STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Megan Mullen keeps seeing rainbows everywhere. When Mississippi State’s football team landed in Baton Rouge, La., on Sept. 19 to play LSU the next day, the wife of Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen spotted a rainbow while traveling from the airport to the Marriott. The Thursday before the Bulldogs walloped Texas A&M at home, she saw rainbows over the practice field.
On Thursday, as Mississippi State put the finishing touches on its game plan for Auburn, Megan thought the streak would end. She looked up and saw blue sky. Then the Mullens’ 5-year-old son, Canon, pointed up. “Look, mommy.” Straight across the sky was a rainbow. It had to be a sign.
Or maybe it meant nothing. Maybe this Mississippi State team is that good. Maybe the Bulldogs make their own luck with a brutish defensive line and a confident quarterback. Maybe Mullen has built a program over the past six seasons that can finally compete with the best in the SEC West. Remember when Mullen’s team finished No. 15 in the country in 2010? It finished fifth in the West. This team does not look like that one. After Saturday’s soggy 38-23 win over No. 2 Auburn, this team looks like one that can compete for an SEC West title. And that means it can compete for a national championship.
The Tigers turned the ball over on their first two plays from scrimmage. Mississippi State turned those miscues into a 14-0 lead. The Tigers punted on their next drive, and quarterback Dak Prescott led the Bulldogs on a 71-yard touchdown drive.
Mississippi State made its share of mistakes. The Bulldogs committed four turnovers, including two Prescott interceptions in the second quarter. But Auburn only turned the Bulldogs’ errors into 13 points because Mississippi State's defense stoned the Tigers in the red zone twice and forced kicks. And when Mississippi State needed offense, Prescott obliged. After Auburn cut the score to 21-13 late in the first half, Prescott led a 75-yard drive that he capped with a 15-yard touchdown run. That allowed the Bulldogs to take a more secure lead before a downpour made handling the ball quite treacherous. With Auburn trailing by eight early in the fourth quarter, Prescott led the Bulldogs the length of the field and set up kicker Evan Sobiesk for a chip-shot field goal that made it a two-possession game again. “He tried to get himself out of the [Heisman Trophy] mix by throwing two picks,” Mullen joked. “Then he scored three touchdowns and put himself right back in.”
How far have the Bulldogs come since Mullen and his staff arrived after much of the group helped Florida win the 2008 national title? In Mullen’s first team meeting after getting hired, he asked his players how many wanted to win a championship. They all raised their hands. Mullen told them to lower their hands. “You’re all liars,” he remembered saying. “If you wanted to win a championship, I wouldn’t be here.”
Mullen was equally blunt in his first meeting with Mississippi State’s support staff. He did the typical “How long have you been here?” bit, except he flipped it and used years of service to match how many coaching staffs an organization-wide commitment to mediocrity had helped get fired. Former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne hired Mullen to change that culture. Mullen, who had been with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, thought he could do it, but he had to guess at how. Utah had gone 12-0 in that staff’s final year there, and Florida had won two national titles during their time in Gainesville. But in both cases they had inherited talented players who had already experienced some success. At Mississippi State, Mullen and company had to upgrade the talent and teach the players, administrators, support staffers and fans how to win.
“For a long time as a university, we had laid back figured out really well,” said current athletic director Scott Stricklin, who as an associate AD helped Byrne hire Mullen. “I think what’s happened is we flipped that. We want to be the aggressor.”
So, Stricklin doesn’t mind that Mullen called a disastrous fake punt Saturday deep in his own territory while leading 21-0 in the first quarter. Punter Logan Cooke’s pass was intercepted, but Mullen was not cowed. “We didn’t come to keep it close,” an unapologetic Mullen said afterward. “We wanted to come to win.”
That attitude has pervaded every clanger of a cowbell this season thanks to a mix of tried-and-true and new initiatives. Just as he did at Utah 10 years ago, offensive line coach John Hevesy still makes his players go through extra board drills -- which help them keep a proper base and keep them from getting knocked around by defensive linemen -- at a point in each practice when most offensive line coaches would have moved on to practicing against the stunts an opponent might run. Hevesy would rather his linemen have great fundamentals. Then they can handle whatever new twist an opponent might devise.
It’s new stuff, too. Mullen spent six seasons at Florida watching Gators fans sway to “We Are the Boys from Old Florida” between the third and fourth quarters. Mullen wanted Davis Wade Stadium rocking going into the final period to give his team a boost at the most critical time. So, Mullen huddled with the marketing department this offseason. He said he didn’t care if they stole House of Pain’s “Jump Around” from Wisconsin. In the end they settled on one of Mullen’s favorite songs. On Saturday, as the Bulldogs nursed a 28-20 lead and Auburn still threatened, cowbells shook and students screamed along to “Don’t Stop Believin.’”
This year can be special, and Mullen knows it. He also knows how quickly things can turn in a division where the difference between No. 1 and No. 7 isn’t great enough for anyone to count as an automatic win. That’s why Mullen was only being slightly ironic when he commemorated Mississippi State’s 6-0 start Saturday with this quote: “It’s a fantastic feeling. We’re bowl eligible.”
Mullen knows that of the two teams that played in Starkville on Saturday, Auburn could still very well wind up being the one that makes the College Football Playoff. “I’ve won two national championships as an assistant in this league, and it’s so hard,” he said. “Neither time did we go undefeated.” The Tigers, who reached the BCS title game last year with a regular-season loss, should understand Saturday’s defeat does not crush their hopes. It only means they have less room for error against a schedule that still includes trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
The Tigers can afford to feel that way because they play for one of the chosen schools. Mississippi State has never been one of those schools. “The difference between us and other schools in the league that have more resources is they may be able to go through the motions and be successful,” Stricklin said. “We can’t.” Auburn people also know that if this team doesn’t compete for a national title, some other group of Tigers will in a few years. Mississippi State must strike now with a veteran-heavy team that seems to understand how to win.
The truth is Mississippi State didn’t become a national title contender by beating Texas A&M or by beating Auburn. If it is one -- and that certainly appears to be the case -- then the Bulldogs were contenders back in August. That’s why Stricklin won’t put much stock in the potential for the Bulldogs to be No. 1 in a poll Sunday. “Everything we’re talking about is a label that really doesn’t mean anything. A month ago, we were unranked. We had the same coaches, the same players, the same fan base. We weren’t considered one of the best 25 teams in the country.
They might be the best team in the country, but they’ll have to prove that over the next three months. Mississippi State took another step Saturday. It didn’t look fluky. It looked like a sound victory over a quality opponent. The Bulldogs don’t need luck or signs. That doesn’t mean they’ll turn them down.
About 45 minutes after the final whistle, a staffer cautiously approached Megan Mullen. She had left the sun roof of her car open. She and the victorious coach would have to ride home on wet seats. Megan turned to the friends who had gathered to congratulate the couple. “I left the sun roof open, and it rained in the car,” she said. “Do we care? No!”
She can be forgiven for trying to invite a few more rainbows -- just in case.