STARKVILLE, Miss. — Every year, football players all say the same thing, about how each game is just as important as the others, and you have to take them all one at a time.
Don’t blame them. The clichés keep everyone from providing excessive bulletin board material and getting into trouble with their coaches.
But when it comes to Mississippi State, there really is one early game that needs to be circled on the 2015 schedule, because it’ll likely dictate the tone of the whole season.
It’s the same game that essentially started last year’s epic run, LSU, which had previously won 14 straight meetings, and 21 of 22 against the Bulldogs.
This time the Tigers will be visiting on Sept. 12 (9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Win, and everything is possible. Lose, and Mississippi State could quickly find itself in a very big hole in the Southeastern Conference’s West Division.
Perhaps that’s why Dan Mullen stated at SEC media days: “This is my seventh year coming here, and I think all seven years they've pretty much picked us to finish last in the West. It's kind of like a tradition, I guess.”
He said that before his team was listed last in the predicted order of finish, and on the outside looking in of the Top 25 in the preseason Associated Press Poll. Mullen’s been playing the respect card so loudly that one wouldn’t be surprised to see him followed around by a person carrying a boombox playing Aretha Franklin.
The Bulldogs know this tune well, as it’s a theme they’ve heard over and over again over the years, about how no one gives them enough credit and they’re left proving their critics wrong.
“I definitely have a big chip,” senior quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We’re never predicted to be at the top of the SEC, so we go in every year with a chip. To have the kind of season that we had last year and to be placed wherever we’re placed, that chip is going to grow a little bit.”
Last year, of course, Mississippi State was on top of the college football world for a while. After being unranked in the AP poll for all of September, it knocked off three straight top-10 teams, including No. 2 Auburn, to move into the No. 1 slot.
|When National Champions Took Over No. 1 For Good|
|Year, Team||Took over No. 1 in AP poll|
|2014 Ohio State||Final poll|
|2013 Florida State||Dec. 1|
|2012 Alabama||Final poll|
|2011 Alabama||Final poll|
|2010 Auburn||Dec. 5|
|2009 Alabama||Dec. 6|
|2008 Florida||Dec. 7|
|2007 LSU||Final poll|
|2006 Florida||Final poll|
|2005 Texas||Final poll|
|Compiled by the author|
It stayed there until running into Alabama a month later, and combined with subsequent losses against Ole Miss and Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl finished No. 11.
What Mississippi State learned during its first trip to the top of the rankings was just how difficult being the bullseye can be, and that it’s a lot tougher staying No. 1 than getting there.
“Definitely to stay,” Prescott said. “To go from hunting to being the hunted. We were just getting everybody’s best shot.”
“That’s why we tip our hats to the Alabamas of the world, or the Ohio States or Oregons, because it’s hard to do that, to get to that spot and maintain it,” defensive end Ryan Brown said.
Only no team has really been able to do so over the past 10 years. The most recent champion, Ohio State, followed everyone else’s example in that it didn’t land at No. 1 until the end of last season. The only program to buck the trend and regain No. 1 in the final AP poll after losing it during the season was Alabama (in 2009 and 2012).
Give Mississippi State a ton of credit for getting a good look at college football’s promised land, but Mullen knows this season has the potential to be comparable or possibly play out even better for the Bulldogs, which he’s been preaching, but very few people outside of the state have been hearing.
Here’s what they see when they look at the 2015 team:
Four returning starters on offense.
Four returning starters on defense.
An offensive line that has to find three new starters and has a big question mark at center.
No one in the backfield had more than 300 rushing yards last season.
The defense was last in the SEC in passing yards allowed (No. 117 nationally) and 10th in total defense. It gave up 532 yards in the Egg Bowl and 577 to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Now here’s what Mullen sees:
Numerous players returning with game experience. For example, running back Ashton Shumpert had 207 rushing yards over the final four games of last season, and Mississippi State appears to have some depth at the position.
Seven players who have caught a touchdown pass returned, giving Prescott numerous options.
Defensive lineman Chris Jones has just three starts while playing in 26 games, and has totaled 58 tackles, 10½ for a loss and six sacks.
Beniquez Brown was second in team tackles in 2014, and Gerri Green has a lot of potential at middle linebacker.
Last year’s defense was clutch on third downs and in the red zone. New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who held the same position in 2010 before being hired away by Texas, will try to maintain that while striving to improve the pass defense.
Will Redmond has played in 20 games, with 74 tackles, 5½ for a loss and three interceptions, giving the coaches a second senior corner, with the other being Taveze Calhoun.
“They're not returning starters because they didn't play the first play of the game,” Mullen said. “I don't view that as a real negative, which I love that maybe people look past us, underestimate us, say they don't have much of a chance this year.”
Considering the way the Bulldogs have started to add some depth, the key may be how long it takes things to come together. Thus, the LSU game features to be huge because two weeks later, Mississippi State plays a tough back-to-back on the road at Auburn and Texas A&M.
The obvious danger there is an 0-1 conference start could snowball into 0-3. As long as Mississippi State avoids that, it’ll be in the running when the division is finally decided in November.
That’s when the Bulldogs finish up with a brutal stretch of games at Missouri, Alabama, at Arkansas and finally Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. All four teams were ranked in the preseason polls.
“We talk about it every day,” Calhoun said. “When things get hard, we’re working out, running or whatever it may be, we always think about the last three games of last year. We have to learn how to finish.”
It should have all the motivation it needs.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer.
Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.