"Our goal is to find a way to win the SEC West," said Mullen in the general media portion of Wednesday's press-fest. "Mississippi State has been there before, and we need to find a way to get there again and win for the people of Mississippi."
Well, for the citizens who favor Bulldog football, that is. Over the course of the usual, and annual, wide-ranging interview sessions, Mullen was even asked about the billboards greeting visitors to Mississippi with ‘Welcome to Our State'. The larger point though was the coach's outlook on his third season in Starkville, and whether this could be the year his Dogs achieve their Atlanta ambition.
"I really still don't have a timetable," Mullen said. "For us that is certainly our goal going into this season. If we can win all our home games this year and find a way to win a couple of tough road games we can get to Atlanta. We have the talent to do it.
"The question is, are we the team that this year is going to gel, work a little harder, believe in each other more, and reach our potential to be the best we can be? Our job as coaches is to develop that potential to be that team this year."
Those comments came in the main media meeting portion of Wednesday's schedule. Prior to this ‘big room' turn, Mullen had spoken with a much smaller group of regular writers covering the Bulldogs, and in a much more relaxed setting. So much so that the three Bulldog players brought to speak for State—Chris Relf, Vick Ballard, and Fletcher Cox—were sharing the room and interviews. In fact, defensive lineman Cox turned ‘reporter' towards the end with his own question on-the-record.
The selected transcript follows, beginning with the same theme: that some still are amused at the idea Mississippi State can win this wild West race in 2011. "It's good motivation for training camp," Mullen responded.
"That's going to be our goal. I think people maybe can look and say it's not amusing, they actually have a chance to do it. But I think everybody understands how hard the SEC West is, so the task this year is not going to be any easier for us than last year to get to Atlanta. Even though people think wow, we're competing, we're winning a lot of games and improving as a program, the task this year is going to be just as hard."
Q: Does it bother you people might have found it amusing? ""No, because in coaching you have to get rid of perception and live in reality. That's the world I live in. If you talk to our fan base their expectations are probably now is ‘boy, I think we're going to Atlanta this year'. That's great, that they believe that. But the reality of the situation is it's going to be just as hard this year to get there. If not harder, with the improvement of teams in the league. "
"And you have a team that we dropped, Florida, off the schedule. Now we have the team in South Carolina that is favored to win the East, an even better team coming on the schedule. I think with those challenges, you live into understanding where your program is; are we improving."
"I mean, I guess we could improve as a program and not have as good a record. We could actually not be as good this year as we were last year and have a better record in certain things! You look last year and we have two games that came right down to the wire, if we win those two games what's that? An 11-2 season last year? But there are also a couple of games that could have taken 9-4 down to 7-6, you know."
Q: You're counting winning a BCS bowl game? "Yeah, we'd have won the BCS bowl game?"
Q: At the same time with the ‘Atlanta' marker on the schedule poster and media guide, you aren't shying away from promoting the idea? "Well, because in our mindset that's always going to be our goal. Our goal every single year is to get to Atlanta. You get to Atlanta and you're playing that game for a championship." "But you can't control that (playing for the BCS title). I could say our goal would be to win the national championship this year. What happens if we go undefeated and we don't finish one or two? Then you could maybe say in the paper I'm crowning them national champs but in reality you don't have the opportunity to play for that. But we can control whether we get to Atlanta or not."
Q: How do you prepare for an opening game that is different than later in the season? "The trickiest part is when you're watching the film you're not watching accurate film. There's different players, they've evolved. Memphis is going to evolve this off-season as a team, just as we are. We're going to be a different team with different players when we step out there this fall than we were last year. And you can't see that."
"One of the key things in an early game, those first two to three games of a season and especially in an opener, you concentrate a lot on yourself. And understand, if we execute at a very high level and take care of our business we'll have the opportunity to be successful. Instead of worrying too much about scheming and everything they're going to do that we're not sure of yet, let's worry about playing at a very high level in the opening game of the season."
