STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen is trying his best to keep track of the days.
With Mississippi State scheduled for a Thursday night showdown at home against Kentucky, the Bulldogs head coach basis his days on a regular practice week leading up to a Saturday kickoff.
MSU enjoyed a bye over the weekend and returned from two days off on Sunday, which was actually a usual Wednesday practice. Mullen considered Monday’s practice a “bonus” day of preparation and would conclude the usual practice week with a walk-thru on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs have played UK each year since 1990 when the two became constant interdivisional opponents within the Southeastern Conference. State is 14-9 against the Wildcats during that span while Kentucky owns the overall series lead 21-19.
“If you look at a lot of the constant crossovers in the league it becomes (a rivalry),” Mullen said. “If you look at LSU-Florida, Tennessee-Alabama and Georgia-Auburn, they can lead to becoming somewhat of a rivalry game. I view it that way and I think our guys do too.”
Mullen is 4-0 in his previous four meetings against the Wildcats with three games taking place in Lexington. The Bulldogs won 24-17 in Starkville in 2010 during Mullen’s second season.
“It seems weird because every year I’ve been here we’ve played Kentucky and that’s our East crossover,” Mullen said. “I think that always leads to a little bit of a rivalry because it’s a team on the other side of the league that you play every year. I know our guys look forward to this game and treat it a little bit as a rivalry game for us.”
But this year’s Kentucky team is a bit different. The Wildcats parted ways with Joker Phillips after 23 years total with the team and the last three as head coach. UK hired former Arizona and Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to take over the program in the offseason.
So far the Wildcats are 1-5 and 0-3 in the SEC with their lone 41-7 win coming against Miami (OH) on Sept. 7.
“Obviously it’s new staff and a new philosophy on both sides of the football,” Mullen said. “Mark took over and you see them really buying in to what he’s trying to do. The win-loss results might not total what you’re accomplishing on the field but when you watch their team they are accomplishing an awful lot. They are playing hard for four quarters, buying into their system and you see a lot of growth and development on a very young football team.”
The two teams share a coaching tie. Current Mississippi State defensive line coach David Turner served in the same capacity for the Wildcats from 2010-12. Turner had a previous stint in Starkville from 2007-09 under Mullen and Sylvester Croom.
“David has great experience as a defensive line coach,” Mullen said. “He’s coached here, there and a long time in the Southeastern Conference. He’s a veteran guy and knows how to deal with guys. Our defensive line has so many guys in different stages of their careers. He has to deal with them as a whole as well as individually. He does a good job dealing with all of the different issues on and off the field.”
One of the players Turner is tutoring this season is sophomore defensive tackle Nick James. The 6-foot-5, 345-pounder is redshirting this season after appearing in eight games and recording five tackles as a true freshman in 2012.
James has trimmed down and handled the year away from the field the right way according to Mullen.
“He’s done a great job with his development,” Mullen said “He’s really worked hard in school and is taking care of doing things the right way. That’s all part of the process. He has a long way to go but he’s certainly headed in the right direction.”
So far the Bulldogs have sent nine members of its 2013 recruiting class into the game including seven true freshmen. Mullen is hoping not to have to burn any more redshirts the rest of the season.
“You never know because injuries can always play a part for us down the road,” Mullen said. “If we are going to play guys we are going to try to play them. We’ve been devastated by injuries so far this year so we might have to play some young guys we were planning on redshirting.”
Each Monday night MSU plays a live intersquad scrimmage game with its redshirted squad after practice. Mullen indicated that this week would be no different.