STARKVILLE – (AP) There was no big celebration when Mississippi State entered the national rankings on Sunday.
It’s another indication of how much things have changed for the Bulldogs in four seasons under coach Dan Mullen.
“I want it to be something that is expected for this program,” Mullen said.
It’s certainly becoming more common. The Bulldogs have been ranked for at least part of the past three seasons.
So as No. 23 Mississippi State (3-0) hosts South Alabama (1-2) in a non-conference game on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium, it will be business as usual. It’s the last game before the Bulldogs’ bye week, and Mullen said it’s important to enter the down time with some momentum.
So far, the Bulldogs have set a high standard. They’ve won their first three games of the season for the first time since 1999.
But Mullen has plenty of teaching material thanks to a surprisingly close 30-24 victory over Troy on Saturday. The Bulldogs’ defense gave up 572 yards of offense to the Trojans and needed a couple clutch fourth-quarter drives to pull out the road victory.
It was a game littered with mistakes. Mullen said he counted 22 missed tackles and 18 missed assignments on defense during film study, while the offense was hampered by more than a half dozen dropped passes.
“We have to perform to our level,” Mullen said. “That is the most critical thing. If we had made open-field tackles last week and had caught the ball, just those two little minor things we control, there would have been a very different outcome to that game.”
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell was one of the bright spots during Saturday’s win. He threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns and has been consistent in his first season as the full-time starter. He said moving into the national rankings was barely mentioned during team meetings.
“It comes up every now and then, but you’ve got to keep playing,” Russell said. “That’s not where we want to be. We want to be in the top half of (the Top 25). We’ve got to keep winning and keep playing.”
Mississippi State made up for its issues against Troy by forcing four turnovers while surrendering none. It’s been part of a larger trend this season – the Bulldogs have a 12-1 turnover advantage. Mullen said that’s a product of a veteran defense that doesn’t make many mistakes.
“I don’t know if a lot of our turnovers have been through guys just making spectacular plays,” Mullen said. “It’s been our guys running to the football and being where they’re supposed to be and playing hard.”
Russell’s development has been helped by a strong surrounding cast of seniors. LaDarius Perkins rushed for 179 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries against Troy while Chad Bumphis caught six passes for a career-high 180 yards and three touchdowns.
Bumphis has given the Bulldogs a consistent deep threat for the first time in years. He’s caught 10 passes for 236 yards and five touchdowns through three games.
“You want your seniors to play their best football, and I think he is playing the best football of his career,” Mullen said. “Chad is a guy who had a lot of success as a freshman, and I think has felt a lot of pressure as kind of a guy that is supposed to be a big-play guy for us throughout the years. I think now though he has the confidence, he knows what is going on out there on the field and he’s playing fast.”
The Bulldogs have a fairly manageable schedule over the next month, with home games against South Alabama, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee and a road game against Kentucky. That’s followed by a late-season stretch that will include showdowns with Western Division powers Alabama and LSU.
“You want to continue to improve,” Mullen said. “You talk about what type of team you’re going to be and you want to continually improve as the season goes on and start to peak in November.”