"That first game, we're not going to get any new information, some with injuries and depth chart maybe. The second game you want to make sure we have a feel for. And to me it's also making sure that all our information off of last year is accurate. A lot of times in a game week everything is crammed-in. So, that when you go into the first three weeks a lot of your statistical breakdowns are completely accurate and everything is ready to go and organized so you're not having to cram as much in, you can really study how you are improving."
"And, finding your identity. I don't know this team's identity yet for us this year. I think you find that identity early in the season, within your team." Q: Are there any roster changes? "Not yet."
Q: Nothing on Charles Bailey and Jeff Howie? "No, not yet.
Q: Will Nick Griffin be able to practice in August? "Probably not. I think they said his rehab is coming along faster than they thought it would, which is great. But as a young player we're not going to push. I mean, if he's 100% ready to go we're going to do it. But where an older player might, a veteran guy who wants to be out on the field that can go out and perform at 85%. We think he's got a great career in front of him and we're going to make sure he's 100% before he sets foot on the field."
Q: Is it impressive how Chris Relf has taken on the leadership role for this season? "It's a good thing. But that just shows his development the last couple of years, and his maturity of where he is and understanding that…this is it. This could be it. There is 12 to 14 games left in his college career, and maybe in his football career. We don't know, it depends on how he performs in these next 12, 14 games what his career in football might hold beyond that. You cut it down to where this might be the end, that's where you pick it up another level."
Q: Were you able to unwind over this summer? "To me I feel fortunate, I'm able to separate it and just get away and focus on spending time with my family, being around them and enjoying that time so that it's not all-consuming with me."
Q: You look more tanned than last year? "I spent a lot of time in the sun. I love being out in the sun, maybe too much!"
Q: Your assistants seemed to have more time-off this summer than the last two? "I think our guys worked really hard this off-season. And I want to make sure they're fresh and they're ready to go for this football season. I think we've been around each other for a couple of years, even though we've had a little bit of turnover here and there there's a really solid foundation within the coaches, the program, and they understand what is going to happen. I wanted to make sure they got to enjoy time with their family."
Q: How has the promotion of Chris Wilson and bringing in Geoff Collins fit into the defense? "I think pretty good. Because Chris being in it last year understands it and Geoff really understanding the position he knew he was going to step into. I think a lot of that we cover on the front end, before we put everybody together. When we were interviewing for that (linebackers) position, Chris had a major role. Not interviewing with me, he interviewed everybody separate from me, and I wanted to get back from him who were we going to be able to work well with together."
Q: Did you expect Vick Ballard to make this big an impact? "We recruited him a lot was based off his coach's recommendation. He said this guy has a work ethic that he is going to be a great player for you, he will not settle for not being the best. You know, there wasn't one thing that you watched and said OK, I can see where this guy is going to be a star. But once you met him you knew he's got kind of a chip on his shoulder, he's out to prove everybody wrong. And he has kind of that ‘it' persona inside him that he is going to make himself great. And from day-one on campus he's done that."
Q: Did you miss us this summer? "Yeah, of course! I love this stuff!"
(At this point reporters yielded the floor to Fletcher Cox for his question) Q: What is your expectation of the 2011 football team? "To be much better, a much-improved team than we were last year. That our guys go out and play harder every single week, they're more committed to understanding the game. And they're better football players as individuals, as position groups, as units, and we're better as a football team as a whole than we were last year."
"If we work hard and we out-work everybody else in the SEC, we're going to find ourselves in December in Atlanta."
(back to full-time media) Q: What is your expectation of Fletcher Cox? "To be the best defensive lineman in the Southeastern Conference."
Q: Well, but that's Josh Boyd? (Cox and Mullen both laugh) "Well, Fletcher will tell you that he is much better than Josh, huh? Not that there's any friendly competition between those two! If Boyd would have cut off his dreadlocks and looked prettier like Fletcher we'd have brought him today. Fletcher has that good, clean-cut image."
Q: Is the record ticket sales and record donations just a result of winning now? "Winning helps a lot, but there are still a lot of schools that win, that have a lot of success, but don't sell out all the time. It's something to me that really shows a belief in our fan base in what we're trying to do over time. You look at the season ticket sales, it's not a short-term belief. It's people saying now that this is something that is exciting, something I want to be a part of. I think they understand that if they're involved, we're going to win. The fan base has a huge part in our success."
