Dan Mullen’s best and worst scoring games as a head coach

I’ve been playing with some numbers to try to create a model for predicting the number of points that Dan Mullen offenses score in games. I’ve gotten to a point where I can explain about 55% of the variance in offensive points scored, which is not bad, if not good enough to bet money on.

What that does do is allow me to pick out some of Mullen’s best and worst offensive showings by comparing the actual points scored against the model’s predicted points scored. These are only for the years in which Mullen was a head coach, as Urban Meyer had a big say in things back when Mullen was an offensive coordinator. I had to throw out all games against FCS opponents to run the model in the way I made it, and I also threw out 2009 to improve the predictive power. It was Mullen’s first year as a head coach and he inherited a dreadful roster from his predecessor, so it’s not representative of Mullen’s abilities anyway.

Keep in mind I looked at offensive points specifically, so the actual point totals below don’t count non-offensive touchdowns or safeties. The games I highlighted are the instances where Mullen’s offense scored more than 14 points above or below the model’s expectation.

Best Games

Memphis 2011: 40 projected points, 59 actual points

Memphis has turned itself into one of the stronger AAC teams, but this came from back when the program was dreadful. The team went 2-10 and lost to a 5-7 UCF team on the road 41-0. Mississippi State scored at least 14 points in every quarter.

Alabama 2017: 5 projected points, 24 actual points

This was easily the closest Mullen came to beating Alabama in his time in Starkville. He came by the points honestly, with all four scoring drives consisting of at least 56 yards with two of them at ten or more plays in length. The unfortunate ending that allowed Bama to win is something I catalogued at the end of this piece.

Michigan 2010: 34 projected points, 52 actual points

Mullen ended Rich Rodriguez’s ill-fated tenure in Ann Arbor by delivering the Wolverines their worst bowl loss in program history.

2016 Ole Miss: 30 projected points, 48 actual points

This was the win that prompted the famous scene of Mullen, smoking a cigar, exclaiming that the program he had to beat to recruit Nick Fitzgerald was “you tee chat-nooga“. This ended up being the last game Hugh Freeze coached in Oxford, capping off a 5-7 season where injuries and the gathering clouds of an NCAA investigation torpedoed the team.

Alabama 2011: -10 projected points, 7 actual points

By S&P+ offense, the 2011 Mississippi State team edged out the 2009 squad for Mullen’s worst offense as a head coach. The 2011 Bama defense was historically good, allowing a mere 7.1 points per game against FBS competition. That MSU scored at all was a win, and it did so on a 22-yard drive following a 68-yard kickoff return. It did blow a golden scoring chance earlier in the game, though, when an interception return to the Tide’s 4-yard-line resulted in a missed field goal. It was the second missed field goal on the day, meaning a better kicker might’ve gotten the Bulldogs to 13 points. Not bad for a projection of negative ten.

Troy 2013: 40 projected points, 55 actual points

Mullen’s offense scored 35 points in the second quarter against a 6-6 Troy team with an awful defense.

Florida State 2018: 26 projected points, 41 actual points

This is the second major rivalry contest on Mullen’s best games list. He doesn’t have Meyer’s sterling record in rivalry series — basically no one else except maybe Nick Saban does — but Mullen will run it up on sworn enemies when given the chance.

LSU 2017: 22 projected points, 37 actual points

Given MSU’s dismal historical record against LSU, this might be Mullen’s best overall win as a head coach. LSU was a fairly good team that year, and the Bulldogs whipped them as no one, not even Alabama, did that season. It made the country stand up and take notice.

Worst Games

UAB 2011: 42 projected points, 21 actual points

Will Muschamp’s first Florida team beat this UAB outfit 39-0. A 2-11 Tulane team beat them 49-10 the next week. A 7-6 Marshall team beat them 59-14. Yet in Birmingham, with no turnovers and only one missed field goal, MSU put just 21 points on them. Every CUSA opponent the Blazers faced that year scored more points than that on them. That’s how a 21-3 win ends up rated as Mullen’s worst offensive showing and the 2011 offense sinks to the bottom of the list.

Arkansas 2014: 34 projected points, 17 actual points

Both teams broke 400 total yards, yet the game ended up a 17-10 final. Dak Prescott threw for 331 yards, but he also chucked two picks. A third turnover came in the form of a muffed punt, while a personal foul disrupted another promising Bulldog drive. Sometimes you have to win ugly.

LSU 2010: 23 projected points, 7 actual points

Junior Chris Relf, always more of a runner than passer, threw two picks while redshirt freshman Tyler Russell threw three in the third game of the season. Future top ten NFL Draft picks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne had two interceptions each. Sometimes the talent gap really rears its head.

South Alabama 2016: 35 projected points, 20 actual points

This is the worst loss of Mullen’s time as a head coach. A big problem was he hadn’t picked a quarterback yet. Fitzgerald, who’d go on to rush for over 1,400 yards with sacks taken out of his running totals, only played the first two drives.

After those series ended as a pair of three-and-outs, Mullen switched to Damian Williams. The Bulldogs went TD-TD-FG-FG on the next four drives to go up 20-7, but a pair of missed field goals on MSU’s final two drives allowed USA to steal a 21-20 win. Fitzgerald set the MSU quarterback rushing record with 195 yards the next week in a 27-14 win over South Carolina and never looked back.