Since Dan Mullen's first year in Starkville in 2009, he has worked feverishly to create a winning culture for the Bulldogs. Considering success on the field for the Bulldogs over the years has been few and far between, I would say Mullen has done a pretty darn good job up to this point.
From back-to-back bowl wins, 16 straight home sellouts, beating your in-state rival three straight times and now breaking ground on new facilities and stadium expansion, expectations are at an all-time high in Starkville.
But expectations are just that: expectations. For those expectations to become reality, certain hurdles must be jumped. For the Bulldogs, there are five burning questions heading into Saturday's opener vs. Jackson State that will soon be answered, and those questions will determine if the Maroons are stuck on average or ready to slap high-fives with the SEC West big boys.
If there is one school in the SEC that has been known for a place where quarterbacks go to die, it is Mississippi State. State fans have longed for the day they can be proud of their quarterback and say "look what our guy did." In steps Mississippi-born and -raised Tyler Russell.
After waiting three years and seeing limited action, the pocket passer from Meridian, MS finally gets his chance. The heralded recruit has had limited action during his time in Starkville and many question his durability and effectiveness throwing the football.
One person that does not question him is Dan Mullen, who has totally overhauled his offense to fit Russell's skill set.
It is now or never for Russell and even though the Bulldogs will still rely heavily on the run game, it is all hands on deck for the passing game with Russell and five senior receivers. As Russell goes, so go the Bulldogs.
Last year, Mississippi State knew they had two really good defensive tackles in Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox. Cox, now in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Boyd, who returns for his senior season, proved as much in 2011.
The one big question mark was at defensive end where State struggled mightily to get pressure on the quarterback and have a presence on the edge of the front seven.
In walks JUCO defensive end Denico Autry. Autry is long, lean and has a nose for the quarterback. Just last year he had 11 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss for East Mississippi Junior College and at times put up PlayStation-type numbers.
If Autry brings the same tenacity and production to the field starting this Saturday, then this deep Bulldog defense gets even deeper.
The Bulldogs desperately need Autry to contribute off the edge.
Senior receiver Chad Bumphis, much like Tyler Russell, is from the State of Mississippi and was one of Dan Mullen's first recruits. In fact, many raved of Mullen being able to use Bumphis much like a Percy Harvin at Florida.
Bumphis started off strong early in his career, but his production dropped drastically from 2010 to 2011.
Many feel the drop in production was in part to inconsistent play from then-quarterback Chris Relf—among other things.
Bumphis needs to return to his 2010 form where he is not only a threat in the passing game, but is making plays in the return game as well.
When Dan Mullen won his first Egg Bowl in 2009, he proclaimed "There's certainly one program in this state that's definitely on the rise and going in the right direction." Then after the 2010 victory in Oxford, Mullen said "we're never losing to this team again."
So far he is right, as the Bulldogs have won three straight over the Rebels.
Many feel Mullen is entirely obsessed with the rivalry. While there may be some truth to that, Mullen has put a serious emphasis on beating his in-state rival on the field, bringing kids from Mississippi to campus in Starkville and getting to bowl games. So far, that strategy has worked.
For that success to continue, Mullen must again travel to Oxford this year and try to grab win No. 4 against a revived Ole Miss team under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze.
For all that Dan Mullen has done for Starkville and Mississippi State football since his arrival in 2009, the one big mark against him is that he has only won three games against opposition in the Western Division—all coming against Ole Miss.
Let's not kid ourselves, as this is not your uncle's SEC West we are dealing with. Three teams (Auburn, LSU and Alabama) have won the national championship in recent years.
Still, Mullen and the Bulldogs have been ever so close over the last few years to knocking off several of their SEC Western Division foes, but have come up just short.
For Mississippi State to knock off someone not named Ole Miss in the West in 2012, it all begins with Tyler Russell. Russell is the leader of this team and as he goes, so goes Mississippi State.
Chad Bumphis, Denico Autry, John Banks and others must be the players everyone has expected them to be throughout the preseason.
For this season to be that "next step" season that many Bulldog fans are anticipating, State must beat someone in the West besides Ole Miss.
The great thing about football is that the talking eventually stops and you have to prove it on the field, and those proving grounds start taking place in just a few days.
Everyone will be watching to see if the Dan Mullen hype is well, hype, or if his team really is ready to take that next step.