Dan Mullen stood in front of a room overflowing with reports in Birmingham, Ala. four years ago and told them his Mississippi State Bulldogs would compete for championships.
What else was a first-year head coach supposed to say?
This past July, Mullen stood in the same room, in front of many of the same reporters and delivered the same message he’s shared to anyone that would listen since he took the job at Mississippi State that the Bulldogs will compete for a championship.
The reaction was much the same of "yeah right coach, you’re at Mississippi State, but it is a good thought."
On Saturday night, Mullen and Mississippi State can take the second step toward making those
championship proclamations a reality by beating the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide.
For the Bulldogs, the game represents a championship.
No, there will not be banners hung for a win, however a win would prove 7-0 MSU is a legitimate contender for a Southeastern Conference crown and a national championship.
The Bulldogs last won the SEC Western Division in 1998 and participated in the SEC Championship Game, losing to Tennessee.
“When we came here, we certainly wanted to be in this position," Mullen said. "We’ve talked. Hey, we’ve had some good years, but we haven’t had the opportunity to play the game here in the last week of October. The winner of this game is in first place in the SEC West. We haven’t been in that position before and that’s something we wanted to build on. We wanted the opportunity to compete for SEC West championships and here we are. In our fourth season, we’ve put ourselves in position.”
Some teams may get lost in these moments and not be ready for the big stage. Mullen vows his team will be focused as they understand exactly what’s a stake on Saturday night.
“Obviously (it's) a big week, (and a) great opportunity for our guys," Mullen said. "We look at this as a championship-caliber game for us. As we get ready to play, we’ve talked to our guys about that this week. (When) you get into championship games, you’ve got to be ready to play for four quarters, and there’s going to be a lot of potential momentum swings back and forth, back and forth. We’re going to have to weather the storm of the crowd, weather the storm of all the different momentum swings and continue to have great focus. (We need) great execution, play hard and be ready for a 60-minute fight on Saturday night.”
The defending national champions aren’t taking this game lightly either.
“I think it is his best team but each year they’ve gotten better, better and better,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “It’s an indication of the great job he’s done there program-wise in terms of establishing the intangibles you need to have everybody in the organization to improve personally, academically and athletically. They’ve done a good job recruiting and they’re a very, very good team.”
If the Bulldogs should pull of the upset that everyone outside of those who wear maroon and white say isn’t possible, Mullen knows this season is far from complete.
“It’s the halfway point of our conference schedule, but if we’re in first place at the halfway point after this weekend, we’re going to feel pretty good,” Mullen said. “As this league goes, be ready for a bunch more challenging games down the stretch.”