Taking the Next Step

When Dan Mullen stepped off of the plane to the sound of cowbells and cheers from fans wearing "Dan is the Man" T-Shirts, the first time head coach was aware that he was inheriting a program in need of direction. In the eight seasons preceding Mullen's tenure as head coach, the Bulldogs had won just thirteen SEC football games. Mullen has exceeded that total in five years (16), but fans want more.

Mississippi State has undergone a transformation under Mullen's leadership.

In fact, during the 2000s, the Bulldogs won just 42 games and reached just two bowl games.

Just four years into the 2010s, Mississippi State has already won 30 games and appeared in four bowl games.

The current streak of four consecutive bowl seasons is a program best.

With a post season appearance this season, Dan Mullen can pull to within one bowl game of Coach Jackie Sherrill who led the Bulldogs to six during his thirteen year career in Starkville.

Fans who wear the Maroon and White are certainly happy about being able to make holiday bowl trips, but expectations for the 2014 Bulldogs are much higher than any other team in the Mullen era.

In order for Bulldog fans to enjoy some more exotic bowl destinations this winter, Dan Mullen and his staff have to get the team over the proverbial hump and beat some of the traditional heavyweights in the Southeastern Conference.

Mississippi State has finished no better than 4th in the SEC Western Division during Dan Mullen's tenure.

Two 4-4 finishes within the conference are the best the Bullies have been able to muster in the past five years.

By contrast, only once under Mullen have the Bulldogs finished last in the division and that came in 2009, a season were State still managed to win the Golden Egg.

The 2008 Mississippi State Bulldogs won just two SEC games under Coach Sylvester Croom.

A missed field goal and blocked extra point against Kentucky resulted in a 14-13 loss, which was one of the more stressful setbacks of the campaign.

Kentucky has been Mississippi State's permanent SEC Eastern Division opponent since the league made the two division format in 1992.

The Bulldogs and Wildcats have met every season since 1990 with Mississippi State holding a 15-9 advantage in those contests.

The series was essentially a back and forth affair until Dan Mullen's arrival in Starkville.

The Bulldogs are a perfect 5-0 against the Bluegrass Cats on the gridiron.

Securing the upper hand in this series have been essential in Mississippi State's current bowl streak.

While many used to consider this game a toss up penciling in a win for the home team for the better part of twenty years, Mullen has swung the momentum and wins into the Bulldogs column.

Dan Mullen spent an entire off season having to answer questions about beating SEC Western Division teams not named Ole Miss.

Knocking off the Rebels has been a regular occurrence in the Dan Mullen era with the Bulldogs winning four of the last five.

Mullen stoked the flames of rivalry from day one and found favor from Bulldog fans and resentment from Rebels.

Making the pill harder to swallow for those who cheer for Ole Miss was the fact that Mullen basically called his shot and backed it up.

While the Bulldogs' head man, does not harp on the blood feud all year long as he did early on, make no mistake this is still THE game everyone points to.

In Mullen's five years, his Bulldogs have finished ahead of Ole Miss in the SEC Western Division four of five times.

The lone exception was 2009, Mullen's first season. In that season, Mississippi State won the first of what would be a program best three straight from the cross state rivals.

With trends against Kentucky and Ole Miss favoring the Bulldogs, State needed to look at the next rung on the SEC West ladder.

Arkansas will be Mississippi State's opponent for senior day this fall.

The Razorbacks will enter the game having dropped the last two decisions to the Bulldogs, who with a win this fall would own a three game winning streak in the series for the first time.

Dan Mullen is 2-3 against Arkansas as a head coach, with the recent momentum favoring those ringing the bells rather than calling the hogs.

Bryan Hazlewood's kick to beat Arkansas 22-21 in 1998 is a moment that will live in Bulldog football lore forever.

In an attempt to frame up that historic moment, it is important to note that the 1998 win over Arkansas was the only Bulldog win in a streak from 1995-2007 where the Hogs held a 12-1 advantage over Mississippi State.

MSU was 4-0-1 in the series prior to that 26-21 loss in 1995 that ushered in a period of one sidedness favoring the team from the Natural State.

The Mississippi State/Auburn series has been extremely competitive the past few years, but the Bulldogs only have one win to show for their efforts.

A Thursday night affair against future Heisman winner Cam Newton and the eventual National Champion Tigers ended 17-14, which left Bulldog fans wondering what if.

Chris Relf was stopped just short of the goal line on the game's final play the following year in a seesaw battle that left the Bulldogs reeling.

Fresh in the minds of the Bulldog faithful is last year's dramatic come from behind Auburn win that ended in the final seconds with a Nick Marshall pass to C.J. Uzmoah in the back corner of the endzone.

Despite coming up on the short end of the sticks literally in 2011 and figuratively the past few seasons, the Bulldogs know they can play with the Tigers.

Mullen is just 1-4 against Auburn and the game this year will go a long way in determining Mississippi State's 2014 fortunes.

Texas A&M has only been in the league for two seasons. In both SEC match-ups, Johnny Manziel led the A&M to two wins, but the Johnny Football less Aggies have to visit Starkville and 60,000 cowbells this fall.

This is one most expect Mississippi State to win and it is clearly one the Bulldogs absolutely have to have.

Mississippi State is a collective 0-10 against Alabama and LSU in the Dan Mullen era.

While State has had some success against Alabama over the years, the series against LSU has been decidedly Purple and Gold the past two decades.

The Bulldogs won eight of ten from the Tigers between 1975 and 1984, including a streak of five in a row to begin the 1980s.

The momentum has clearly shifted away from Mississippi State and the Bulldogs need a victory in the series in the worst way.

The Bulldogs last win in the series was in 1999 and the last MSU win in Death Valley was in 1991.

To put that in perspective, Sleepy Robinson, who led the Bulldogs to the last win at LSU, now has college age children of his own.

The current true freshmen crop of Bulldogs were three years old and their parents were preparing for Y2K the last time Mississippi State got a win over LSU.

Alabama has been the gold standard in the SEC the past few years.

The Tide has had their way of things against the Bulldogs winning all five match-ups and not allowing more than ten points in any game against Mississippi State.

In four of the five games, State has only managed to score just once.

Last season, a banged up Tyler Russell was thrust back into the starting line-up after Dak Prescott suffered a shoulder injury against Texas A&M.

The Bulldog defense played well enough to win, but the offense could only manage one touchdown.

A fourth quarter Damian Williams' pass bounced off of De'Runnya Wilson's hands and fell into the Davis Wade endzone turf quelling a late Bulldog uprising.

The breaks in this league are hard to come by and you have to make plays when they are there to be made.

By the same token, you have to recognize when your team has the opportunity to make a move in the toughest division in all of college football.

With a Bulldog defense that ranked fourth in the conference in total defense returning pretty much in tact up and down the two deep, one would expect Geoff Collins and his psycho defense to handle their end of things.

If Mississippi State is to make a serious run at Alabama and LSU and make some noise in the SEC West, the workload will largely ride on the shoulders of an offensive unit that returns a rock star quarterback in Dak Prescott, a veteran wide receiver corps led by the SEC's leading returning receiver, Jameon Lewis, a stable of running backs with more collective talent and potential than any group under Mullen's tenure and an offensive line that is a mix of veterans and first time full time starters.

That group must find a way to score points against Alabama, win a potential track meet against Auburn and a bare knuckle brawl on the bayou against LSU if this year is to be THE year.

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