August 16, 2013 11:24:03 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
STARKVILLE --Two coaches can't have more different opinions about a season-opening game than Dan Mullen and Mike Gundy.
The men who will be on opposite sidelines for the Texas Kickoff Classic, the season opener between Mississippi State University and No. 14 Oklahoma State University, have taken opposing views on nearly every aspect associated with the game.
Mullen, who is in his fifth year in Starkville, is projecting an energetic message about opening the season at Reliant Stadium in Houston in front of a national television audience (WKDH-WTVA / ESPN2). He has used words like "excited, motivated, challenge, and honor" to describe the Aug. 31 game against OSU.
"I think starting with a big-time game really draws that urgency from day one that the clock is ticking to kickoff," Mullen said Tuesday at the school's media day.
In Stillwater, Okla., Gundy, who is in his ninth season at OSU, has spent the past month talking about being forced to alter his schedule and routine because of the competitiveness of his team's first opponent. Gundy admitted to nearly leaving OSU in the offseason to become football coach at the University of Tennessee. He also has talked about future non-conference matchups signed by OSU Athletics Director Mike Holder.
"We've had a formula at Oklahoma State over the last really five, six, seven years we feel gives us the best chance to be strong, be in great shape, and be fresh at the end of the season so our teams can perform at the highest level," Gundy said at Big 12 Conference Media Day last month. "We have to alter that some when we play teams early in the season, particularly the first game, that are very capable of having success against your team if you don't play well."
Gundy's comments contrast the fact his team is a 13-point favorite against MSU and that it is used to playing Bowl Championship Series opponents in its first game.
"I don't know what Gundy's deal is," Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel said in a e-mail to The Dispatch. "The truth is, he hates any non-conference game that is competitive."
Tramel published a column Tuesday documenting it is common for OSU to play high-profile and competitive opponents in its first game of the season, debunking Gundy's notion that he and Holder had agreed to a "formula" to play a soft non-conference schedule.
In 2007 and 2009, OSU opened the season against the University of Georgia. OSU lost 35-14 in Athens, Ga., in 2007 but won 24-10 in Stillwater, Okla., in 2009, a game that christened Boone Pickens Stadium.
Prior to leaving for LSU, Les Miles spent four seasons as head coach in Stillwater. He saw the program open the season with road games at the University of Southern Mississippi (2001), Louisiana Tech University (2002), University of Nebraska (2003), and UCLA (2004).
In 13 years under Miles and Gundy, OSU has opened the season against a non-BCS opponent at home four times: Montana State University (2005), Missouri State University (2006), University of Louisiana-Lafayette (2011), and Savannah State University (2012).
"We've always talked, and we'll continue to talk," Holder said of Gundy. "He wants to play all his games in Stillwater, and I'm in the same camp. But it's not always practical or possible to do that. ... Whenever possible, we're going to schedule in Stillwater."
National pundits and experts project OSU to win the Big 12. The league's coaches voted that way last month in the preseason poll.
"I have Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 (because) I think everybody has to be impressed with their offense, but I think the defense has a chance to be better this year," ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Tuesday in his media conference call. "I think Mike Gundy deserves a ton of credit, and obviously the facility and the way they have upgraded, they are a legitimate top program now, not just in that conference. I think Oklahoma State has arrived with Mike Gundy's leadership."
The game against OSU will be the first time MSU will open a season against a BCS non-conference opponent under Mullen. It also will be the first time in a decade MSU has played a power opponent. MSU defeated the University of Oregon 42-34 in 2003. Mullen and Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin are two eras removed from Jackie Sherrill and Larry Templeton.
"This is a great opportunity for our team to open the 2013 season in an NFL stadium," Stricklin said. "It provides our fans a unique destination for the season opener. We have a great fan base in Texas, as well, who will be excited to see the Bulldogs play in their home state."
Mullen and Stricklin worked together to agree to the contract that pays MSU $2 million. They are on relatively the same page philosophically when it comes to playing competitive games early in the season, even with a challenging schedule of games remaining against Southeastern Conference opponents.
"My hope is we play a really good high-profile non-conference opponent every December or January," Stricklin said in 2011, referencing a bowl game. "I want to schedule in a way that allows us the opportunity to do that."
Stricklin told The Dispatch weeks after the game was announced he and Mullen spoke for several days about whether to accept ESPN's invitation by ESPN brokers to play in the Texas Kickoff Classic. Mullen convinced Stricklin his team would be prepared and liked the thought of going into the game with fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell.
"I think that focus they have when you enter camp knowing what a big game it's going to be week one of the season really changes the demeanor of the team, not just in training camp, but over the summer," Mullen said. "One comforting factor for us (is) we're going to play in a big game early (with) a fifth-year senior quarterback like Tyler Russell, (who) knows what is expected in big games, what is expected as a leader when he steps out on the field. (That) is certainly going to help us."
Mullen hasn't been involved in a high profile non-conference matchup since 2008, when as offensive coordinator at University of Florida he helped the Gators beat the University of Miami 26-3 in Gainesville, Fla. Then-Florida coach Urban Meyer and Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley saw the positives of playing the game.
"I probably better answer that question on Sept. 1, the day after that game, to see how we prefer it better," Mullen joked July 17 at SEC Media Days.
MSU's coaches have stressed to the players there's no better way to eliminate the negative thoughts from a 1-5 finish to the 2012 season than to upset a ranked opponent on national television to start the 2013 season.
"There's already a countdown after the way we finished the season last year," MSU junior tight end Malcolm Johnson said. "From the moment we walked off the field with that loss in Jacksonville (a 34-20 loss to Northwestern in the Gator Bowl), we knew that would be our next chance to show what we're capable of on a big stage."