That home stretch is quite a few weeks away of course. The point is for Mississippi State (2-0,1-0 SEC) to hit November at full-speed means attending to immediate business, Saturday's 6:00 contest at Troy. As Mullen said, the same players he presumes were being back-patted in morning classes are in for an afternoon attitude adjustment at practice.
"We talk about that as a team, you took a step and obviously winning a game and a big conference game is a big boost for us. But what you need to do as a team is improve every single week. We've told them we have to get better, play harder, prepare and practice better than last week. And I thought we had great practice (last week)."
Great enough to beat on visiting Auburn 28-10, earning a 1-0 league record for the first time since all the current players were in elementary school. And, to notch the lone remaining SEC unbeaten on Mullen's personal coaching list. It didn't take him long to come down off that personal peak though, and Mullen demands the Dogs do the same now. Or else their initial excursion beyond Scott Field might not be so smooth.
"This is a different week, you're in the third week of the season but its our first road game so you're preparing your guys for the road game schedule," Mullen said. Not to mention a visit to a Sun Belt program that is not at all afeared of hosting someone from the big dog league. ""I know they've had some big wins over BCS schools in the past, so they know how to win games and win games at home. So we're expecting a hostile environment."
"So we're going to have to play well on both sides of the ball and deal with adversity of the first road game." Which, Mullen said, a number of veterans know how to cope with. It's the younger pups who are most susceptible to getting caught-up in the flush of early success.
Scouting the Trojans (1-1) should help them forget how backs have been patted. Take receiver Chip Reeves, with ten caches and a 16.2-yard average gain. The "fast guy" as Mullen called him. Asked if State would lock top cornerback John Banks—the Thorpe Award player of the week after a two-interception day against Auburn—the coach said State has plenty of confidence in Darius Slay, too.
"We aren't at the point we have to match up one corner on one guy. We're going to let our guys go cover." There will be a lot to cover if Troy tosses 70 passes as they did in a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. But with a pair of backs averaging over five yards per carry the ground game needs attention as well. And as for the 424 yards and 33.0 points Troy has allowed per the first two games? Yeah, don't read too much into those numbers too quickly.
"I know they've given up some points, I think there is some youth on that side of the ball. When you have that you're sometimes going to see drastic improvement. We're going to see the best defensive game they've played from that standpoint."
By the same token though…Mississippi State's best should still be ahead from almost every standpoint. There is no over-valuing a win over Auburn, though other than settling some old scores the fact is it could have been any conference cousin and victory would have meant the same to Mullen in the bigger picture.
"It's huge, on the bucket list of things I guess I can check that off with the SEC opponents! But more importantly for our team and what we've tried to build, I've always talked about how our goal is to win the SEC championship, to compete for that. Always after week-one we've been trying to dig back out of a hole. Now we have to deal with the other side of that, dealing with adversity of success. But it's a great feeling.
The feelings are so good these days, Mullen isn't letting outside issues deflect his attention. Some long-anticipated media reports on recruiting irregularities with Memphis-area prospects, such as State signee CB Will Redmond, are being published. Between these and radio appearances by the coach of a summer team Redmond and others played on, Mississippi State's name keeps cropping up. The University announced in August it had been aware for many months of the situation and was cooperating with official investigators.
This coincided with the resignation of wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando for what MSU only called "personal reasons" at the time. Since then Mirando has been publically connected to a MSU booster—since disassociated by the University—who reportedly provided benefits to a then-prospect prior to any signing. Mississippi State has not responded to enquiries.
Nor would Mullen today. "I know the NCAA is doing their work on that. And we're not commenting on any of that stuff at this time." As for Redmond's status, Mullen is treating the true freshman as any other rookie yet to participate. Such as in regard to whether Redmond will make this road trip.
"We meet on our travel roster this afternoon. We haven't looked at all the freshmen, I don't think he's dressed out but a lot of our freshmen haven't. I don't know if our plans are to take all the guys that haven't dressed yet as freshmen and not redshirt those guys. We've been able to stay healthy, and that is a big dictator in who we dress. I don't think Will has dressed yet, but only a couple of freshmen have."
Business as usual in other words. Related to another personnel question, Mullen said DT P.J. Jones remains on indefinite suspension. The sophomore has not dressed for the first two games. "We'll make that announcement Saturday if he'll be there or not."
Clearly Mullen is not letting peripheral matters impinge on this week's preparations. And nothing succeeds like success in bringing a ball club's personality into focus. Or as Mullen calls it, the team identity. "Know what, I think we're getting closer. I don't think we're there yet but I do think we're getting closer. We want to be a balanced team, mix things up running and passing and execute cleanly."
"We want to play a lot of guys. That personality I was hoping this team to have is starting to come out. I want to see that this week, do we have the confidence to go on the road and play our game as we have at home."