HOOVER, Ala. — When Dan Mullen came to Mississippi State three years ago and started talking about Southeastern Conference championships, the rhetoric seemed like wishful thinking.
Mullen said his program continues to "relentlessly pursue" an SEC championship, a goal that appears much more attainable now that Bulldogs are coming off their most successful season in more than a decade.
Mississippi State enters the fall with lofty expectations after a renaissance season that included a 9-4 record, national ranking and a dominating victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
The Bulldogs return several experienced starters, including quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard, who led a methodical but potent offense. At SEC Media Days on Wednesday, Mullen said his program has assembled enough good players to compete for a conference title.
"I think we have the talent to do it," Mullen said. "The question is, are we that team that this year is going to come together, that is going to gel, work a little harder, believe in themselves and believe in each other a little more than everybody else?
Mullen's quick turnaround has centered on getting the most out of players who were often lightly recruited or written off. Relf was buried on Mississippi State's depth chart during much of his early career, but has blossomed into one of the league's best quarterbacks entering his senior season.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Relf threw for 1,789 yards, rushed for 713 more and accounted for 32 touchdowns last season. He does have his issues, including bouts of inaccuracy with his passes. But Mullen has focused on the positive, which includes Relf's considerable running ability.
"We try to build around the strengths of our players," Mullen said. "It's taking the talent you have. I don't need Chris Relf to be an Alex Smith or a Tim Tebow. I need Chris Relf to be Chris Relf and do it the best he can. As a coach, I need to put him in a position to do those things."
Ballard is another surprise star. He rushed for 968 yards and set a school-record with 19 touchdowns last season after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Now the 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior comes into the season as the unquestioned leader in the backfield.
That's two star players who weren't necessarily the most coveted prospects.
"I'm not worried about four stars or two starts or anything like that," Relf said. "If you can play, you can play."
One of the few things that could stand in the way of Mississippi State's rise is the sheer depth of the SEC's Western Division. Alabama, LSU and Arkansas all have teams that have national title aspirations, while Auburn is depleted but still coming off a national championship.
"It's a league of men," Ballard said. "You've got to come ready to play each week, and if you can finish at the top, then you'll be one of the best teams in the country."
Now Mullen's charge is keeping the momentum going for a program that's brimming with confidence. There's been talk of expanding Davis Wade Stadium because of added ticket demand, record athletic donations and a billboard campaign that takes a not-so-subtle jab at rival Mississippi, with a "Welcome to our State" motto that capitalizes on the Bulldogs' last two wins in the Egg Bowl.
Mullen certainly isn't backing down now that Mississippi State's earned a little success.
"To me, we are the state university for Mississippi," Mullen said. "We're the people's university. It's really important for us and for me to get out there and make sure that we show that. I'd love nothing more than to win a championship for the people of Mississippi."