After an inspiring performance against Alabama's vaunted offensive attack, the Bulldogs still have a loss on the schedule with two games left to play. Despite that, the Seal complex was as positive as it's been all season long as MSU now prepares to try to become bowl eligible for the fourth-consecutive season and Arkansas and Ole Miss still on the schedule. Dan Mullen knows now exactly what the Bulldogs have to do to get to that six-win mark and that's win.
"Historically speaking, if we win the next two games and finish 6-6 that doesn't seem like a banner season but we would have won inside the state of Arkansas for the first time in the history of the University. That's pretty historical," Mullen said. "We would have gone to four-consecutive bowl games for the first time. In context, there's an awful lot of things that this team can accomplish. I think our guys in the motivation for winning the game this week and winning the next game to get to a bowl game, there's an awful lot to play for. I don't know how many times we've won four out of five years, I know it's been done but not since I was born. We're building a foundation. A lot of teams had the foundation built and they're doing something that's been done before while we're trying to build a foundation to do things that haven't been done before."
The Bulldogs first test is the Arkansas Razorbacks who have seen a lot of ups and downs within the last two years. After a BCS bowl trip two years ago, Head Coach Bobby Petrino had an alleged relationship with an employee and was forced out as coach. A bizarre season last season gave way to Wisconsin Head Coach Brett Bielema who started the season strong at 3-0 against weak competition before really learning the rigors of the SEC. The Razorbacks are reeling with seven-consecutive losses and are the only winless team in the SEC West.
"It's a great challenging game for us. You look at Brett (Bielema) as the first year coach and the type of program that he's trying to build there, looks like they're playing a lot of young players. They have some very talented guys with two really talented young running backs and a big physical offensive line. They're one of the better running teams in the conference and they've run it on everybody. Defensively they've got a great front and they cause a lot of pressure on you. I think they've played great defense but they've been bit a lot by big plays it seems to me. The challenging part for that is they're going to be a physical outfit and we're going to have some challenges moving the ball."
Regardless of the rough start that Bielema has had, Mullen has the utmost respect for the Arkansas coach. Only once have to two really met but it was a touching gester by Bielema years ago that earned all the respect in the world from Mullen. Following the passing of MSU defensive end Nick Bell in 2010, Bielema sent a written letter to Mullen sending his condolences. It was something that impacted Mullen more than anyone would imagine.
"You are surprised because you get calls from people in the conference wishing you the best, but to take time to write a full letter out I thought it was a really neat deal," Mullen said of Bielema. "I think I met him once at the Fiesta Frolic deal that they used to have. It just shows the type of character that he is. I try to think that way too in my life. You don't know how much you're impacting other people. You try to do the right thing and he probably doesn't remember writing the letter. It made an impact on me."
One thing that might not impact him as much directly as people think is thoughts on if he is on the hotseat or not. The fifth-year coach mentioned that it isn't himself that he's worried about, but mostly his family being negatively affected by rumors or negative remarks. He sees it as part of the life of an SEC coach.
"I think you always have to completely block that off. Like one question about if you're on the hotseat. I hate to break it to you, if you're a coach in the SEC… I've been on the hotseat here for five years now. You can go over to Tuscaloosa and ask, if we would have won on Saturday night he would have been on the hotseat. You're about a game away in this league from that situation. I think that just comes with the territory and you have to accept that as part of coaching in this league."
"To be honest with you the toughest part is not on the coaches, it's on the families. When you get in this league, your families are out in public a lot more and I think that is a huge stress to me. I'm much more concerned with any affect it has on my family than it has on me. I deal in the realities. I'll put it this way, you're either on the way out the door for winning or on the way out the door for losing. I've had both and I'll take the winning over the losing, and I'm still here! Plan to be here for a long time."
Mullen feels like his team took a major step on Saturday night with its defensive effort but he also feels like they should have done more to win the game. He wants to see more players stepping up to the plate and taking leadership among the team.
"It wasn't good enough of a defensive game. A great defensive game is to hold them to one less point than we score and a great offensive game is to score more points than we give up. I thought we played physical. I think that the last game and this week can tie together. We've got to get in the cold tank and get all of the bruises healed up and everybody healthy and get ready for another punch-in-the-mouth physical game."
The most important note moving forward for Bulldog fans, the team and especially the coaches is who will be playing quarterback? Dak Prescott missed his first game of the season last week after injuring himself on a run late against Texas A&M. Nothing is known yet on him or Tyler Russell who got injured in the Alabama game at the start of the fourth quarter.
"I had a pretty good night throwing the ball last night," Mullen said in jest. "I got my arm loosened up and I'm going to go petition the NCAA. I know that's probably everybody's question and I know you're probably as frustrated as I am but everybody's day-to-day right now. They're getting treatments today and we don't practice until tomorrow afternoon so we'll see where everybody's at that point. You scratch your head and wonder sometimes if it was right to play Damian (Williams) and at this point it was looking like it was the right decision."
Williams was thrown into the lion's den against the Crimson Tide defense and Mullen felt he responded well. Having a true freshman get those opportunities is valuable for the rest of his career.
"Give him a lot of credit on Saturday night. The stage was never too big for him and he came in and was ready to go. We have to get him in the right mindset to be the guy and be ready to go if the rest of the guys aren't ready for us."
It was also cautioned that Williams hasn't taken many if any snaps with the first unit this season in practice because of the two healthy quarterbacks ahead of him. A lot of what MSU will see in practice depends on what they find out tomorrow on Prescott and Russell, but Williams will be prepared to play as usual.
"I think he had nine or 10 first team reps Saturday night, maybe 12," Mullen said with a laugh. "He hasn't gotten a lot of first team reps. He got some last night but those are also some watered-down first team reps because the first team really doesn't practice much on Sundays. I think a lot of it will depend on tomorrow. A lot depends on the available or being able to play question that always comes up. The trainer might say that a player is available but he's not going to be very effective on the field. That's a tough decision to make. I have to make a decision as a coach almost as a parent. We treat these guys like they're our kids. We're a lot more cautious with them than we are ourselves. If Damian is healthy and the other guys aren't, we'll go with Damian."
Mullen didn't have much more in the form of injuries as he mentioned everything was "status quo" with the exception of a few guys that have the flu. Linebacker Deontae Skinner, who was dressed on Saturday but did not play, should be good to go against Arkansas.