By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
HOOVER, Ala. – Last year, Dan Mullen drew some snickers when he stated his goal of leading Mississippi State to the SEC Championship game.
After a 9-4 season, Gator Bowl win and No. 15 national ranking, Mullen’s goal doesn’t seem so far-fetched, even in a Western Division that is once again stacked with contenders.
“I think people maybe can look and say, hey, it’s not as amusing, they actually have a chance to do it,” Mullen said on the first day of the annual SEC Media Days event.
His players are starting to believe it, too. They have always echoed Mullen’s sentiment of getting to Atlanta, and some encouraging signs during the 2009 season, when State went 5-7, gave cause for hope.
But this is different. The Bulldogs don’t merely believe they can contend, they know they can.
“It’s totally different. You can’t have the same mindset you did last year, this year, because you have that, then you haven’t gotten better as a team,” junior defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “You’re still at that same level where you’re satisfied. We’re never satisfied.”
Cox understands the increased expectations. He hears about them all the time, not just from his coaches, but from fans.
Tailback Vick Ballard, who spent several minutes signing autographs in the Wynfrey Hotel lobby after his chat with the media, hears it, too. It’s a source of extra motivation.
“It’s definitely a different mentality because the expectation is higher,” Ballard said. “You want to work hard so you can meet that expectation.”
The increased expectations are tempered by the knowledge that nothing comes easy in the SEC, and the West in particular.
MSU finished fifth in the division last season, and when the media predictions come out Friday, it’s unlikely the Bulldogs will be picked any higher than fourth.
That’s not a knock on State, but a commentary on the West’s depth.
“If you talk to our fan base, probably their expectations of our fans now is, boy, I think we’re going to Atlanta this year,” Mullen said. “That’s great that they believe that. The reality of the situation is it’s going to be just as hard this year as it was last year to get there, if not harder with the improvement of teams in the league.
“We could improve as a program this year and not have as good a record.”
MSU has plenty to figure out about itself between now and the Sept. 1 season opener at Memphis. There are some key players to be replaced – like left tackle Derek Sherrod, defensive end Pernell McPhee and linebackers Chris White and K.J. Wright – and the daunting aspect for Mullen isn’t so much replacing production as replacing intangibles.
That’s where a guy like Cox comes in. He’s played in 24 games and started 15 in two years and will anchor the defensive line.
Mullen expects to get his program to a point where players can be plugged into voids like that. The more successful he is at it, the better MSU’s chances of fulfilling that lofty goal of winning the SEC.
“I think we have the talent to do it,” Mullen said. “The question is, are we that team that this year is going to come together, that is going to gel, work a little bit harder, believe in themselves, believe in each other a little bit more than everybody else out there and reach our potential to be the best that we can be?
“That’s our job as coaches is to try to develop that so we are that team this year.”