During his coaching career at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen has helped propel the Bulldogs into a pair of bowl games and both were wins over BCS foes. He's also pulled off victories over the likes of Florida, Georgia and three straight victories over rival Ole Miss.
But it's been noted often, particularly this offseason, that the Bulldogs need to get over the hump against SEC West foes. Including the trio of wins over Ole Miss, Mullen is just 3-12 versus SEC West competition.
The next opportunity to break that trend comes Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium when Auburn visits for an 11 a.m. kickoff on ESPN. But that trend, said Mullen, is something he doesn't think about but more about the big picture.
"We've beat Florida, Georgia, Michigan and beaten a lot of teams," said Mullen. "We lost a bunch of games, too, but I just think a lot about this season. My goal every year is to win the SEC West and to do that you really need to win your first conference game. That is always a battle but to be honest, I never thought about (3-12 record vs. SEC West)."
Last week MSU opened with an easy 56-9 win over Jackson State while Auburn fell to 14th-ranked Clemson 26-19 in its opener. Naturally, this is a big game for both teams that want to stay in the SEC West race.
"It's a big game for us and we've put a huge emphasis on it and I've talked about it over and over," said Mullen. "No. 1, if you want to compete for a championship you have to win all your home games and the competitiveness of being on the road in this league is tough. (It's) an opportunity to start the SEC season off at home against a West opponent. It is very important to find a way to win this football game."
Much like his own team did last week, Mullen said during Monday's press conference that he expects Auburn didn't show all of their hand against Clemson.
"They've got two new coordinators (defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder and offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler) so I don't know what else they are going to show that they decided not to show last week," said Mullen. "I am sure they held some things back and so there will still be some things we haven't seen out of them.
"So we have to be prepared for the unknown. But the key is to execute, take care of the football, play hard and we will have an opportunity to win the game."
Concerning Loeffler, Mullen is quite familiar with his background since they both served on the Florida staff at one time. But even then Mullen doesn't know what they will see on Saturday and it could be a combination of his background.
"I've known Scott a long time and good friends with Scott," said Mullen of Auburn's offensive coordinator. "His foundation and coming from Michigan and what he played in and coached in, I think he has added to it with some of the stuff we did at Florida. So it's a combination.
"I don't know if we got to see the total personality of that offense. Are they more Michigan or more spread-based? Or power running game? But it does have that flavor and touch of some spread offense in there."
Regardless of the scheme, one thing Mullen knows for sure is that the Bulldogs' defense must put pressure on Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier.
"Well, (Clemson) got some pressure on the quarterback," said Mullen. "But their quarterback (Frazier) is pretty mobile and can create on his own and he did in that game. I think they are gonna want to spread the ball around a little more. I think (Frazier) kinda got comfortable looking at one or two receivers and think we have to do a good job of trying to take away some of those guys away from him and make him go to his third and fourth option."
Mullen on MSU Offense
Yes, Mississippi State held an advantage in every aspect last week against Jackson State and did so with superior talent and depth. What changes this week, said Mullen, is the speed of the defense MSU will be facing.
"I think the speed of the game is going to be different this week," said Mullen. "We are going against a very athletic defense, a very experienced defense with a lot of guys that played for them last year. That adjustment will be a bit different for our guys but we go against a fast defense every day in training camp."
Last week against Jackson State, Tyler Russell completed 15-of-24 for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Mullen noted that Russell has played in big SEC games before and doesn't buy into the fact Saturday will be his first real test in the SEC.
"I think this is a bigger test for this season," said Mullen. "(Russell) started games last year and has been put in games and in big moments throughout his career. As far as that goes, I don't know about (Auburn) being his first real test. I think he's been tested but I think this is a much bigger test this week than last week was.
"I know he wants that role and wants the game to be put on his shoulders. He wants to be the leader and the guy out there making the plays and leading the offense."
Mullen also got to play a lot of guys on both sides of the ball versus Jackson State, particularly on the offensive line. Starting guards Gabe Jackson and Tobias Smith saw very little action but are expected to see many more reps against Auburn, said Mullen.
"I thought they played well and we got to play several of them," said Mullen of the Oline. "I was pleased with the way (right tackle) Charles Siddoway (played) and that was his first action in a game for us. I thought he played really well for us.
"Blaine Clausell was pretty steady and continues to improve. Damien Robinson got in there and did some really good things and then you could see some nerves coming through at other times, especially when you had him and Justin Malone next to one another. The communication aspect of it, and maybe not their performance, was a little hesitant in making the calls and a couple of mis-communications, which you expect in a first game."
Mullen on Special Teams
There were several Bulldogs that got scoring opportunities in the kicking game in MSU's opener, as well. Veteran punter Baker Swedenburg only had one opportunity but the Bulldogs used a trio of kickers against Jackson State.
Freshman Devon Bell missed the lone field-goal attempt by MSU in the opener and Bell and walkon Charlie Grandfield each kicked their share of extra points. Bell also split kickoff duties with junior Brian Egan.
"I thought they all did an excellent job," said Mullen of his kickers. "I think (freshman) Devon with the field goal, you could see he had a really fast get-off time. I think the juice got to him a little bit and he was fired up right there. His plant foot was way out of position. But to me that was energy and he was ready to go crush that ball. Instead of playing with emotion he played on emotion.
"Charlie Grandfield comes in with great get-off time and gets it right through the uprights. Then Egan has a couple of touchbacks in his opportunities on the field and Baker got to punt once and pinned them on the eight or nine-yard line.
"So the execution of the kickers was good and the young guys will have a lot more confidence in preparing this week now that they got that game under the belt."