Coaches don’t often take much time for reflection in the middle of a season. Routines are regimented, schedules are unforgiving and in major college football, preparation is crucial to success. Time is precious and there isn’t much reserved for basking in the glow of victory.
When a team is in the middle of an historic season, like the one Mississippi State is currently having, there are fleeting moments of joy or fascination, acknowledgement of history unfolding before one’s eyes.
During his weekly press conference on Monday, Dan Mullen appeared to have such a moment when a reporter asked him how special it was to be the head coach of a team getting the kind of attention the No. 3 Bulldogs are receiving now.
Mullen, who has been part of a national championship team and BCS bowl teams as an assistant, appeared to have one of those moments after acknowledging that “Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” to be in this position.
For about three seconds, the 42-year-old smiled, chuckled and shrugged his shoulder.
“It’s fun,” Mullen said, still smiling. “[I’m] still down in there in the meetings trying to figure out how to score some points and how to shut ‘em down.”
Mullen seems to be doing an exceptional job at all of those tasks.
Coming off a 48-31 shellacking of Texas A&M, the Bulldogs are squarely in the national spotlight. This is uncharted territory for Mississippi State football. The Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) are ranked higher in the Associated Press poll than they’ve ever been (No. 7 was the previous high nearly 33 years ago). This is the first time they’ve defeated two teams ranked in the top 10 in a season, which LSU and Texas A&M were before meeting Mississippi State. Their quarterback, Dak Prescott, is in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race. “College GameDay” is coming to Starkville for the first time.
It’s quite a time to be a Bulldog.
Mullen, who is in his 10th season coaching in the SEC, understands that -- while this part of it is fun -- there is still unfinished business ahead. A third top-10 team is on its way to town this weekend: defending SEC champion Auburn.
"For us, our goal is to win the SEC West,” Mullen said. “Everything else, I don't know that it's really that important right now. In my years in the SEC, one thing I've learned, is if you win a really big game, the gift is you get an even bigger one the next week. And that's about all you get.
“We won a huge game two weeks ago; we got a bigger game last Saturday. We won a really big game on Saturday and we get an even bigger one this weekend. This is what this league's all about and that's kind of how it works.”
So while the hype builds, Mullen and his staff will bunker down and try to figure out how to score some more points and get some more stops. Their primary goal depends on it.
No. 2 Auburn (5-0, 2-0) comes into the game just like every other Mississippi State opponent so far this season: undefeated. The Tigers are coming off a resounding win of their own, a 41-7 blowout of LSU.
“They will be the best team we play so far,” Mullen said of Auburn. “Their guys know how to win. They’ve played in big games and know how to play in big games.”
Mullen’s work since taking over the program in 2009 has the Bulldogs in this position, with the stakes getting higher each week. Now 41-28 overall in his sixth season in Starkville, Mullen has gradually built this program to the point it is now, a true factor in the SEC West.
This is not an endpoint, though. His message to his team after Saturday’s win was that it’s “only the beginning of what we want to accomplish around here.”
As his fleeting moment of reflection passed and his smile faded away on Monday, Mullen’s face turned serious as he reiterated that point. All the accolades that come with what they’ve done so far are great, but it means nothing without more victories.
“This has nothing to do with our goal,” Mullen said. “Rankings and all are really cool. The only one that I see is that we’re 2-0 in the SEC with six games to go, so we haven’t accomplished all that much yet, but the rest of it is kind of cool.”