Is the monkey on or off?
And either way, is Mississippi State prepared for what happens next?
After MSU beat Auburn 28-10 on Saturday, many wanted to say the monkey was off of Dan Mullen’s back. It was his first signature win in the SEC West.
But Mullen himself? Well, he thinks, maybe, he just traded his old monkey for a newer, fatter one.
“I guess the monkey is off my back now?” Mullen joked after the game Saturday. “I view it as a bigger one jumped on.”
The bigger monkey is one of expectations. It’s also not one Mullen is unfamiliar with.
After going 9-4 in 2010 and finishing the season ranked 15th in the nation with a nationally-televised thrashing of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, MSU entered 2011 with high hopes and lots of attention.
By the final game of the season, the Bulldogs were 5-6 and had to beat Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl to even be bowl eligible.
Mullen said himself that his team got complacent after the big 2010 campaign. Now senior and All-American corner Johnthan Banks said the Bulldogs got big heads last season. They weren’t prepared to handle the success.
The monkey got them in 2011. Mullen is hoping it doesn’t get them again in 2012.
“I don’t know if we’re going to sneak up on anybody this year,” Mullen said. “That’s a good feeling to have. It’s a long season and we have to come back this week. There’s different kinds of adversity. The adversity of facing failure and the adversity of how you handle success.”
This week certainly will be big as MSU goes on the road to face Troy, mostly because Mullen needs to see his team handle the success of beating Auburn.
The difference, according to senior linebacker Cam Lawrence, is not only that MSU has learned from their past mistakes, but they aren’t surprised by what happened Saturday.
“We expected to get this win,” Lawrence said. “Maybe a couple years past, we’d be questioning, but this year there’s no doubt. It’s just the start of big things. We set the bar high and we’re going to get it now.”
Does it sound like coach speak? Maybe a little bit. But senior offensive lineman Tobias Smith said definitively it is not.
Again, he said, it’s different this time around. His team is both prepared and confident.
“This is our year,” Smith said. “We believe it. We really believe it. Like, two years ago we said we believed it. Last year we said we believed it. But this year we really believe it.”
Over the next month, MSU will be put to the test on both avoiding complacency and handling the monkey of expectations.
With two consecutive non-conference opponents, followed by a bye-week and a road game at Kentucky, the next several weeks could be big for MSU. They could also be dangerous.
After that stretch, and following games against both Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State, the Bulldogs hit a brutal stretch of all SEC West teams with a gauntlet of Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss to finish the season.
If State wins between now and then, and especially if it does so convincingly, we could be watching several highly-ranked matchups in October and November.
It will be then, Mullen says, when the proverbial monkey gets heavier.
“I hope in November we’re talking about an 800-pound gorilla jumping on my back,” Mullen said. “That’s what I want for our program.”