Yes, and not really. At least that is how Coach Dan Mullen intends to mix his emotions when asked if his team is the country’s best here in mid-October? “No, I’d say we’re 6-0,” Mullen said after Mississippi State’s 38-23 victory over Auburn. Meaning the sixth-year head coach is much more concerned with being—and staying—both unbeaten and at the forefront of the SEC and Western Division standings.
But while the Dogs are at it…why not cheer the unprecedented status assigned them Sunday? The Coaches Poll released around noon central time listed Mississippi State first. For the first time in the program’s 115-season history, a Bulldog team is #1.
An hour later the older and more recognized Associated Press poll chimed in with the same evaluation. The Bulldogs not only were first place but with 45 votes for it, compared to 12 for the ACC-leading Seminoles and three for an Ole Miss team tied with State for the league/Division leads. Auburn stayed top-ten, rightly so, at 6th with Alabama a spot behind and Georgia 10th.
Maybe the larger story for today is that a team not even ranked in September suddenly is first name on the October 12 lists. The Bulldogs had already set a standard last week with #3 ranking by AP (6th Coaches) which were both at the time the highest-ever listings for State in any polls. Knocking off consensus #2 Auburn in convincing style provided the last bit of momentum to push the Dogs to the top, ahead of unbeaten Florida State which slipped to second this week.
Even if everyone left Scott Field forecasting Mississippi State would check in as #1 or at least #2 for the October 12 rankings, this was still something to celebrate. As athletic director Scott Stricklin immediately tweeted “M1ss1ss1pp1 State’”. Bulldog players—not just from football--leapt onto social media venues to echo their own pleasure, and for that matter so did a number of high school stars committed to or still courted by Mullen’s program to play on future teams.
Having taken over top polling place, the 2014 football Dogs match the achievement of some previous Mississippi State baseball teams (1985, ’89, ’05, etc.) who received #1 rankings during their seasons. Now where this football team can surpass those diamond peers is to finish first…and since they are just half-way through the regular season a long process remains with plenty potential for pitfalls.
Mullen was already thinking along that line within minutes of going 6-0, and as he reminded everyone earning bowl eligibility. But this is no longer the ultimate ambition for Bulldogs; a baseline for every season to be sure, but Mullen has built the program to a place where bowling is the norm.
And, he pointed out, State isn’t even half-done with the SEC schedule either. “We haven’t even guaranteed ourselves a winning record at this point!” To be sure his Dogs have made more history by beating LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn consecutively when all three were top-ten ranked at the time. That is how Mississippi State went from unranked four weeks ago to the top of the polls today.
This is a great thing for his team, for the whole athletic program and the University as a whole, Mullen said Saturday. As well as for the entire state of Mississippi which now has a home-grown football team topping the national rankings. Yet, “Certainly we have a lot more goals we want to accomplish,” Mullen added. Such as staying ahead of the Western Division pack over the next six weeks and earning the program’s second appearance in the SEC Championship Game. Where, at that point, they can play for the first league title at Mississippi State since 1941.
Obviously even the parents of current Bulldogs weren’t around then, or anyone on this coaching staff. But today’s Dogs did not come campus burdened by any less-than-stellar State history, either. Certainly Mullen did not take over a struggling program with modest ambitions, setting Atlanta as the goal from the December 2008 day he arrived. At his initial presentation, Mullen challenged everyone—University, fans, alumni, friends, potential donors, everyone—to play a part in building a competitive program.
In that sense then yesterday reinforced everything the coach asked and predicted. A record crowd of 62,935 overflowed Davis Wade Stadium for the 3-vs-2 matchup and despite mid-game showers just about everyone—even Auburn guests for that matter—were still around at the end.
“A great team win by our guys, but more importantly a great team win by our University,” Mullen said. “When we got here six years ago we told the fans if you show up we’ll build the winning program. The fans certainly did that with the record crowd, unbelievable electric atmosphere. Our student body out of control, unbelievable. Our alumni, our fans did their part they deserve as much credit for the win as the guys on the team.”
As for those guys, senior safety Jay Hughes spoke well for everyone about where the process has brought everyone. “I just remember those days we weren’t just winning like that. We kept grinding and stuck with it and it’s definitely paying off for us right now.”
Emphasis on the ‘right now’ part. Because this cannot be the finish point for the ’14 Bulldogs. “To me the journey has been very special,” DT Kaleb Eulls said. “We may have a chance to rank #1, but to me it doesn’t matter. The main goal is to come out 1-0 that week.”
Which is why Mullen enjoys the #1 in front of the team’s name. It’s just another sign of progress towards the ultimate goal.
“Trust me, if we are I’ll be happy. But I’m still going to be at work (Sunday) grading this film.”