STARKVILLE, Miss. >> Mississippi State’s four previous season openers under coach Dan Mullen have been laughers, with the Bulldogs beating overmatched opponents by an average of nearly 44 points.
Humor might be harder to find this Saturday.
Mississippi State faces No. 13 Oklahoma State at Reliant Stadium in Houston in the toughest opener of Mullen’s tenure. The marquee matchup on a neutral field brings the potential for a galvanizing victory, but also the risk of a humbling loss.
Mullen said playing such a difficult opponent isn’t necessarily a problem, but poses different challenges. In easier openers, he could slowly work freshmen into the playing rotation and in situations where they’d likely find success.
That’s a luxury he won’t have against the Cowboys. He estimated that “six or seven” freshmen would make the trip to Houston and many would be on the field regardless of the situation.
“It’s a little harder in this game,” Mullen said. “This is what amounts to a big-time game right from day one. So you’re treating this game like you would a game in November when you’re competing for a conference championship. It’s at that level.”
Oklahoma State is known for its prolific offense that averaged about 45 points per game last season. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy hasn’t chosen a starting quarterback during preseason practice, but both options — senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh — played a lot in 2012 and had success.
It’s an intriguing challenge for Mississippi State’s young secondary that’s using three new starters. Junior safety Jay Hughes — who is one of those new starters — said the Bulldogs will be ready.
“They say we’re the weakest part of the team,” Hughes said. “But this is our chance to show the country what we can do.”
Mississippi State linebacker Deontae Skinner said the Bulldogs must bounce back from adversity on Saturday, because it’s highly unlikely the Bulldogs will keep the Cowboys completely off the scoreboard.
“You’ve got to understand the dos and don’ts of the big picture,” Skinner said. “Sometimes you get scored on and sometimes you don’t. But being a leader, you’ve got to show the young guys the game is never over until the clock hits zero.”
Mississippi State’s offense has fewer question marks, with senior quarterback Tyler Russell leading the way. But Russell will be throwing to several new receivers and there are also new faces on the offensive line.
“You feel the ability is there, no doubt,” Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “I mean we feel we’re very proud of the receivers we’ve brought in. I think it’s how quick they can retain and how quick they can get on the field, how quick they can feel comfortable in what they’re doing.”
The game is a chance for the Bulldogs to prove they can play with one of the country’s best teams. Mississippi State started last season with a 7-0 record, but lost five of its last six games, including all four against ranked opponents.
Mullen said win or lose, the game is also a great showcase for the program, which has made three straight bowl games for only the second time in school history.
Both teams are used to having success in season openers. Oklahoma State has won five straight while Mississippi State has won four in a row.
“The opportunity to play in this type of game is special no matter what the outcome,” Mullen said. “Obviously, it’s more special if you win, but every game is that way. It is a great honor for us to get invited to play in this game and it shows what our program has become.”