Dan Mullen, Mississippi St. seek long-awaited validation
Seasons aren’t graded during the summer, but if they were, Mississippi St.’s acing a class it has struggled in mightily since winning its only SEC West title in 1998.
Coaches may publicly deflect the limelight, but when it glows on their program prior to a new season’s kickoff, they welcome the added pressure and importance of relevancy.
Since winning 10 games at the turn of the century, Mississippi St.’s best mark in 60 years, the Bulldogs have yearned for respect from the national media horde in the modern era, jealous of the attention spent at established division heavyweights LSU, Auburn and Alabama.
Mississippi St. seemed to be on the verge of public approval after back-to-back winning seasons following its first SEC Championship Game appearance, but an eight-loss stumble in 2001 pushed momentum back to the brink of mediocrity and commenced the forgettable years under Jackie Sherrill and Sylvester Croom.
Sans a few bars on the outskirts of town, preseason hype’s rarely made its way out of Starkville since. Mississippi St.’s posted just five winning seasons over the last 13 years and has been pegged as a league doormat in August almost annually.
That reputation’s changing under sixth-year coach Dan Mullen who has directed the Bulldogs to 31 wins since the start of the 2010 campaign. This season, Mississippi St.’s considered a threat led by a dynamic junior quarterback who is widely-regarded as the Bulldogs’ most talented player under center in well over a decade.
Mississippi St.’s newfound impetus on a national scale has helped on the recruiting trail, an element that would validate the work Mullen’s tried to accomplish every offseason. According to 247Sports’ class rankings, the Bulldogs have hauled in just two nationally-ranked signing classes since 2004 — none in the Top 20.
But the tides are turning.
Mississippi St.’s incredible, record-breaking seven-player pledge on a single day in July for the 2015 class elevated the Bulldogs into the No. 11 slot in the country, their highest projected finish since inking three four-stars and a five and finishing 14th overall in 2003.
While most of the seven verbal commits weren’t considered instant-impact players, it was quite a haul for Mississippi St.’s coaching staff.
Mullen even tweeted about it.
— Dan Mullen™ (@CoachDanMullen) July 24, 2014
The Bulldogs have done about as much as they can do in terms of generating excitement heading into their 2014 opener against Southern Miss, but results will ultimately define how far Mississippi St. has come.
Mullen’s track record against ranked teams — 2-21 with the Bulldogs including 15 consecutive losses — is discouraging, but the West has won five straight SEC championships — and four BCS titles — during that stretch as one of the nation’s toughest divisions. Most programs of Mississippi St.’s stature and resources would have the same challenges.
It appears the Bulldogs now have the returning talent to compete against the likes of three Top 10s and improve on their 16-24 SEC mark since Mullen’s arrival.
Validation may not come until November when an Egg Bowl victory has meaning outside of the rivalry, but Mississippi St.’s on the right rack. Pitting two programs on the rise with a welcomed buzz, the Nov. 29 showdown in Oxford could determine second place — or better — in what should be considered a wide-open West.
The Bulldogs have long-awaited a season with meaning and this is it.