It is 39 days from today when the Mississippi State Bulldogs don the pads to open the college football season against Jackson State.
There's excitement among MSU fans and coach Dan Mullen knows his team is close to taking the next step toward winning a championship.
“When you look, the great thing I guess in our program, the Southeastern Conference Western Division, we're not far off from there, which means we're not far off from the national title,” Mullen told the media during SEC Media Days. “As you're developing, as you're building the program, the confidence that comes in our guys, I think they see that.
“They see that, hey, we're not far off from these teams, and these teams have won the national title, are ranked in the top five in the country. We can be right there. I think that builds and gets into the program.”
To prove his point, Mullen points toward last season’s match up with the LSU Tigers, a game MSU had chance to win early in the season.
“I look back, last year, LSU, No. 1 team in the country, wins the SEC championship, it was 14-9 in the fourth quarter,” Mullen recalls. “We took some shots down the field, 0-3 for those shots. We catch one of those, make a touchdown, that becomes 16-14 at home. On a Thursday night with our defense going out on the field that have played pretty well, you're in the opportunity now to win that game. It's those one big plays that can make difference in the games.”
Not everyone is buying what Mullen is selling.
During SEC Media Days, State was predicted to finish sixth in the West, ahead of only Ole Miss. Too many people still don’t see Mississippi State as a contender due to State’s inability to defeat teams in the West, with the exception of Ole Miss.
“We've had the opportunity to beat every one of those teams, right down to the fourth quarter, last plays of the game,” said Mullen. “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. I think three of those teams have won the national championship.”
State understands the only way to change the perception of the program is to win and do so consistently.
“If you're going to want to compete for a league championship, I think it's critical for you to win that first game,” said Mullen. “Obviously that's huge for us, to find a way to win that first game this year and put ourselves in position hopefully to make a run at an SEC championship.”
There’s good reason for Mullen’s confidence. He returns a veteran team poised to make strides on offense and be a stingy as ever on defense.
“We have some experience, guys that have been in the program for a while, guys that have great leadership, guys that throughout the spring have had a great sense of urgency about them in everything they do,” said Mullen. “To me, it shows.
“I think our guys have worked out really hard this spring, had a great spring practice, and the leadership of guys like John Banks, Tyler Russell, Tobias Smith, and Chad Bumphis. Some of these guys that have been in the program, Corey Broomfield, Josh Boyd, that have played a lot of football for us, been in the program since my first year, know what we expect, and know what to understand. I'm really excited about it.”
Fans will have to wait and see if the Bulldogs have what it takes this season to make the move toward the top, but Mullen gives fans a reason to be optimistic for what’s to come.
“I think the future is really bright for us as we continue to strive to build a championship program, to build a team that can consistently win and consistently have the opportunity to compete for championships within the Southeastern Conference,” said Mullen.