By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
HOOVER, Ala. – For a long time, Mississippi State has been looking up at the SEC Western Division’s elite teams. This year, the Bulldogs feel like they belong with that group.
That was a major theme among the MSU players present at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. It’s well-documented that head coach Dan Mullen is just 3-12 against West opponents, with those wins all coming versus Ole Miss.
So it’s understandable if the outside expectations for MSU in 2012 aren’t sky-high.
“We really don’t care what people think,” senior cornerback Johnthan Banks said. “We know what we believe and what’s inside of us and what we’re going to try to do. We know we can compete with those guys, because we have some of the same athletes.
“Sometimes they just have more athletes than us, but we have some of the same athletes that LSU and Alabama have.”
LSU and Alabama met for the national title last season, but MSU played them both tough. The Bulldogs lost to the Tigers 19-6 and the Crimson Tide 24-7, and were within striking distance late in both of those games.
Quarterback Tyler Russell said the Bulldogs were surprised to find themselves in those situations and didn’t handle things well.
“We’re in the game with LSU, now everybody doesn’t know what to do. It’s kind of like a blank look on people’s face, like we weren’t supposed to be there playing that good against them,” Russell said. “I think it’s got to be a mindset that we are the best, we can play with these guys, and we’ve got to do it.”
Fourth-year head coach Dan Mullen said winning the West puts a team in line for a national championship, and he’s right: In the past five years, five Western Division teams have played for the title.
“I mean, we’ve had the opportunity to beat every one of those teams, right down to the fourth quarter, last plays of the game,” Mullen said. “The big difference for us is we have to make those game-winning plays. We have to have guys step up and make those game-winning plays.”
The Auburn hump
The effort to be a power player in the West begins Sept. 8, when Auburn visits Starkville. The Tigers have been MSU’s SEC-opening opponent each of the last four years, and State has lost every one of those games.
Last season in Auburn, the Bulldogs entered the game ranked higher than the Tigers and were favored to win. They lost, 41-34.
“I really feel like if we would’ve won the game last year, our season would’ve been a little different,” Russell said. “I felt like a lot of people got down after that game, and that’s something we’re working on in the offseason, that it doesn’t matter if you lose to one team, you’ve got to keep going and keep battling.”
MSU went 7-6 last year, which coaches and players alike considered a disappointment. Mullen acknowledged the impact the Auburn game could have on the rest of the 2012 season.
“That first conference game really sets the tone, no matter who it is you’re playing,” he said. “You’re looking at a two-game swing with that team. You’re in week one of the season, we win that game, we’re two games ahead because we’re one game ahead and (have) the tie-breaker.”
Beating Auburn could set up a fast start for MSU. Of its first seven games, four are against non-conference foes, while the three SEC games are Auburn and Tennessee at home, and Kentucky on the road.
Then come the games against Alabama and LSU, both on the road. That’s when MSU can prove itself.
“I think everybody knows we play hard, we’re not going to give up,” Russell said. “But I don’t think a lot of people give us respect to be in the SEC and be that caliber team that can go win an SEC championship. And we can. We know we can.”
S1 Jackson State, 6 p.m. FSN
S8 Auburn*, 11 a.m. ESPN
S15 at Troy, 6 p.m. ESPN3
S22 South Alabama
O6 at Kentucky*
O20 Middle Tennessee
O27 at Alabama*
N3 Texas A&M*
N10 at LSU*
N24 at Ole Miss*