Saturday marked an end of an era for Dan Mullen and Mississippi State. The win over Auburn did not so much start a new chapter, but it closed out the chapter being written. When someone completes the history book of the Mullen Era, that win will fall in the final pages of a chapter; the upcoming game against Troy will open the next one.
When the clock struck 00:00 Saturday, the faithful in the stands erupted into some of the most boisterous celebration since 2000. Fans watching the game at home could not stop smiling and celebrating because the elephant in the room had left. Even fans from other schools in the SEC have paid respect to Mississippi State. The lovable underdog role no longer exists for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs now hold the role of contender.
"I guess the monkey is off my back now, but I view it as a bigger one just jumped on. I hope in November we are talking about an 800-pound gorilla jumping on my back; that's what I want for our program."
-Dan Mullen, 9/8/12, after defeating Auburn
This quote may open this chapter in the future book about Mullen and Mississippi State. Dan Mullen understood in that moment what the Auburn win meant. The Bulldogs no longer can look at up at the best of the SEC West and hope to get there. With the win over the Tigers, the Bulldogs must now climb new heights to find success. They know the expectation to scale those heights exists and will only grow. Winning with a head coach who preaches championships brings this pressure. Beating up the bully on the playground relieves pressure for a moment, but the pressure of your new role becomes even bigger.
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How the Bulldogs respond to this pressure will fill the pages of this chapter. The territory, while a foreign land to these players, has been marked many times by the Bulldogs. In the 1940's Allyn McKeen brought an Orange Bowl and an SEC championship to Starkville. In the late 1990's, Jackie Sherrill brought an SEC West championship and dreams of a national championship to Starkville. Neither coach could find the "X" on their map, and soon enough the Bulldogs slipped back into mediocrity or worse.
In 2010, the Bulldogs rode a wave of momentum to a 9-4 record and a final ranking of 15 in the country. In that season, the Bulldogs knocked off the Florida Gators in Gainesville 10-7, but they struggled the next week to get past UAB in a 29-24 win. In fact, the Bulldogs followed up an impressive 2010 campaign with a disappointing 7-6 season in 2011. Things had not changed much in Starkville; the Bulldogs struggled to live up to the hype.
The same issue plagued the Bulldogs ten years earlier. In what could have been a 10-win season, Mississippi State lost to Arkansas at home and Ole Miss on the road before rebounding to win a wild Independence Bowl. With hope flying higher than it had in a long time, the Bulldogs fell apart in 2001. Thus, the chapter of one of the most inspiring runs in Mississippi State closed with a whimper.
History says this chapter of "new" Mississippi State football will be one full of heartbreak. History says the Bulldog program has never handled high expectations for a sustained amount of time. In fact, it seems as if the whole program buckles under the weight of the pressure, the pressure that Dan Mullen readily admitted became heavier on his and his team's back Saturday.
Even the fans feel this pressure. How many Bulldog fans in their heart of hearts carry a sickening feeling that Troy will be where the Bulldogs tumble? Probably many more than would admit the feeling because they have been trained to feel that way, and worst of all, they have been trained to expect it.
Johnthan Banks, Tyler Russell, Dan Mullen, and everyone else associated with the program feel a different pressure than they have ever felt. After Saturday, they became part of the hunted. Sure, they are still small game compared to the safari hunt that Alabama and LSU represent, but teams will still hunt the Bulldogs. Teams like Troy will hunt the Bulldogs. When someone has foraged for a while, they crave the taste of meat, and the Trojans will want to feast on the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State must now avoid another let down. New faces and new shoulders now bear this weight. It starts with Troy, but with each win, it will increase this season. Even if the Bulldogs drop games to Alabama and LSU, the pressure will still remain. It will carry over to next season, and it will only increase with success.
Bulldog fans are about to learn more about this team in the coming weeks than they have known about many bad squads. Can Banks, Russell, Chad Bumphis, Mullen and other succeed where others fell short? Time will tell, and it begins ticking this weekend in Troy.