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STARKVILLE, Miss. – Life as a top-five football program is completely new territory for Mississippi State's players.
Their coach, however, knows all about it.
One of the main reasons Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen six years ago was his experience as Florida's offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008. The Gators won two national championships during that time, quarterback Tim Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and the program dealt with a steady stream of unrelenting scrutiny.
That experience is coming in handy these days.
"In my years in the SEC, here's the one thing I've learned — if you win a big game, the gift is you get an even bigger one next week," Mullen said. "And that's about all you get."
The Bulldogs moved to No. 3 in the national rankings after a dominant 48-31 victory over Texas A&M last weekend. Quarterback Dak Prescott has jumped into the Heisman discussion after a stellar start to the season and now Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) hosts another pivotal game when No. 2 Auburn (5-0, 2-0) comes to town.
The hype continues to build around Starkville.
ESPN's "College Gameday" show is coming to campus for the first time later this week and the Bulldogs are suddenly national news. But inside the program, Mullen insists life hasn't changed much.
"I'm still just down there in the meetings trying to figure out how to score some points and how to shut the other team down," Mullen said.
Mississippi State has won eight straight games after starting last season with a 4-6 record. Prescott's rapid emergence into superstar territory is one obvious reason for the streak. The 6-foot-2 junior has thrown for 1,232 yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions and also ran for 455 yards and six touchdowns.
"I still think he's getting better every single day," Mullen said. "We had a great practice last night."
But the Bulldogs are much more than just Prescott.
Josh Robinson is fourth in the SEC with 592 rushing yards and averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
Middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney leads the team with 36 tackles and is sixth in the league with six tackles for a loss. He leads a defense that is giving up just 98.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the SEC.
The Bulldogs' roster also has much more depth, giving them a greater margin for error when dealing with injuries or other unforeseen problems.
For example: After starting center Dillon Day was suspended by the SEC for the Texas A&M game because of unsportsmanlike play, the Bulldogs simply moved Ben Beckwith from guard to center, promoted redshirt sophomore Devon Desper to a starting role and never missed a beat.
"We always talk about that you have to do your job," Mullen said. "You never know when your number is going to be called to make a play. You never know what play in the course of a game is going to be the one that changes it."
Now the Bulldogs must prepare for their biggest challenge to date. Auburn crushed LSU 41-7 last weekend and has scored at least 41 points in four out of its five games.
Mullen said the task ahead is sobering and should help keep the team focused, but he's also allowing his team to enjoy the moment.
Mississippi State currently shares its No. 3 ranking with Ole Miss, giving the state a rare spotlight in the college football world.
"That's pretty special for all the people here," Mullen said. "You're always hearing about maybe what Mississippi is last in or if it's a high ranking, it's something that's not great. But to be considered one of the best at something that's really dear to everyone's heart in this state ... it's pretty special."
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