Mississippi State still aiming for an SEC title

photo Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen watches his team during an NCAA college football game against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012.

CAN HE KEEP IT GOING?Dan Mullen is on track to become the first Mississippi State football coach with a winning career record in Starkville since Darrell Royal went 12-8 in 1954-55:COACH // SEASONS // RECORDDan Mullen 2009-pres. 29-22-0Sylvester Croom 2004-08 21-38-0Jackie Sherrill 1991-2003 75-75-2Rockey Felker 1986-90 21-34-0Emory Bellard 1979-85 37-42-0Bob Tyler* 1973-78 21-44-2Charley Shira 1967-72 16-45-2Paul Davis 1962-66 20-28-2Wade Walker 1956-61 22-32-2• MSU had to forfeit 18 victories during the 1975-77 seasons due to NCAA sanctions.

Since Mississippi State became a founding member of the Southeastern Conference in 1933, every Bulldogs football coach has produced at least one winning season except Arthur "Slick" Morton, who struggled in Starkville from 1949 to '51.

Dan Mullen has been more successful than most of his predecessors, taking MSU to three consecutive bowl games after a 5-7 debut in 2009.

"What we've created here is a level of stability and a level of high expectations," Mullen said after spring practice. "When I first got here, the expectations were, 'Boy, I hope we go to a bowl game.' Now that's become the norm for us."

The former Florida offensive coordinator quickly led the Bulldogs to three consecutive wins over rival Ole Miss, which was a first for State since World War II. The Bulldogs humiliated Michigan 52-14 in the Gator Bowl following the 2010 season, and Mullen's 24-15 record the past three years is well above the standard for a program that has an all-time mark of 514-549-39.

Last season's team faded down the stretch, but Mullen's objective remains a conference championship, which the program achieved once in 1941.

"To win a championship, I believe you have to have a solid foundation," he said. "It's not going to come from nowhere. When you win consistently, the next step up obviously is to win a championship. Those are the expectations I have for our program, and I think those expectations have spread to our fan base and outside the program as well."

Mississippi State roared to a 7-0 start a year ago and was in title contention until late October, when the Bulldogs were thrashed 38-7 at Alabama. Mullen's Bulldogs have lost all four meetings against Nick Saban's Crimson Tide by the average count of 31-7, and they've come close only once in four defeats against Les Miles and LSU.

Texas A&M entered the league last year and applied a 38-13 pummeling in Starkville, which contributed to the 1-5 tailspin that capped MSU's season.

Add that late faltering against stiffer competition to a rejuvenated Ole Miss under Hugh Freeze and only 11 seniors on this year's MSU roster, and there are plenty of skeptics believing Mississippi State's zenith under Mullen has come and gone. Mullen doesn't think that's the case, nor does he see his program in the same rebuilding mode as when he arrived.

"With the first year, everything was new for everybody," he said. "It's not really comparable to that, because that was a year-one deal where everybody is trying to figure out what your expectations are within the program. I think our guys now understand those expectations, but when you have a small senior class, those guys are desperate and know that this is the end for them.

"Sometimes the younger guys know they have more time, and they are not as desperate, and I think motivating everybody as if they were seniors is going to be a key component."

Mississippi State opens its 2013 season against Oklahoma State at the Texas Kickoff Classic in Houston, and the Bulldogs will end it by hosting Ole Miss on Thanksgiving night. In between are trips to Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Arkansas as well as home dates with LSU and Alabama.

Reaching a fourth consecutive bowl would be a first for the Bulldogs, who had not concluded a year with a loss under Mullen until last season.

"With a lot of guys here, that is a motivating factor for them," Mullen said. "They were not pleased with how last year ended, and sometimes guys will put a little chip on their shoulder and have more energy out on that practice field."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.