Breaking down Dan Mullen’s excellent record at Mississippi State

It’s natural to react with a certain skepticism when a school hires an assistant from the glory days to be its head coach. I can think of a few examples: Florida with Ron Zook, Nebraska with Frank Solich, USC with Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. It’s rare that it ever works out.

There may be an element of that with the Gators hiring Dan Mullen, but it’s a vastly different situation than the ones I mentioned above. The reason is because, unlike those others I mentioned, Mullen has gone elsewhere and established himself as a tremendous head football coach.

It’s important to put into perspective what Mullen did at Mississippi State. He was 69-46 (.600) overall and 33-39 (.458) in conference play. He is the best coach the Bulldogs have had since World War II and has a solid claim to being the second-best in school history.

The one who rates at the top is Allyn McKeen, who worked in a very different era back in 1939-48. He went 65-19-3 (.764) overall and 29-16-2 (.638) in conference play. He also won the program’s only SEC title in 1941. Since McKeen left, the only coaches to finish above .500 for their tenures there besides Mullen were a pair of guys who did two-year stints in the early 1950s who excelled elsewhere: Murray Warmath, winner of the 1960 national title at Minnesota, and Texas legend Darrell Royal.

MSU’s all-time winning percentage is .492, and its all-time winning percentage against current SEC members is .353. Mullen’s rates of winning are about ten percentage points above those. It’s true that the 12th game on the schedule has afforded him nine wins over FCS teams, but he’s still comfortably ahead of his postwar peers without them.

The fact that Mullen’s record in Starkville needs defending at all is proof of how much he’s changed the perception of what the Mississippi State job is and can be.

The guy he replaced, Sylvester Croom, was an NFL position coach before and after holding the head coaching job there. Before him was Jackie Sherrill, who took it as a rebound job after NCAA scandal chased him from Texas A&M. Before him was Rockey Felker, a former Bulldog quarterback who was hired from being an Alabama position coach and never was a head coach elsewhere. Before him was Emory Bellard, who had resigned under pressure from Texas A&M for not winning enough games and finished above .500 in Starkville just twice in seven seasons.

You get the picture by now. Mississippi State football is the Kentucky of the SEC West, and Mullen succeeded there like none other in the last 70 years. The wins came despite coaching in the tougher half of the SEC during one of its toughest stretches in history.

It took a little time before Mullen’s offenses became consistently good as he worked through the inaccurate passers he inherited and learned his John Brantley-in-a-spread-option lesson with Tyler Russell (an experiment never to be repeated, hopefully). Things really got going once he had good signal callers that fit his system in Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald.

MSU averaged over 30 points per game each of the last four years. Florida has done that once — in 2014, 30.3 per game — in the eight years since Tim Tebow graduated.

Prescott led the SEC in total offense in 2014, while Fitzgerald did so in 2016. Fitzgerald’s 2016 season was amazing: 1,454 rushing yards on 181 non-sack carries (8.0 per rush), and even with sacks included, he set new SEC records for 100-yard rushing games (eight) and yards per carry (7.1) by a quarterback. His 1,375 official rushing yards with sacks included would be second in UF history only behind Emmitt Smith’s 1,599 in 1989.

Critically for an offensive head coach, Mullen never forgot about defense. He only once had a unit outside the top 40 of S&P+ defense, in 2016 when he made an ill-fated defensive coordinator hire in Peter Sirmon (who left for Louisville after that one year at MSU).

UF demands better than a top-40 defense, of course, but the excellent 2015 and 2016 Gator defenses were run by Geoff Collins. Mullen was the first guy to give Collins a defensive coordinator job at the Power 5 level. The same is true for Manny Díaz, who’s running one of this year’s better defenses at Miami right now. Mullen swung and missed with giving Sirmon his first defensive coordinator gig of his career, but Mullen should be able to hire an established figure at Florida. Plus, some of Mullen’s most highly rated recruits were defensive players.

Speaking of recruiting, Mullen has had top 25 recruiting classes four of the last six years in the 247 Sports Composite. The exceptions were 36th in 2014 and 28th with a small, 20-player class in 2016.

Again, these are not ranks that UF would be satisfied with. Even so, Mullen won 41 games in the SEC West versus 34 wins for Florida in the SEC East over the last five seasons. The Gators still lag him even if you give them their three weather-related cancelations of cupcake games back.

In any event, Mullen was recruiting to a small town in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi to a program with three ten-win seasons ever. It’s impressive that he turned it into a consistent top 25 recruiting program despite his state producing little talent outside its JUCOs, having to fight with true blue bloods in the same region, and, as we’ve come to find out, doing battle with an in-state rival that was breaking NCAA rules in recent years.

Mullen has been winning in one of the country’s most difficult power conference jobs despite the place’s inherent disadvantages. Now, we’ll get to see what he’s like when he has the resources to hire and keep nearly any assistant he wants, a top program to sell to attract a higher caliber of recruit, and a talent level he could only dream of in Starkville. The last time he had that to any extent, he ran an offense that scored 42.4 and 43.6 points per game in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Those are marks that only the Johnny Manziel Texas A&M squads have since eclipsed among SEC teams.

It is true that Florida is hiring someone from its most recent glory days with Dan Mullen. However in the time between then and now, Mullen produced legitimate glory days for Mississippi State, the likes of which few living Bulldog fans can remember. It may not be four BCS bowls at Oregon or an undefeated season at UCF, but it’s nine years of turning rubble into respectability.

Pretty soon, Mullen will have the chance to achieve success as a head football coach that doesn’t require any caveats or explanation at all.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2