Dan Mullen expected a sloppy game.
Mississippi State’s head coach knew going on the road to Kentucky wasn’t going to be easy. The two weeks between games would be a factor. The crowd would, too. So would the No. 1 ranking beside the Bulldogs’ name.
“It was great; you’re ranked No. 1 and you have a bye week,” Mullen told ESPN on Wednesday. “You come off the bye week and you’re sometimes a little sluggish getting back into the routine and into the flow, and now you have everybody patting you on the back. You’re not sure how you’re supposed to react to things.”
So Mississippi State, a heavy favorite, didn’t win so handily. The Bulldogs started sluggish and then went in the opposite direction and played too tight.
It was as if they were afraid to lose. Receivers dropped passes. Dak Prescott misfired and overthrew his targets. The defense didn’t attack and Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles had a career day, throwing for two touchdowns and running for two more.
“I thought we played really well. I thought they played really well,” Mullen said. “But, at times, instead of having the juice and excitement we normally have when we make a play, there would be relief.
“That’s not what we want to be. That’s not how we got successful.”
In other words, Mississippi State got ahead of itself.
Mullen and Prescott said that won’t happen again this Saturday against Arkansas. They’re over the No. 1 ranking, they said.
In fact, when the inaugural College Football Playoff Rankings were released Tuesday, Prescott said he was too busy watching film to tune in. Mullen said to wake him when it mattered.
“When’s the last one come out?” Mullen said. “I would view that one.”
“Hearing all the media stuff got us uptight," said Prescott, "but we’ve shaken it off and we’re back to being ourselves. It’s hard sometimes, but we have to remember who we are and what got us to this point.
“We just have to stay focused and know we’re the same team no one was talking about. We’re the same guys that were slightly unrecruited when we came here. We have to be true to ourselves and remember that.”
If they need a physical reminder, they won’t have to look far this weekend.
“This is a good team and a desperate team,” Prescott said of Arkansas. “They’re desperate for a win. They play everyone they play really, really hard, and we’re not going to be the exception. I don’t believe they’ve had an SEC win in two years now, and they’re hungry for one.”
It’s more than attitude that should worry State, though.
“Dealing with perception and reality of Arkansas, Arkansas is one of the better teams I’ve seen on film this year,” Mullen said. “The record might not state it for them, but they lost to a top-10 A&M team and lost a one-point game to Alabama, which is an excellent football team, and they were right there playing with Auburn Game 1 of the season."
“I’ve yet to see a team in the SEC this season that if you don’t come out and play your A-game, you’re not going to win," he added. "It’s plain and simple.”
Kentucky proved that the Bulldogs aren’t infallible when they’re not themselves.
If Mississippi State doesn’t get back to playing with a chip on their shoulder against Arkansas, then watch out.
“Playing with the juice and excitement we played with earlier in the season,” Mullen said. “To me, that’s the most important thing. Having fun while we’re playing, not worrying about anything else but the next play.”
No. 1-ranked Mississippi State needs to play more like unranked Mississippi State.
If it doesn’t, then the roles could be reversed for them.