STARKVILLE – Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is coming off his two biggest wins in his six years in Starkville.
His reward is MSU’s toughest test yet.
One week after MSU dominated Texas A&M to knock off a second-consecutive top 10 team for the first time in school history, the Bulldogs will welcome in a third this weekend, as No. 2 Auburn pays a visit to the No. 3 Bulldogs in possibly the biggest home game the history of MSU’s football program.
“If you win a big game in this league, the gift is that you get an even bigger game the next week,” said Mullen at his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon. “And that’s about all you get. If we win this one, the next one will be even bigger. That’s just the way it is in this league.”
With that, MSU launched its game-week preparations for Auburn, which enters as the nation’s No. 2 team in the latest Associated Press poll, just ahead of No. 3 MSU, which is tied for that spot with in-state rival Ole Miss.
The game against Auburn presents MSU with an opportunity to move to 6-0 for the second time in three years under Mullen. But unlike 2012, when the Bulldogs started 7-0, the stakes for this Saturday’s top three clash are higher than any game ever played at MSU, a fact not lost on Mullen.
“It’s a really exciting time,” said Mullen. “It’s an exciting time at this university, exciting time to be a football fan in the state of Mississippi. For us to be doing our part in that, I’d proud of that.”
Saturday’s showdown between Auburn and MSU will be broadcast nationally on CBS at 2:30 p.m., and ESPN’s weekly college football lead-in show, College Gameday, will emanate from MSU’s tailgating area, The Junction, from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m.
“To have Gameday is neat for our program,” said Mullen. “Last week I think the nation saw how unique our atmosphere is. We obviously had a homefield advantage against Texas A&M as our students and our entire fanbase did a good job of showing up and being loud for the whole game.”
Saturday’s meeting between Auburn and MSU will be the renewal of a series that has been among the SEC’s best in recent years. The Tigers have won four of five over the Bulldogs in Mullen’s previous five season, though three of the four wins have come by a touchdown or less, including last year’s 24-20 win at home.
This season, a year after finishing 13-2 and losing in the final BCS National Championship Game to Florida State, the Tigers are off to a 5-0 start under second-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
Auburn, which Mullen says “Will be the best team we’ve faced this year,” will bring one of the nation’s top offenses to Starkville, as the Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in rushing offense and tops the league in scoring in conference games. On the other side, the Bulldogs are third in rushing offense and remain second in the league in conference scoring after combining for 72 points in wins over then-No. 8 LSU and then-No. 6 Texas A&M.
With the SEC, Auburn has started 2-0 with a 48-27 win over Arkansas and a 41-7 blowout of LSU. But Saturday’s meeting in Starkville will be the first SEC road test of the season for Auburn, which last visited Starkville in 2012 and left with a 28-10 loss.
For Mullen, Auburn’s offense will present a challenge for an MSU defense that limited high-scoring Texas A&M to just 17 points through three quarters.
“We’ve faced a lot of personality changes the last three weeks,” said Mullen. “You go from the two-tight end, I-form look (LSU) to five-wide, spread them out passing offense last week (Texas A&M). Now we get to face a team that’s balanced. I think they look a lot like us in their balance. They have a very athletic quarterback and they’re a going to spread it around so much. It’s certainly a challenge for our defense.”
By Monday afternoon, two days after the second-largest crowd ever (61,133) watched MSU beat Texas A&M, tickets were scarce for this weekend’s visit from Auburn. The school announced that only standing room only tickets remained for Saturday’s game, and the announcement of a sellout is expected at any moment.
For Mullen, the excitement around the program, ranked in the AP Top 5 for the first time in school history, has been a welcome sight.
“I’ll tell you, walking through the Junction for Dawg Walk Saturday morning, it was one of the loudest I’ve ever heard,” said Mullen. “And that was at 9 in the morning. The fact that we’re now selling standing-room only seats tells me we are going to have another great crowd and they’re going to give us that homefield advantage that we’re going to need, because Auburn is a great football team.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker @BWonStateBeat