By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
When Dan Mullen shook hands with Urban Meyer on Scott Field in 2009, the latter told his protégé that he was doing a fine job building up a solid program at Mississippi State.
Meyer’s Florida team, at the time the reigning BCS champion, had just dispatched a scrappy MSU squad, 29-19. Afterwards, Mullen said, “I think Bulldog fans everywhere know this team’s going to have a bright future.”
MSU fans turned out in record numbers that night to watch the Bulldogs take a top-10 team to the wire for the second time that season, Mullen’s first at the helm. That’s when the excitement around this program started to build, and it was the genesis of the new expectations now present in Starkville.
Back then, MSU was just happy to be in the game. That is no longer the case.
The future is here.
I wrote in Tuesday’s paper about the “hate email” Mullen received after the Bulldogs lost 41-34 to reigning BCS champ Auburn on Saturday. He said such feedback was a good thing, because it indicated a raised expectation level among the fan base.
Same goes for his players. Mullen was asked Wednesday how tough it would be for quarterback Chris Relf to bounce back from the Auburn loss. Relf was stopped inches shy of the goal line as time ran out.
“There’s a lot of guys on our team, especially Chris, that are angry with that loss, because expectations around here have changed a little bit,” Mullen said. “I think a couple of years ago if we lost a tough game to a defending national champion team, there was some disappointment. Now there are some guys that are angry, because they felt we should’ve won that football game.”
During his postgame press conference Saturday, you could hear in Mullen’s voice the strain of keeping his own anger and frustration in check. He always has expected his teams to be competitive, but that’s no longer good enough. Mullen truly believes this year’s edition should be in the running for a Western Division title.
If No. 25 MSU can somehow beat No. 3 LSU tonight, then that anger and frustration will give way to smiles and a sense of relief. I wrote last week that losing to Auburn would be a step back in Mullen’s rebuilding process, but he can take two steps forward with a win tonight.
And he knows it.
“We’ve got to find a way to beat them to take that next step.”
It’s that next step – those few more inches – that Mullen talked about after Saturday’s loss. As players and fans alike are learning, those inches are awfully tough to come by.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.