Scott Stricklin, Mississippi State’s athletic director of four years, took to Twitter Sunday, following the Bulldogs’ upset on the road of No. 8-ranked LSU. The photo he posted from his personal account was from outside the football locker room back home in Starkville. In big block letters it read: “THE WEST”
“To be the best, you have to beat the best,” a portion of the statement read. “And there’s no better place to do that than in the western division of the toughest, most elite conference in the country.”
Truer words have never been written.
The SEC West is an absolute gauntlet this season. The ranking bear that out. Four West teams are in the top 10: Alabama (No. 3), Auburn (No. 5), Texas A&M (No. 6) and Ole Miss (No. 10). Mississippi State comes in at No. 14 in the AP Top 25 and LSU is No. 17. There are no pushovers. The only team that isn’t ranked, Arkansas, is 3-1 with a signature win at Texas Tech under its belt.
In other words: Mississippi State can feel good about its own statement against LSU, but it better not stay satisfied for long.
Because, as Stricklin so aptly put it in his tweet, the photo is a “great reminder of what lies ahead.”
“It’s the best division in college football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of the West last week, “and I don’t think it’s even close.”
Malzahn’s Tigers and Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies just so happen to be next for Mississippi State.
But first, Mississippi State gets a break -- and a much-needed one at that -- in the form of a bye week.
The same “mental fortitude” Dan Mullen said it would take to beat LSU is going to be needed to move forward and keep building.
After all, that’s what Mississippi State is: building.
LSU was the first step. After the bye comes Texas A&M. Then Auburn. A few weeks after that, hang on tight for a trip to Alabama.
Mississippi State, armed with a deep and talented defense, is capable of keeping those games close. If Dak Prescott continues his Heisman Trophy campaign with LSU-like numbers (268 yards passing, 105 yards rushing, three total touchdowns) and Josh Robinson can rush for more than 100 yards consistently, watch out.
The Bulldogs broke through their glass ceiling against LSU on Saturday.
Now the question becomes how high they’re able to climb.
“We’re 1-0 in the SEC West, which is still a daunting task to get to the top of,” Mullen said. “I think going and doing that really does give our guys the confidence they need. That first SEC game can go a long way in your season.
“We always knew we could compete with anybody,” he continued. “But I think getting that win there’s a confidence of not just that we can compete with anybody, but that we can win those games now.”
Stricklin stood on the field at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and took the scene in as best he could.
“It’s kind of a validation that these are the kind of wins that special years are built off of,” he said early Monday morning. “Whether this is a special year or not remains to be seen, but it’s a validation that Dan has the program going in the right way.
“I think we all knew that, but you hear a lot people on the outside questioning a signature win. I’m happy for Dan and our players that they can stop that talk for now.”
Stricklin caught Mullen smiling after the win because, as Stricklin said, “He wanted to win a game like that.” Mullen’s record against ranked opponents had been well discussed, after all.
But Stricklin didn’t see anything in the neighborhood of satisfaction from the team itself.
“They didn’t act like they’d just won the championship or anything,” he said. “They didn’t act like we shocked the world. They came in the locker room and were like, ‘Let’s get on the bus and go. We did what we came here to do.’”
Whether this does go down as a special season for Mississippi State depends greatly on how the next two games go.
“The great thing about the SEC -- and I say that tongue-and-cheek -- is we’re rewarded by knocking off the No. 8 team on the road by coming home and hosting the No. 6 and No. 5 team in the nation,” Stricklin said. “There’s no time to revel in it. We’ve got big games ahead of us.”
Beating LSU put the Bulldogs on the right path. Beating Texas A&M and Auburn would put the Bulldogs ahead in the hotly contested race to win the West.