Can Bulldogs reclaim state of Mississippi after Rebels' rise?
Dan Mullen had a firm grip on the Magnolia State.
It began with his victory over Ole Miss in his first season at 2009, when the Mississippi State coach grabbed the microphone at Davis Wade Stadium and said "There’s only one school in this state that's on the rise."
Four for years, he was right.
Mullen's Bulldogs dominated the series, beating the team he refers to -- in a very Woody Hayes way -- as "That School Up North" every time including a 28-point romp in '11 in Starkville that was the biggest margin of victory in the series since 1919 and Mississippi State had its first three-game streak over the Rebels in 79 years.
But then something happened: Hugh Freeze.
The energetic first-year coach and his uptempo, spread offense overwhelmed the then-No. 25 Bulldogs, racking up 41 points and 527 yards. Then they dominated in recruiting, bringing in a top-10 class headlined by the nation's No. 1 recruit in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche. Mullen and Mississippi State were 22nd overall and ninth in the SEC.
The momentum, it would seem, is swinging toward Oxford. But Mullen sees it more as putting a bigger spotlight on the Egg Bowl.
"They come up, are starting to create some stir," Mullen said. "I think certainly when you go around the state of Mississippi, it will make Thanksgiving night this fall a pretty important day throughout the whole state. Not that it hasn't been before, but I think it is going to draw a lot more attention to it nationally, how important and big that rivalry is for everybody in our state."
Ultimately what Mullen is saying without saying it is that the stakes have been raised, though that would be the case for the Bulldogs even if their in-state rival weren't on the upswing.
Mullen has built a strong foundation, averaging eight wins per season and making three straight bowl appearances, something that has happened just once in the program's history. But that can get lost in the SEC, home of the last seven straight BCS champs and become even more irrelevant in a division that has delivered six of them. Having the added nuisance/pressure of the Rebels improving only hastens the notion that Mullen's program is one in need of a breakthrough.
On the surface, Mississippi State looked to headed for one last season. It won its first seven games and rose as high as 13th in the Associated Press' Top 25 poll. But that start carried with the caveats of coming against one team that would end the year with a winning record (Middle Tennessee), an FCS school (Jackson State), another transitioning to FBS resignation (South Alabama) and three SEC squads that combined for 10 wins in Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Then the wheels fell off as the Bulldogs went 1-5 the rest of the way, dropping three straight games to Alabama (by 31 points), Texas A&M (25 points) and LSU (20). After beating four-win Arkansas two more losses came via the Rebels and Northwestern in the Gator Bowl.
"A little stretch, we were 7‑0 at one point in the season, playing in some pretty important football games later in the season," Mullen said. "That's the first time for guys in our program that they've been playing in those level of games that late in the season."
A year later, the Bulldogs at least return from that rough finish more experienced behind quarterback Tyler Russell -- the poster child of the team's erratic season, he threw for 19 touchdowns and one interception in the eight wins and five TDs and eight picks in the losses -- a 1,000-yard rusher in running back LaDarius Perkins and a line with four starters back, led by preseason All-SEC first-teamer Gabe Jackson.
Defensively, the return a budding star in linebacker Benardrick McKinney, a first-team Freshman All-American and 17 1/2 tackles for loss among McKinney, end Denico Autry, middle LB Deontae Skinner and free safety Nickoe Whitley.
But the top three receivers from '12 are gone, the defense is without Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks and his running mate, Darius Slay. Oh and there's a daunting schedule that opens with the Coaches Poll's No. 14 Oklahoma State in Houston, and then a daunting final five games of at No. 7 South Carolina, at No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 1 Alabama, at Arkansas and the Egg Bowl at Mississippi State.
"If we start off the season 7‑0, I think our guys are going to know how to handle that adversity a little bit better, not potentially let one game spiral into multiple games with the disappointment," he said.
There in lies the biggest challenge for Mullen. He has established a baseline in his first four seasons, but it's both his product and his curse. To become something more than an afterthought in the toughest division in college football, eight wins and a bowl game aren't going to make a splash.
"What we've tried to do in building a program at Mississippi State is build consistency, build a team that can consistently win," he said. "As you consistently win, at that point you're going to have the opportunity to go on and continue to take those next steps and go compete, which our ultimate goal is to find a way to get to Atlanta and compete for an SEC championship."
That need to take the next step has only been amplified with "That School Up North" stealing the thunder on the field and on National Signing Day.
How will the Bulldogs respond? Ownership of the Magnolia State likely hangs in the balance.