Mississippi State out to prove it belongs

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It wasn’t in this office, all shiny and new.

It wasn’t in the glossy chair with the comfortable white leather he sits in today.

It wasn’t behind the massive desk to his right, the one surrounded by commemorative footballs from games won and Egg Bowls remembered.

No, it wasn’t here overlooking the practice field that he had to be rude and stubborn with some in his administration. This impeccable $25 million facility didn’t exist back then.

Dan Mullen had to kick people out of his old office to get a new one.

“Early on people would say, ‘We can’t,’ and I’d throw them out,” he said.

Coming from a championship-winning program at Florida, Mullen couldn’t stomach the self-imposed limitations so many at Mississippi State had become accustomed to. Football seasons here were supposed to end in late November. Beating Ole Miss was the only tangible priority. Going to a bowl game was an afterthought.

The ceiling bothered him so much, he decided to tear the whole thing down.

“It was all the mindset,” he said, thinking back on his start late in 2008. “It was everything we can’t do. ‘We’re Mississippi State so we can’t do these things.’ If they wanted to go positive, ‘We can only do this because we’re Mississippi State.’

“To me, that’s not acceptable.”

Admittedly, that attitude was a little abrasive. After someone was thrown out, another person would have to clean up the mess and translate the message.

As Mullen said, “I don’t sugarcoat things well.” But when you’re attempting to rebuild a program that went 21-42 in the seasons prior to your arrival, how can you?

“You had to be brash because people had never heard or seen that here before,” Mullen said. “I’m not a softball pitcher. I don’t throw up the little easy ones in there. I’m going to come hit you square in the face with what I want to get done.”

It worked.

If it hadn’t, this week wouldn’t matter.

As Mississippi State prepares for its Saturday night tilt at No. 8 LSU, there’s a sense of optimism that maybe this is the year things finally change in Starkville. The Bulldogs are 3-0, possess a dark-horse Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Dak Prescott and have a defense that is two deep at every position.

Instead of people saying “We can’t” they’re saying “Why not?”

Rankings be damned.

“We’re projected to lose every game,” senior safety Jay Hughes said. “It’s nothing new to us.”

That chip on players’ shoulders? It’s more like a boulder.

Mississippi State doesn’t have the prestige. It doesn’t have the history of winning big games. The level of talent just isn’t the same.

“I know you look and say, ‘They’re a young team this year,’” Mullen said of LSU. “They’re a young team with five-star starters, five-star backups and five-star third-stringers.”

But so what?

“We’re a bunch of three- and two-star guys,” Hughes said. “We don’t really have stars here. We work really hard. I’ve been here for five years and my body is hurting.”

In that time, he’s seen change take place. He’s seen his coach be stubborn to make it happen.

“You have to step out on a limb to get the results,” Hughes said. “That’s what he did.”

A win over LSU would mean faith rewarded.

“It would set our season off,” running back Nick Griffin said. “We’re feeling confident we can do it and make a little history of our own.”

What would a win mean to Mullen?

“It would mean we have a very nice bye week,” he said. “You know what? We’re in the SEC West. You’re going to have to win a lot.”

By saying that, you know things have truly changed at Mississippi State. A win at LSU wouldn’t be a season maker, it would be a season starter. It would be the first step in the program’s hopes of reaching an SEC title.

And when’s the last time you heard that coming out of Starkville?

“You look at great programs, they embrace those expectations,” Mullen said. “If you go to LSU and Alabama and Florida and Georgia and Michigan and Ohio State, Southern Cal, they’re here to win a championship this year.

“When I said it at Mississippi State, it was laughed upon. Now when we say that, everyone kind of thinks the same way, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’”

Saying it is nice. Showing it is better.

Mississippi State has a lot to prove against LSU. It’s been 15 years since the Bulldogs have beaten the Tigers.

“This is what counts this week,” Mullen said. “Everything about it -- the demeanor, the attitude, the excitement, the focus -- all of that has changed.

“I don’t know if there’s a more challenging game than at LSU on Saturday night,” he added, “but it’s something we have to do to put ourselves in contention to compete for a championship.”

As Mullen said, “There is no ceiling.”

Now Mississippi State must see how high it can go.