, having those expectations.”
It’s hard not to blame the Bulldogs’ for being confident. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who has already earned the dark-horse Heisman moniker from national pundits, ended last year with two very gutty performances against Ole Miss and Rice and returns his top-five receiving targets, including senior Jameon Lewis, who registered 923 receiving yards last year.
Then there’s that defense that finished 2013 fourth in the SEC and 18th nationally in total defense. The Bulldogs, which lost just two defensive starters from last year, held their final four opponents to 20 or fewer points and allowed an average of 296.3 yards during that span.
Mississippi State won’t get much real national championship talk, but the SEC title isn’t out of the question. With the unknowns surging throughout the league, the Bulldogs are set up to rub shoulders with and maybe push around the SEC’s elite.
“I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said. “I’m proud that that’s what we’ve been able to do. Yeah, at some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”