You know that's it been a different kind of press conference when the final question begins "If you could go back in time and talk to Dan when he took the job ... " That question was to Dan Mullen, head coach of Mississippi State, the latest up-and-coming team in the ever-changing SEC.
The question was about the lessons Mullen has learned since he disembarked in Starkville after the 2008 season, fresh off a national title as the offensive coordinator with Florida and largely seen as a possible casualty of the brutal wars in the SEC West. Then, last year, Mullen got the Bulldogs to the Gator Bowl and ended the year ranked for the first time in years. So when Mullen started talking about championships this year, even cynical reporters who are likely to crown someone else as the SEC West favorite later this week listened with no trace of incredulity.
So perhaps it was fitting that the whole exercise seemed to involve discussion of alternate universes, given that it would have been hard to see Mississippi State in this position just a few years ago.
"Well, no, I mean, I live in the real world," Mullen said in response to a question about whether he could control rumors he would bolt for another head coaching job somewhere else. (The rumors themselves are a sign State is on the upswing.)
As for Chris Relf's state of being: "I don't need Chris Relf to be an Alex Smith or a Tim Tebow. I need Chris Relf to be a Chris Relf and do it the best he can." Which is a positive sign, since it would be impossible for Chris Relf to morph into another quarterback, at least in this dimension.
But other onetime long shots were possible, Mullen said. "We're going to start a new football facility this fall to help us develop our facilities to get them to the level we want them to be at, a level where I feel we can have the top facilities in the Southeastern Conference, and continue our goal to relentlessly pursue an SEC championship."
(Back in the present, Mullen also got in one of his traditional and not-so-subtle digs at Ole Miss. Asked about a Mississippi State billboard that greets those crossing into Mississippi with "Welcome to our state," Mullen admitted that some other schools in Mississippi might take offense. "Well, we got Southern Miss coming on the schedule soon in a couple years. Larry will probably get upset with the sign." He added, "To me, we are the state university for Mississippi. We're the people's university." Mullen's answer never mentions Ole Miss, even in the "school up north" formulation Mullen borrowed from Woody Hayes.)
While Mullen eschewed going back and doing things over, at least one of his players would like the chance. Relf was asked if he thought an SEC West championship was an achievable goal, and suggested that it was within reach last year, when the Bulldogs narrowly lost two games -- against Arkansas and Auburn -- that could have dramatically altered the division race had they gone the other way.
"Those games stay in my head all the time," Relf said.
Of course, you can't go back in time. If there are any championships to be won for Mississippi State, they will be clinched in the future. A future that looks increasingly bright even in the cold light of reality.