Q: You did not lose many players, but the quality was awesome. Is that overstating it? "No. I mean, you're losing Derek Sherrod, a first-round draft pick at left tackle; K.J. Wright and Chris White, quality players at linebacker. Pernell McPhee who was the quality of a team leader, an inspiring guy, a motivational guy moreso. He didn't have huge stats walking out the door but the emotional leadership that is walking out the door with him."
"That is a true statement when you lose those guys. You lose a kicker and a punter, you lose your long-snapper, your center. Losing the persona of the quality of guys is tough, those guys that were seniors last year…Patrick Hanrahan didn't do much (statistically) but he had a huge role in a lot of different aspects on the team. So those guys are out the door, not just stars but role players. We still have a lot of talent, but the key components that left; the maturity…you lost your leaders on the o-line, your emotional leader on defense, your star players on defense. Despite having a lot of guys back we need people to step into those roles, to be the stars and be the emotional leaders."
Q: So the intangibles are harder to replace this year? "Always. Always. Players that have great intangibles, that do all the extra things in the program, that's what is tough. But it also gives the opportunity for other guys that are here with us. Fletcher Cox had to step up as a talent, as a player, but never had to step up as a leader and as motivation and all that stuff. Because he had Pernell next to him. Now, it allows him to step into that role and potentially do it even better. That's the positive."
Q: Among many things commissioner Mike Slive talked about today were academic requirements and eligibility. What are your concerns? "The hardest thing for us is once we start recruiting a guy we see his GPA go through the roof. Unfortunately 65%, really 75% of their high school career we're limited in any contact we can have with them. So the encouragement of ‘hey have you turned in your homework, are you doing this'. All of a sudden a kid that is a star player the number-one thing preached to them is not academic and being a complete player. It is how great a star you are, boy you played on the varsity as a freshman; not what is your GPA factor. High school requirements to be an eligible player are very different than college requirements."
So these kids don't understand, and you don't want to get to a position where it's too late to understand and you can't catch up. I think the difficult thing we have in Mississippi is we recruit a lot of kids from small schools. Now the schools don't have the means sometimes for this kid that all of a sudden understands it's more than just playing football, I need to get an education. They go to the school and they say we don't offer any more classes for you, and there's no internet classes. So it's finding that balance that we're not pulling the carpet out on kids; that we are raising our standard but making sure when we do we have a solution to help kids meet that standard as well. Not just turn our back on them."
Q: Would raising the GPA to 2.50 affect Mississippi State and Ole Miss more than other schools? "I think the only way it affects us is the recruiting pool is much smaller, because our population is smaller. Florida is going to go to the top 200 kids in the state and alright, we can't get this kid but we have another that really is just as good and go after him now. In Mississippi you don't have the numbers. I think we just have to do a much harder job of working with high school counselors and coaches. I'd be much more concerned with all the 7-on-7 stuff. If the high school coach understands it and is with the kid on a daily basis and has an interest in making sure they understand the academic requirements that these young men need, then I think you get the job done."<.p> Q: Sliver mentioned that partial qualifiers could return. Would you pursue this? "The benefit to me of a partial qualifier is, we have a junior college system in the state so that assists kids sometimes that have problems. I don't mind getting our hands on them and we can help them. I mean, of making sure these young kids graduate and have success. That's important to me. Now, we'll obviously adapt to all the standards and work as we can. But you'd hate to see opportunities taken away from young men that could go on to do great things."
"One of the most amazing things you see is the grading system. Where some states have a ten-point scale other states don't. In Mississippi we're about 50/50, so a kid that gets a 82 average at one school would qualify; an 82 average at another school would make him not qualify. I mean, I'd love to see the focus get on that, that a 82 is an 82 everywhere you go."
NOTE: Mullen also discussed at length subjects such as providing payments to players and recruiting rules, not included in this transcript as we are running long already. They will provide material for later stories.