By Logan Lowery
HOOVER, Ala. – Mississippi State will not be favored to win the SEC Western Division this season.
But, as Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen quickly pointed out Tuesday at SEC Media Days, neither was Auburn a year ago.
The Tigers were picked fifth in the division but won the SEC Championship and came within 13 seconds of winning a national championship in 2013.
Mullen hopes MSU is on the cusp of a similar rise through the ranks this fall.
“Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta,” Mullen said. “That’s what we’re planning on and can control, to compete for an SEC Championship this year. For us to do that we’re going to have to have a pretty special year but I think we have some special guys that can make that happen.”
There is some basis for Mullen’s optimism.
The Bulldogs return 30 players (15 offense, 15 defense) who started at various times last season due to numerous injuries.
“I’ve never been on a team that had more injuries than we had last year,” Mullen said. “But we had guys who overcame that adversity and found a way to win games. The great thing about it is it gave all those guys experience coming into this season.”
State finished 7-6 in 2013, winning its final two contests in overtime before rolling Rice 44-7 in the Liberty Bowl.
Mullen felt fourth-quarter losses to Auburn (24-20), Alabama (20-7) and Texas A&M (51-41) prepared his team to persevere and attain overtime wins at Arkansas and in the Egg Bowl against Ole Miss to close out the regular season.
“We can score points and play defense against teams in this league,” Mullen said. “We played tight games against some of the best teams in the country. We were pretty good and needed to finish the season the right way. We started to find a way to win those games at the end of the year.”
However, for the Bulldogs to rise above being a middle-tier team in the division, Mullen understands those close losses have to transform into the win column. He hopes the past five seasons in Starkville have laid the groundwork for the 2014 squad to construct a championship season.
“We’ve built a foundation for our program by going to four straight bowl games and winning four out of five Egg Bowls within the state,” Mullen said. “We’ve built a solid foundation for our future and we’re trying to build a championship program. I don’t think you can build that championship program without that foundation existing.”
MSU opens its season at home Aug. 30 against Southern Miss.