Hopefully so, for sure. Because after using Northwestern State to smooth some of the rough spots, Mississippi State (2-1, 0-1 SEC) now takes their act on the conference road. Twice. The back-to-back Western Division weeks begin at Auburn (2-1, 0-1), where in three trips Mullen’s teams have come painfully close to success. Just not close enough.
By contrast Bulldogs have won the last two times on Scott Field, emphatically. Ending the Jordan-Hare hex isn’t on Mullen’s mind as much as avoiding a 0-2 SEC start. It’s something both squads face, having each been beaten by loop leader LSU. The Alabama Tigers had the tougher task with a road matchup and were mauled by the other Tigers’ physical ground game and defense.
Mississippi State used the home field, and second-half improvement, to give LSU a much tigher contest. They also have now had a week to recover and fix a few things both on the practice field and on the home field by routing Northwestern State.
“I thought we improved,” Mullen said. He meant mostly the starting squad and rotation Dogs. At the same time an encouraging number of backups got two whole quarters to themselves, improving the team’s 2015 depth and starting their own runs for 2016 starting jobs.
But it will be the top Dogs under road-game pressures this week. And, in a venue none have won at yet. There are plenty veterans of 2014’s victory of course; and several who recall just how close State was to sealing the 2013 matchup at Auburn. As close as maybe three feet in fact.
Mullen does say last year has not come up in team talks so far, “And it probably won’t be. This year’s game will mean a lot to our program, too.” Which is saying something since the ’14 win vaulted State to #1 in the national rankings.
The reality right now is both participants are trying to avoid getting stuck in the SEC cellar after two league games. Auburn is clinging to a place in the top-25 while State fell out after a one-week stay. Ending September 0-2 in the SEC standings would leave the loser watching the rest of the conference race from back of the pack. Yes, it is still likely nobody is going to survive this West season unscathed, but 0-2 is just too much ground to make up most years.
“You don’t want to fall that far behind,” said Mullen. “We both are back-against-the-wall, and have to come out to fight and ready to play.”
Mullen said Monday that safety Kendrick Market, held out of the last game, is expected to return to the Auburn lineup. Market had a bothersome foot immobilized last week for precaution and Mullen said the cast could come off as early as today.