HOOVER, Ala. — Mississippi State's Dan Mullen is the longest-tenured head football coach in the Southeastern Conference not named Nick Saban.
The Bulldogs are 61-42 through Mullen's first eight years and have qualified for seven consecutive bowl games, including an Orange Bowl trip after a 2014 season in which they spent several weeks at No. 1. The program's winningest coach since Allyn McKeen went 65-19-3 from 1939 to 1948 and guided the Bulldogs to their only SEC title in 1941, Mullen was asked a simple yet interesting question Tuesday at SEC media days.
Is this as good as it gets for the MSU program, which is just 29-35 in the vicious Western Division during his time there?
"My life has no finish line, and I tell the players that," Mullen said. "There is no finish line, so we're always striving to get better in everything that we do every single day to reach our potential and be the best that we can be. There's obviously a lot more ahead of us.
"We have not won the West yet. We have not won an SEC championship. We have not won a national championship yet, so there's an awful lot ahead on the table of goals that we want to achieve as a program."
Mississippi State achieved its seventh straight bowl bid based on its Academic Progress Report ranking, which allowed the 5-7 Bulldogs to go to the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they toppled Miami of Ohio 17-16.
Florida coach Jim McElwain has guided the Gators to consecutive SEC East titles in his first two seasons, but he spent most of Tuesday having to answer questions about the rivalry with LSU following last year's rescheduling and the online photo that surfaced this spring of a naked man who resembled him lying in a boat on a shark.
When asked about the photo, McElwain said, "I love the humor in it, and yet you know what it did? That actually not only attacked the university but attacked my family."
Junior left tackle Martez Ivey was asked about the photo and said, "We knew that it wasn't him. He's not that fat. That dude was super fat."
Ivey was touting The Swamp as the loudest venue in the SEC when he added another locale after experiencing last season's 38-28 loss to Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium.
"The second half at Tennessee — they have a lot of fans," he said. "That thing is pretty big, too, and when they get loud, it was pretty much the same intensity. They had not beaten Florida in so many years, and the atmosphere if you're a Tennessee fan or a Tennessee player had to be great.
"Still, nothing tops Florida."
Thompson good to go
Georgia junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson should be 100 percent healthy for the start of preseason camp, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. Thompson was the MVP of last December's Liberty Bowl but underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder then had to drop out of spring-semester classes after having an adverse reaction to medication he was taking following the surgery.
"He's doing well," junior inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. "He's back and looking like he never left, so I'm looking forward to what Trenton is actually going to do this year."
Thompson was discovered in late February by university police walking around Athens unsteady on his feet and unable to name what position he played, but Smith never doubted that Thompson would return.
"Trenton and I have always been there for each other," Smith said. "We were roommates our freshmen year, and we just attacked every day in rehab."
Please, pick others
Georgia players certainly expect to top last season's 8-5 record, but they are not putting a lot of stock in where they are picked in the SEC East. The Bulldogs are expected to be picked either first or a close second to Florida, which has won the past two division titles.
"At Georgia, we expect to win each and every game we go into," Smith said, "so we don't listen to all the hype. I've heard the actual favorites the last couple of years haven't actually won it, so we just have to be confident in ourselves."
Said tailback Nick Chubb: "The team that gets the most attention never really wins it, so it might be a bad thing."
Neither Florida last season nor Missouri the two seasons before that were picked correctly to win the East.
East shot fired?
Smart was asked a question about having 21 starters back and quickly wondered aloud how the reporter came up with such a high number when the Bulldogs are having to replace three starters on the offensive line. He then brought Tennessee coach Butch Jones into the discussion in an effort to prove his point.
"Last year, we had a coach tell us that we had the best talent," Smart said, "and he had six players taken in the first four rounds (of the NFL draft) after he said we had better talent than he did, and we had one player drafted. Sometimes I don't know where those messages come from."
Awaiting the Tide
Derek Mason's fourth season as Vanderbilt's coach begins at Middle Tennessee State before home games against Alabama A&M and Kansas State. The Commodores then will begin league play by hosting Alabama.
Mason is not overlooking MTSU's Blue Raiders, but he isn't backing down from Saban's Crimson Tide, either.
"There is nobody right now who is doing it better when you look at the longevity of his program, what he's done and how he's built it," Mason said. "He's built it around who he is and how he sees football, and that's extremely important, because that's about being who you are. He is who he is all of the time. I've sat in meetings with him, and I like his demeanor. I like the way he handles himself.
"But here's what I'll tell you. I don't fear anybody, and our team doesn't as well. When we line up to play Alabama, we've got to line up to play Alabama."
Odds and ends
Florida defensive back Marcell Harris on Georgia being the likely Eastern Division favorite: "We hear that every year." ... The SEC Network announced that its Saturday night game will have a team of Tom Hart handling play-by-play, Cole Cubelic the color commentary and Jordan Rodgers the sideline reporting. Cubelic is a former Auburn offensive lineman and Rodgers a former Vanderbilt quarterback. ... Mullen believes each coach should have walk-up music before taking the podium at media days. ... Smart on Georgia sophomore receiver Mecole Hardman: "We've got to try to find a way to get him the ball, but he's also got to find a way to protect the ball, so that's going to be a growing curve for him."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.