As multiple media members pointed out when asking questions of Mississippi State's Dan Mullen at SEC Media Days Wednesday, in his three years in Starkville Mullen has yet to defeat any SEC West program that's not Ole Miss. But Mullen responded that the gap between his program and the rest of the division isn't as wide as widely believed--and that that means his Bulldogs might be closer to national honors than people think, too.
"We've had the opportunity to beat every one of those teams, right down to the fourth quarter, the last plays of the game," Mullen said. "The big difference for us is we have to make those game winning plays ... I think three of those teams have won the national championship.
"When you look, the great thing I guess in our program, the SEC West, we're not far off from there, which means we're not far off from the national title. 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."
Of course, "can be" is a good deal different from "are," which makes Mullen's fourth season -- in which he should have one of his strongest teams yet, particularly on the defensive side of the ball -- the time to actually beat some of those other West teams, or the national championship talk will seem even sillier in Hoover next year.
More highlights from Mullen's time at the podium:
The hype might have affected Tyler Russell ... at first. Asked if he and his new junior starting quarterback has always been on the same page, Mullen said Russell had arrived in Starkville with more pressure than usual.
"There's a young man that came in with so much hype surrounding him," Mullen said. "From the fan base, from the media, from every blog site, Tyler is going to be the starter. With all those expectations to come in, for a young man to handle it, not just he, but also his family, I give them tremendous credit ... But through all of that, all of those outside pressures that these young guys face, their families face, answering questions of, Why didn't you start as a true freshman?
"He hasn't let that affect him. He's really worried about his development, his progress as a quarterback. I expect him to have a huge year. He's played in almost every stadium in the league, so the stage won't be too big. He started games, so he knows how to handle being a starter. He has four or five wide receivers with him. He knows the system and is comfortable in the system ... I give him credit because he's developed himself to be ready to be in that role right now."
He continues to be a billboard fan. The "Billboard Wars" between Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and even Southern Miss reportedly resulted in some recent minor NCAA violations for the Bulldogs, but Mullen was nothing but enthusiastic about the school's promotional campaigns, saying he keeps a "mini version" of some billboards on his desk.
"Our marketing department has done a fabulous job of creating excitement around our program, around the state of Mississippi," he said. "The billboards I think are just part of the excitement they've created and the buzz they've created in the state for us."
He doesn't mind playing regional road games at mid major opponents. The Bulldogs will play at Troy Sept. 15, an unusual road game for an SEC team. But Mullen said it's a necessity borne of budget constraints, and one that doesn't bother him.
"As we sit and schedule with our athletic director, I try to play nonconference games within our region as much as possible. One, for our young men, their families. Their families can watch them play without having to buy plane tickets. Our fan base can come watch our team play," he said. "I think last year we played up at Memphis, a lot of our fans came, player's families got to come and watch their sons play. That's a huge deal. This year it happens to be at Troy, which for us as a team, we'll bus to that game."
"Skyrocketing budgets, how do you handle it? We schedule a nonconference game that's not going to cost us millions of dollars to get on a plane. The friends and families of our players can come and watch them play, our fan base will come and watch them play."
When asked about selling the Mississippi State program, he sold the Mississippi State program. "They said, If you win, we sell the stadium. It doesn't work that way. If you sell the stadium, we win. They started buying into that. You see them now with consecutive sellouts."
"To me, I take a lot of pride. You can go into airports around the country, people wearing Mississippi State clothing, flags flying outside of the house. There's a sense of pride in our university and a sense of pride in our state. I think that just comes with a thought process in how you go about thinking about it. We're very fortunate. Starkville could be the best college town in the country. You're looking at a small town, great people, great atmosphere to live in.
"If you want the college atmosphere, there's a lot of people that say, I want to go to college in the big city. Well, you live in a big city, it's not really college in a big city, you have the city atmosphere. You want to go to college in Starkville, the whole town is about the university, what it's about, that atmosphere. The people that live there, I don't know if there's a better college town in the country than Starkville, Mississippi."