July 16, 2014 10:46:18 AM
HOOVER, Ala. -- Dan Mullen has spent five seasons trying to build expectations at Mississippi State.
Now he has them.
Boasting a league-best 18 returning starters and helming a team that closed 2013 on a three-game winning streak, Mullen was calm and confident Tuesday as he talked about a team he believes could be the best he has had in Starkville during the morning session of Day 2 of the Southeastern Conference's Media Days.
"I think when you look at expectations on the season, I think how last season ended, with a lot of young guys coming back on our team, our team immediately put a lot of expectations on themselves," said Mullen, who enters his sixth season in Starkville with a career record of 36-28. "Our expectations are to find a way to get to Atlanta (the site of the SEC title game). That's what we can control and compete for an SEC championship this year."
Mullen and junior quarterback Dak Prescott, junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney, and senior safety Jay Hughes canvassed the second floor of the Wynfrey Hotel as MSU's contingent for SEC Media Days, the league's annual summer event that kicks off the countdown to football season. Mullen was the second coach to address the media, following South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and preceding Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
Only Spurrier, who has three-straight 11-win seasons, seemed as sure of his team as Mullen, who brings back 30 players with starting experience from a year ago.
Mullen believes that experience can be the backbone of a successful team in Starkville this season.
"We've built a solid foundation for our future," Mullen said. "Upon that foundation, we're trying to build a championship program. I don't think you can build that program without a foundation existing."
Pivotal to that foundation are Prescott and McKinney, two redshirt juniors who will be leaned upon for leadership on both sides of the ball. Prescott, who was second in the SEC last year with 25 touchdowns despite missing more than three games, is a linchpin for MSU's hopes.
"He can beat you with his arm, with his legs, he can run between the tackles, and he can run in the open field," Mullen said of Prescott, a Haughton, Louisiana, native. "Most importantly he has that will to win."
McKinney is the one of the SEC's most respected defenders and has been named to the Butkus Award watch list, an award given to the nation's best linebacker. The Rosa Fort native had 70 tackles, including seven for a loss as a sophomore.
While not shy about sharing his confidence about his team, Mullen also made clear he believes those feelings exist throughout the conference, particularly in the SEC West, which has produced seven of the SEC's last nine teams to compete for a national title.
"I think there's seven coaches in the SEC West that expect to find a way to Atlanta and win our side of the league," Mullen said. "That's not coach talk. There's seven coaches in the SEC West that ... expect to go to Atlanta. That's a pretty unique deal."
MSU went 7-6 (3-5 in the SEC) last season. But a strong finish, which included SEC wins at Arkansas and at home against Ole Miss before a 44-7 thrashing of Conference USA champion Rice in the Liberty Bowl, has the Bulldogs thinking big.
Count Hughes among the group that backs up his coach's quiet confidence. A senior with 44 career tackles, Hughes missed nearly all of 2013 after rupturing his Achilles tendon in a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State.
While he was sidelined for the remainder of the season, Hughes believes he watched a team grow up, mature, and turn into a team that could be a force in 2014.
"It's always good to win, and we finished strong," Hughes said. "Even though I was sitting out, sitting back I saw these guys finishing. We learned how to finish these games. Once you learn how to play all four quarters, the road is yours to take. We are excited."
MSU opens the season Aug. 31 by renewing a rivalry against Southern Mississippi. It will be the first meeting between the schools since 1990, a 13-10 win for MSU.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat.