Mississippi State Bulldogs

Stark reality in Starkville: Dan Mullen has the SEC’s toughest job

08 October 2016: Mississippi State Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) talks with Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen on the sideline during the Auburn Tigers 38-14 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi.  (Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire).
Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire

Last week, both CBS’s Gary Danielson and longtime LSU writer Randy Rosetta on this very website mentioned the possibility of Dan Mullen being a candidate to replace Les Miles. Now, after Mississippi State trailed 35-0 at the half of a 38-14 loss to Auburn on Saturday, it’s not difficult to find speculation on whether Mullen will lose his job this year. One notable MSU fan site has already published an editorial demanding a sharp turnaround or else a pink slip for the head coach.

Simply put, the idea that Mullen is on the hot seat is utter nonsense.

First of all, Mullen’s .600 winning percentage is the best of any Bulldog head coach since 1950 who coached more than two seasons. Only Jackie Sherrill has coached more total games at MSU, but Mullen has surpassed him. Sherrill never had more than four consecutive winning seasons; Mullen has led six in a row and counting. Mullen’s conference win percentage is higher than Sherrill’s too, and he’s done it without getting on the NCAA’s bad side. It’s true that Sherrill had one West division title and Mullen has none, but the division today is far more difficult a place to win than it was in 1998.

Just two years ago, Mullen led the Bulldogs to the top of the AP Poll for the first time ever. MSU spent five weeks there, too. Since 2012 Florida, LSU, Miami (Florida), Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, and USC have spent a combined four weeks atop the AP Poll. One of those four weeks was USC being the preseason top team in 2012, and the rest was the Fighting Irish closing out the 2012 regular season at No. 1. Shortening the time span to 2013 to the present, MSU beats out those ten other traditional powers five weeks to zero.

In addition, Mullen has defeated every other SEC team at least once since coming to Starkville in 2009 except for Alabama. Not having beaten the Tide is understandable for a program that cannot recruit at Nick Saban levels.

31 December 2014: Mississippi State Bulldogs Head Coach Dan Mullen looks down before the start of the Capital One Orange Bowl game between Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

31 December 2014: Mississippi State Bulldogs Head Coach Dan Mullen looks down before the start of the Capital One Orange Bowl game between Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. — Icon Sportswire

Going by the 247 Sports Composite, Mullen’s best four-year stretch of securing blue-chip four- and five-star prospects was 2012-2015, when he signed 20 of them total. Saban signed 20 in 2015 and 21 in 2014 alone. Mullen has signed 35 blue-chip recruits since 2009; Saban has signed 32 five-stars in the same span. I’ll give Mullen a pass on not defeating the fully operational Saban Death Star.

Besides, I would give Mullen a pass on much more than that if he needed it. Mississippi State is one of the hardest jobs in the SEC.

According to USA Today‘s database, MSU has the lowest revenue of the conference’s 13 public schools. It’s a steep drop-off too: State’s $75 million is $38 million behind tenth-place South Carolina’s $113 million. Davis-Wade Stadium is approximately tied with Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium for the league’s second-smallest capacity, ahead of only Vanderbilt. The school’s enrollment is the second-smallest, again ahead of only Vandy. That fact makes for a small alumni and donor base.

MSU resides in a state that doesn’t produce much talent, but it must share it with another league member. Kentucky, Missouri, and South Carolina don’t share their relatively talent-poor states with fellow SEC members, and—unlike the Wildcats with Ohio and the Gamecocks with North Carolina—the Bulldogs don’t have any bordering states in which they can sell the SEC brand without competition from in-state conference programs.

The most obvious manifestation of the difficulty of winning in Starkville is the fact that Mullen has lost his defensive coordinator to higher profile jobs three times. Manny Diaz left after one season in 2009 to go to Texas, Geoff Collins left after four seasons in 2014 to go to Florida, and Diaz left after one season again in 2015 to go to Miami. Within the last month, the school even lost athletic director Scott Stricklin to the same place Collins went. Continuity is key to long-term success, but anyone who shows high ability at MSU is immediately a target for larger, richer, and more prestigious programs.

Mullen probably hasn’t helped himself with the fans in this regard, as his name comes up every time there is a high-profile job opening. Witness the links from above about LSU, or Football Scoop reporting last winter that Georgia is his “dream job.” Mullen can’t control media speculation of course, but he reportedly interviewed for the Miami (Florida) job last year. Appearing to have one foot out the door is a great way to lose the benefit of the doubt with some fans.

Another part of the angst around Mullen undoubtedly stems from Hugh Freeze’s run of success at Ole Miss. Though the two programs’ win counts both overall and in SEC play are identical from 2012-’15, the Rebels went to two New Year’s Six bowls to the Bulldogs’ one. Freeze also has defeated Alabama twice, and he’s outrecruited Mullen—though the additional recruiting success in Oxford has come with an NCAA investigation.

Mullen’s job in Starkville is absolutely safe no matter how the 2016 team finishes. The new athletic director is not going to fire the best coach in school history for one down year with a young team. Such a move would send a message to prospective coaches that they’ll have to win eight or nine games every year or risk being fired, and that simply is not a realistic benchmark at Mississippi State.

I’m not here to tell Bulldog fans what to feel about their coach. It’s up to them, and it isn’t my business. What I am saying is that speculation about Mississippi State actually firing Mullen for the performance of his 2016 team is ludicrous.

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