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October 26, 2012STARKVILLE, Miss. | Dan Mullen is in the midst of his best start as the fourth-year head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. To make it a historic season, though, he'll have to take his team to the next level.
With a bottom-heavy schedule that sees the No. 11 Bulldogs squaring off with three of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference Western Division in succession, Mississippi State has its destiny in its own hands more than halfway through the season.
Mullen became the school's 32nd head coach in 2009, the same season that another SEC West program got a new leader when Gene Chizik took over the Auburn program. Chizik is struggling with a 1-6 mark, while Mullen is unbeaten.
After going 5-7 in 2009, Mullen led the Bulldogs to bowls in 2010 and 2011, and with seven wins already this season, MSU is going bowling again. That Mullen has remained steady in the SEC West while Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas were competing for and winning championships, is a credit to the 40-year-old coach's program philosophy.
"As a coach you have to be consistent," Mullen said. "Our players know that. We try to be consistent in recruiting in what we tell our guys what our program is going to be like, what our program is and what the expectations are. Those expectations don't change.
"Whether I'm sitting in a parent's living room to their freshman year to their senior year our expectations are the same. We expect our guys to be willing to work really hard, be committed to our program, to be willing to sacrifice to be successful. That work ethic is why guys want to come here.
"We push them in every aspect of their life. The football part is the easy part to me. We push them in the classroom. We push them in the community. Because we stay very consistent that way with them you see consistent results on the field."
Critics of Mullen often point to his record against Western division opponents, which up until earlier this season included wins over only Ole Miss. The 28-10 home win against Auburn earlier this year ended that talking point, improving Mullen's record against SEC West foes to 4-12.
To take the program to the next level, he realizes he'll need more wins like that, starting with a victory over No. 1 Alabama.
"It should be a great challenge for us playing a team that does not show many weaknesses," Mullen said. "They are very well coached, well-disciplined and filled with talent at every position. They have had a top recruiting class for each of the last four or five years. Everyone on their roster is a four- or five-star prospect. They get those guys in position to make plays and have a real physical team.
"They don't make many mistakes and do not turn the ball over. They pound on you and pound on you and wait for you to make a mistake as the game goes on. It should be a great challenge for our guys as we will have to play our best game of the year. Obviously going into a hostile environment should be a good challenge for us."
Mullen has earned the reputation of being a players' coach.
"He pushes us all the time and tells us that being a champion is a way of life," sophomore tight end Malcolm Johnson said. "Not just on the field but off the field, too. He's preparing us for life all the field. It's the system year in and year out. The young guys buy in, so that when they get older they can be up to the level and help the young guys buy in.
"He's a player's coach. He's very intelligent on the field. He's good communication wise. He knows how to talk to a player. Because he's been an offensive coordinator at Florida, I think that gave him the player-coach relationship that you see today."
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.