Remember when Dan Mullen was included in SEC Coach of the Year talks? And defensive back Johnthan Banks labeled as the league’s top defender?
Three SEC West juggernauts have squashed Mississippi State’s postseason laurels in recent weeks, eliminating the Bulldogs from SEC title and BCS at-large contention. Benefiting from a soft early-season schedule, Miss. St. began the season with seven straight wins, demonstrating one of the country’s most balanced offenses under the direction of quarterback Tyler Russell.
The last three games however have been a nightmare and poll voters took notice. Alabama pounded the Bulldogs for their first loss, Johnny Football had his way in Starkville and LSU physically dominated under the lights in Baton Rouge. The Bulldogs fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 following their quick demise after being ranked as high as No. 12.
The Bulldogs’ fall from grace proves the program isn’t quite there under Mullen, though most thought this season was the turnaround opportunity following last year’s disappointing 7-6 campaign. During Mullen’s second season in 2010, the Bulldogs finished 9-4 and won a decisive Gator Bowl over Denard Robinson and the Michigan Wolverines. Mullen’s 3-0 in the Egg Bowl with two bowl wins, but Miss. St. has won just one of 15 games against ranked teams since he took over in 2009.
At 7-3, the Bulldogs have a shot at double digit wins with a postseason victory, a noteworthy effort despite what would count as only three wins over FBS teams with winning records. To move into the respect category though, Miss. St. must start winning some of these conference games against ranked teams — or at least look better in losses. Being over-matched reflects a team that isn’t heading in the right direction, rather tip-toeing the edge of mediocrity. Mullen’s leash is admittedly longer than say Derek Dooley’s whose record against ranked teams at Tennessee is near identical, but still frustrating to a program begging to feel relevant.
Alabama and LSU, at least for the near future, will continue to fight for the West and Texas A&M won’t be too far behind. If fourth place is good enough, no changes are needed at Miss. St. If not, something needs to be done. Once the bowl season is over, Mullen will have two years left on his current four-year, $10.6 million deal. It includes a near $2 million buyout. This extension was signed a few days before Miss. St.’s victory over Michigan two years ago in Jacksonville, the Bulldogs’ best win to date — besides a lone road win at No. 22 Florida — in the Mullen era.
Miss. St. athletic director Scott Stricklin, at the time, believed the program was headed in the right direction at 8-4. This is what he said after the extension before the Bulldogs underachieved at 7-6 the following season:
“We’ve been to bowl games before and we’ve been in the Top 25 before but our goal is to build a program that does it consistently,” Stricklin said. Dan and I share a lot of the same visions and ideas about ways to go about achieving that success. I feel really good about his leadership and am glad we were able to structure this in a way where he has security and he knows we are supportive from a standpoint of facilities, fan support and administrative support. This contract is another example of that commitment.”
Mullen will be re-examined in the off-season, but in all honesty, he’s Miss. St.’s best option at the moment. The Bulldogs seem to be a few plays here or there from being one of the handful of SEC teams consistently ranked every season. They just never seem to make enough plays to be a factor in the games that matter. Mullen will finish out his current deal before his future is determined with consecutive nine-win seasons likely his best hope.
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