This weekend Mississippi State will play in what is likely its biggest game of the Dan Mullen era.
Since his arrival four years ago, Mullen has motivated his team that they have the potential to be a championship caliber team. Saturday against top-ranked Alabama the Bulldogs will see if they are ready for that challenge.
"When we came here we certainly wanted to be in this position," Mullen said. "We've had some good years but we haven't had the opportunity to play a game in the last weekend in October where the winner of this game is in first place in the SEC West. We haven't been in that position before and that's something I wanted to build. We wanted the opportunity to compete for SEC West championships and here we are in our fourth year in this position."
Although it is building to be a monumental measuring stick for Mullen's program, he has not changed up his weekly routine at practice. MSU is still on the same schedule that brought them to 7-0 on the year.
"I think (practices) have gone pretty good," Mullen said. "We haven't changed anything that we do. We've kept our regular schedule but you do see the guys around a little bit more. They are watching a little extra film and you can see their intensity picking up within the preparation."
It will be by far the biggest test of the year for the Bulldogs, who have played a relatively soft schedule to date. State's opponents are just a combined 19-32 and have not taken on a team ranked in the Top 25 on the year.
"We're pretty excited about this week," Mullen said. "It's a great opportunity for our guys. We look at this as a championship caliber game for us. As we get ready to play we've talked about that with our guys this week. When you get into championship games you've got to be ready to play for four quarters. There are going to be a lot of potential momentum swings back and forth and you'll have to weather the storm of those and the crowd and continue to have great focus and execution. You have to be ready to play hard and be ready for a 60-minute fight on Saturday night."
The Bulldogs have reached their undefeated mark by leading the nation in turnover margin at +17. Mississippi State has forced 21 turnovers this fall with 12 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.
Another major factor in the Bulldogs success has been its balance on offense. MSU is passing for 235.9 yards and rushing for an additional 181 yards. Mullen believes it will take another balanced effort to find the end zone against the Crimson Tide.
"This is the most balanced we've been and our guys certainly understand what they're doing," Mullen said. "They understand what our goal is and have really grown in the offense. I think playing against a team like Alabama you've got to have balance. They are the top defense in about every category that you can have in the nation but you're not going to beat them by going all run or all pass. You have to have balance and continue to run the ball whether you are having success or not. You have to try to continually pound the ball and take shots down the field."
Tyler Russell has been the key to the Bulldogs balance offensively. The junior quarterback has added the passing threat to their offense throwing for 1,573 yards, 15 touchdowns and only one interception.
Russell is the highest recruited quarterback to ever sign a letter of intent in school history. The Meridian, Miss., native was rated a four-star prospect and was a Parade All-American in the class of 2009. Russell had committed to play for State while Sylvester Croom was still the head coach and when Mullen arrived he had to rethink his decision.
"When I got hired on here Tyler was committed to us," Mullen said. "He de-committed for a little while because he wanted to take a visit, make sure and take his time getting to know me. I remember he called me the night before the national championship game when I was back coaching at Florida and said 'Coach, I want to be your quarterback and your leader'. I think he understood at that point we were going to build something special where players from the state of Mississippi could stay at home and have an opportunity to represent their state at their state university and play in championship level football games.
"I think when he realized that we were going to build that here and that was going to be our focus, he trusted in what we were going to do and build. He didn't want to just be a part of it, he wanted to be the leader and a major part of it. He's done a fabulous job throughout his career of being that leader and continually developing. He's really a major part of putting us in a position to play in this big of a game."
Aiding in the offensive success has been LaDarius Perkins. The junior running back leads the SEC in rushing at 103.4 yards per game. Perkins has carried 125 times for 724 yards and eight touchdowns averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Perkins is one of only two running backs in the FBS to score in every game this season.
"He's been in the system and knows what's going on," Mullen said. "He knows how to anticipate where the runs are going to be depending on what defense we see. For not being a big guy, he does run physically. People don't expect him to be as physical between the tackles so when he does hit it up inside and does get a crease he can make some explosive plays."