In some ways, I feel like I could just copy and paste last year's Mississippi State preview introductory post here, update a few things, and call it a day.
It's just plain bad luck for Dan Mullen that he got to Starkville in 2009. Les Miles had LSU at a high level, Nick Saban's juggernaut finally fell into place, and Bobby Petrino's Arkansas was really taking off. Had he arrived in, say, 1995, it would be a different story. He could've been looking at an LSU with Gerry DiNardo and an Alabama soon to be under Mike DuBose's watch. Even when Petrino's program skidded out of control soon after the coach himself did, it was replaced by Kevin Sumlin's reinvigorated Texas A&M.
It's never going to be easy for Mississippi State to compete in the West, but it's especially not now when future college football hall of famers are running the two programs with the most natural advantages. Just to make it worse, the SEC decided to try to make a monster by adding a team from Texas to the division. Good luck, Bulldogs!
Mullen did have some milestones in 2012, at least, though even that gets tempered a bit. He beat West teams other than Ole Miss for the first time, notching victories over Auburn and Arkansas. Of course, they were both cratering, and Arkansas had long ago stopped trying by the time the 45-14 MSU win in late November rolled around. For the second time in Mullen's tenure, he won four conference games to avoid finishing below .500 in league play. Then again the four teams he beat went a combined 3-29 in conference play, and those three wins came against teams in that same grouping of four.
An eight-win season is nothing for Mississippi State ever to be upset about, but to say the least, the team didn't beat anyone worth bragging about. Worse, Mullen picked up his first Egg Bowl loss in ugly 41-24 fashion and then saw Ole Miss become the darlings of National Signing Day. Was 2010—with wins over (albeit wounded) bluebloods Georgia, Florida, and Michigan—the best it's ever going to get for his tenure there?
Just looking at the schedule, it appears as though last year's 8-5 record is going to be the ceiling. The non-conference actually features a tough game for once with Oklahoma State, and the East pair includes a trip to South Carolina. Toss in LSU, Alabama, and a game at Texas A&M, and at least five losses are fairly secure. That still leaves Ole Miss in Hugh Freeze's second year and the reclamation projects at Auburn and Arkansas to get past, though a doable 2-1 run there preserves the bowl streak. If Gus Malzahn or Bret Bielema work wonders with teams that aren't primed to quit on the coaches early in the season, however...
Well, this is still Mississippi State. Things could always be far worse than what they are now. The program will keep plugging away, avoiding the cellar as teams fall down but not getting into the rotation at the top either. That's good living for the program in a historical context, but you just have to wonder if that's what Mullen envisioned when he took the job four and a half years ago.