BATON ROUGE, La. – One time in eight games.
Under Dan Mullen’s watch, that’s how many times Mississippi State has beaten LSU. That might not seem like a rock-solid resume for a coach if a high-end job opens up.
However, the way the Bulldogs have recently played the Tigers off their feet more often than not, blended with Mullen’s impressive credentials and some new circumstances in Starkville, could propel Mullen into a prominent spot in the conversation of coaches to take over for fired LSU coach Les Miles.
LSU is hunting for somebody to replace Miles, and the most likely scenario involves an offense-minded coach taking the wheel. More specifically, an offense-minded coach who will bring a balanced scheme that has proven to work. Power Five experience would be a bonus, and if that’s in the SEC, all the better.
It’s hard to find a box Mullen doesn’t check off in that list.
Houston coach Tom Herman remains the hottest name in the LSU coaching search, and Herman certainly has a solid and evolving set of credentials. The strongest thing on his resume is his time with Urban Meyer at Ohio State where he was the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator for the 2014 national championship run.
The thing is, Mullen was Tom Herman before Herman, and for several longer stints at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida before he landed the head-coaching job at Mississippi State.
It hasn’t been idle time spent, either. Meyer often praises Mullen for their collaboration on the offense that has been the backbone of his success. Meyer has climbed into the rarefied air of being mentioned along with Nick Saban as the best coaches in the college game; Mullen helped him get there.
There aren’t a whole lot of other SEC coaches who have tutored quarterbacks as well as Mullen in the last 15 years. His success dates back to his days as at Bowling Green with two record-setting quarterbacks (Josh Harris and Omar Jacobs). He continued to achieve at a high level with Utah’s Alex Smith, who rang up huge numbers on the way to being the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. Then Mullen made an impact on Florida’s Tim Tebow during his Heisman Trophy-winning season in 2007. Most recently, his most prized pupil has been current Dallas Cowboys’ starter and budding star Dak Prescott.
Prescott was a diamond-in-the-rough recruit from tiny Haughton, La., who was overshadowed by bigger names in the state. Mullen saw something, convinced the strapping QB come to Starkville, and developed into an SEC star who established 10 single-season records in 2014 when State averaged a school-record 513.8 yards a game. Prescott was a fourth-round draft pick last April – the highest-drafted Bulldogs’ quarterback in school history.
Bottom line, quarterbacks flourish under Mullen and his offensive scheme works. Much like at Utah and Florida, the offense works because the Bulldogs run the ball effectively and have found quarterbacks who fit the system well and built from that. Mullen has shown he can adapt and has done so at two SEC schools with high-level success at both.
Something else Mullen has going in his favor: He has elevated the Bulldogs enough to a point where they have given LSU fits several times in his tenure, despite the 1-7 record.
Since that one breakthrough, a 34-29 win in 2014, LSU has beaten State 23-20 and 21-19. Yes, there have been some lopsided outcomes as well, but even in those games, the Bulldogs’ offense has managed to gouge the Tigers at times.
Until this season when LSU limited Mississippi State to 270 total yards, the Bulldogs averaged 472 yards a game against the Tigers.
Keep in mind, too, that Mullen and his coaches have found a way to make State competitive with LSU and other SEC heavyweights while recruiting most 2- and 3-star recruits while the Tigers, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and even recently Ole Miss and Tennessee are reeling in bigger names and ostensibly more polished high school players.
One major intangible that popped up late last month was Scott Stricklin being hired as Florida’s new athletic director.
That means now might be a perfect time for Mullen to hunt around and see what coaching fits are out there for him. His name has been bandied about for a lot of jobs the last few years, including several in the SEC, but an argument can be made that largely because of his efforts, the State post was better than most of those.
LSU is a better job than State. More resources. Deeper and more talented recruiting base. Mullen would undoubtedly get a sizable pay bump, although he might not demand as high a price tag as other potential candidates.
Something else LSU could see as a way Mullen fits the program’s needs: Hiring him could also help the Tigers retain first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who is considered one of the brightest defensive minds in the country. Mullen hasn’t had overwhelming success hiring defensive coordinators in his tenure, and having Aranda in place might be an equation that works for both parties.
One-for-eight is bad math no matter how you crunch the numbers, but are the variables behind those numbers strong enough for LSU to give Mullen a look? That seems like a real strong possibility.