Georgia’s on his mind, too, what with the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta less than five months away, but it’s Alabama that Dan Mullen can’t stop thinking about.
He mentioned them again on Tuesday when going through the rotation at ESPN Studios in Bristol.
“We played Alabama with the SEC West Championship on the line,” Mullen told SportsCenter host Jaymee Sire.
It’s part pride and part frustration that keeps the game in question on Mullen’s mind. Pride that in the middle of November last year his team was No. 1 in the country, undefeated and playing divisional-foe Alabama with the SEC West on the line (and the overall SEC Title and a playoff spot, as Alabama demonstrated after winning). Those are the kinds of situations he wants his team in on a yearly basis.
It’s frustration because, well, he didn’t win the game. And maybe because he’s yet to beat Alabama since he got to Mississippi State, the only West team he hasn’t toppled in six years on the job.
At SEC Media Days last week, he field several early questions on that specific game, a 25-20 loss, but at the moment it seemed like it was just a large group of Alabama writers in an Alabama town asking about Alabama’s team. And that was the case at the time, but not as the day went on. Whether it’s been in his mind all offseason or it was just put there by the local reporters, the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs’ most recent bout against them was a topic Mullen continued to bring up himself throughout the day.
When a pair of reporters in the CBS room asked about offensive philosophy, Mullen immediately went into a spiel on the importance of scoring touchdowns in the redzone. His example? Alabama.
“We lost by five,” he told the duo, after reminding them the game was for the SEC West title. “We missed two chances in the redzone. We score on one of those, we win by two.”
It’s not that straightforward, of course, and Mullen knows that. But the point is again the same, he’s proud to have been there and bitter to have lost. He’s got hope going forward, though. Beyond his belief in having a good team, he’s now got something else he didn’t have last year if he finds himself in the same position again: experience.
Yes, MSU was the higher ranked team in the game last year. Yes, they’d already beaten a Top-10 team three times in that season alone, one on the road and two at home. But Alabama was favored to win the game anyway, and among the reasons for that was the simple fact that MSU had never been there before, had never played in a moment that big.
Looking back, Mullen admits being that close to winning the division – title banners, championship games and playoff appearances already dancing in their heads -affected his team.
“That’s the game that we were there [in the big moment],” Mullen told the Sirius/XM hosts. “We played poorly the first 15 minutes, then we won the game from then on.”
Those 15 or so minutes, as he mentioned, were the killer. In about a quarter-and-a-half, Bama jumped out to a 19-0 lead and looked like they were going to cruise to blowout victory over the No. 1 team in the country, a crew that clearly wasn’t ready for the moment. State’s first six drives ended in four punts, an interception and a safety, the first two points of the game.
“They got knocked down,” Mullen said, “but they got back up.”
After a bad start, the Bulldogs rallied. A 70-yard drive to end the first half got MSU on the board for the first time. A 67-yard drive to start the second half brought another score. Later, two touchdown drives totaled 110 yards between them, one of them MSU’s last drive of the game. But it was the two drives between those scoring marches that did MSU in, the missed redzone opportunities that have been bugging Mullen all summer.
Once, MSU went from it’s own 20 to Alabama’s 15, only to see an interception halt the momentum. A scoring drive followed, however, putting MSU right back in it. Then the next drive, the big moment came again. The Bulldogs drove from their own 26 to the Alabama 20, the land just before the Promised Land, only to see an interception halt the attempt again.
Despite those interceptions, though, Mullen was still right. His team outscored Nick Saban’s 20-6 over the final 2.5 quarters and actually out-gained them by almost 100 yards on the game as a whole, racking up 50 percent more first downs. There’s no moral victory in that, though. Not even close when, quite literally, everything is on the line.
All Mullen wants for his players now is another shot at glory.
“We want to be back in that game because now our guys have experienced that situation,” Mullen said. “I think we’re good enough to win the West.”