Six Decembers ago when Dan Mullen walked off that plane at the Starkville Airport (yes, Starkville has an airport), he walked into a Mississippi State football program that was a mess. The Bulldogs had won more than three games just once since the year 2000, and things were looking as bleak as they possibly could for a program that just a few years before had seen some of the best years in school history. We all wanted that back, and Dan Mullen -- the Tebow mentoring, right-hand-man to powerhouse coach Urban Meyer -- was gonna give it to us. And we couldn't wait to start the Dan Mullen era the next fall.
What has followed since that day in 2008 has been a restoration of the program to a place where a bowl game is an expectation, not a miracle. After an inaugural 2009 campaign that was just a few plays away from being 7-5 instead of 5-7, MSU has finished with no less than seven wins each season. That may seem like peanuts to fans of the Ohio States and Florida States of the world, but to a fanbase who had seen its share of struggles on the football field, it was a godsend. Add to that a newly renovated Davis Wade Stadium and another solid recruiting class mostly made up of home grown talent and things could hardly be any better.
Then again, they could be.
The one thing that the Dan Mullen era, now six years old, has been lacking is a signature win. Sure, there have been a few memorable Egg Bowl victories, and the Bulldogs even beat Mullen's old school, Florida, in Gainesville a few seasons ago. But outside of the Egg Bowl and catching a few big programs in a down year, the wins have mostly come against the Kentuckys, Troys, and Jackson States of the world, not the Alabamas, Auburns, and LSUs. As a matter of fact, Mullen
does not own (Correction: Mullen defeated Ole Miss in 2009 who finished No. 20) a win against a team that finished ranked in the top 25 that season. And with each year's passing, the monkey on his back becomes more of a gorilla.
There is good news though at Dan Mullen's doorstep in the form of opportunity. The chance to gain that big win over a worthy adversary has come for a team as ready for the challenge as it has ever been under Mullen, and the MSU coach has his opportunity to prove not only to Mississippi State fans but to the whole college football world that Dan Mullen the head coach is more than 7-5 and a cupcake king. That opportunity? It comes in the form of three top ten teams in the next four weeks.
From now until October 11th, Mississippi State's schedule is as follows: @ #8 LSU, vs. #6 Texas A&M, vs. #5 Auburn. That is a schedule more brutal than most coaches could imagine, but so goes life in the SEC West. And as if playing those three teams in the next four weeks wasn't tough enough, Dan Mullen is at a point in his career where he needs to win one of the three. That's not asking too much, right?
It is, but then again it shouldn't be. Six years into his rebuilding of MSU, Dan Mullen has a full complement of players that fit his system. He has a quarterback that is as perfect a fit for his run-first spread option as he may ever get. He has a defense that is deeper than it has been since the days of Willie Blade and Ashley Cooper in the late 90s. He seemingly has all the pieces he needs in place to earn that program-defining win; now he just has to go and do it.
If we reach October 12th and Mississippi State sits at 3-3, I won't be calling for Dan Mullen's job. I won't scream and hoot and holler, I'll just know. I'll know that the 7-5 seasons and the occasional 8-4 is as good as it is probably going to get under Mullen. Sure, Mullen will have a couple more big games this season, but beating Alabama at Tuscaloosa is a monumental task, and Mullen has beaten Ole Miss before, even if this year's Rebels are pretty good. No, I still need to see Dan lead this team to a win over a good SEC opponent, not Georgia or Florida in a down year. If he can't, then the decision will fall upon the administration to decide if 7-5 and feasting on cupcakes and Kentucky is good enough, or if they want more.
You should always want more as long as your expectations are within reason. I consider myself to be one of those fans who always wants and hopes for the best for my program, but I don't come into each year expecting 10-2. I have reasonable expectations based upon the talent my team returns and the talent returning for the teams we will face. But even I, one of the more reserved fans, think it's time for a big win. Let's beat LSU for the first time since 1999. Let's take down new SEC opponent Texas A&M in a huge game at Davis Wade. Let's finally beat Auburn after years of BS late game luck for the Tigers. Let's shed the label of "can't win the big game." Let's be better than 7-5.
All we're asking for is a win over a top ten opponent, Dan. Is that so much? While I'm sure it does seem steep, I also think the time is now or never. If MSU can't beat one of the next three teams on its schedule with the full complement of Mullen-recruited and coached (and healthy) players, then I fear it will never happen. It's a tall order, but the landscape of the SEC West isn't going to change much for the foreseeable future. If we can't break through this season then I fear it will be four non-conference wins and Kentucky and a down team for us for the remainder of the time that Dan is the head coach.
The talent seems to be there; the coaching, the want to take that next step seems to be in place. Now we just need to see Dan and the Bulldogs go out and do it, because I'm afraid that if we don't do it before October 12th, we never will.