Not in Starkville anymore, Dan Mullen must deal with real expectations at Florida
“Well, it’s Florida.” That’s an excuse Dan Mullen simply doesn’t have anymore since he’s decided to leave Starkville for Gainesville.
“Well, it’s Mississippi State.” Mullen was able to play that trump card during his nine-year tenure with the Bulldogs. Even if he transformed historical doormats into fringe contenders in the West, they ultimately never made it to the finish line.
At Mississippi State, Mullen inherited a program that was under .500 in a century-plus of football and had gone to just 13 bowl games — including only one in the previous eight campaigns. Had he stayed, he would’ve coached in his eighth straight on the strength of an 8-4 record and fourth-place finish in the division.
Not a bowl game that matters, of course, but a bowl game nonetheless. Bulldogs fans would’ve been happy. They remember their insignificant pre-Mullen lives.
However, Mullen won’t have that luxury with the Gators. All the things he didn’t have at Mississippi State, the things that prevented him from being little more than a nuisance in the West, he’ll have each and every one of them at Florida.
According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, there is one player in the entire state of Mississippi — a wide receiver out of Callaway High School in Jackson named Malik Heath, who is committed to the Bulldogs — rated 4-stars for the class of 2018. While there are 35 other prospects given 3-star status, there isn’t a single 5-star stud.
The state of Florida, on the other hand, has four 5-stars, 48 4-stars and 260 3-stars. That’s 312 supposedly SEC-caliber players.
Obviously, there’s a lot more competition for those 312 in Florida than the 36 in Mississippi. Not only do the Gators have to fend off traditional powers Florida State and Miami, but UCF, USF, FAU and FIU are more viable than ever.
Back in the Magnolia State, with the NCAA close to handing down even more sanctions on Ole Miss — we could get that news any day now — Mullen was cleaning up on the recruiting trail with the Bulldogs. Led by Heath, the top six prospects inside the border are headed to Mississippi State, although some might change their minds now.
Unquestionably, recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. For Mullen, what was once a weakness has become a strength.
Florida has three national championships and three Heisman Trophy winners in its history. Mississippi State has none of either. As a matter of fact, the Bulldogs can claim a grand total of one conference title, in 1941.
The facilities are a lot nicer in Hogtown than they are in Stark Vegas, too. They aren’t necessarily world class — former coach Jim McElwain publicly vented his frustrations more than once, which was part of his rift with the administration — but capacity at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium alone is nearly 50 percent greater than that of Davis Wade Stadium.
Maybe most important, Mullen (below) will no longer be in the weekly death march that is the West. The East is much easier to navigate.
McElwain arrived in 2015 with a reputation as a sound offensive mind, yet it was the defense he inherited from Will Muschamp that carried him to two consecutive division titles. The Gators were a mess offensively, to be honest.
It simply didn’t matter that Florida was terribly out of balance. Georgia was in transition from Mark Richt to Kirby Smart. Butch Jones ran out of bricks at Tennessee. Missouri’s surprising two-year flash had faded away. Steve Spurrier left South Carolina with a whimper. Kentucky was, well, Kentucky — the same can be said of Vanderbilt.
The fact that McElwain went from back-to-back division titles to out of work so quickly goes to show how flawed his teams truly were.
Unlike McElwain, who rode Nick Saban’s coattails to a pair of rings at Alabama before doing some commendable work for three years as the head coach at Colorado State, Mullen has already been the top face on the totem pole in this league for nine seasons.
After Saban and his 11-year stint with the Crimson Tide, Mullen was the most tenured coach in the SEC before jumping ship. He left town only five wins behind the legendary Jackie Sherrill for the most at Mississippi State — 74 to 69 — despite being there four fewer seasons. Mullen’s winning percentage was .600, while Sherrill’s was .493.
So much of what he did was smoke and mirrors, as well. Mullen never beat Alabama, but he topped Auburn three times and LSU twice.
At this point, Mullen’s only real competition in the East will come from Georgia. The Bulldogs are division champs in Year 2 of the Smart era, still alive for the College Football Playoff and pounded the Gators this year at the Cocktail Party.
Job 1 for Mullen is fixing Florida at the game’s most important position, which is something that McElwain could never do. Aside from a six-game stretch from Will Grier in 2015 — before he was suspended by the NCAA for performance-enhancing drugs — Gator Nation has seen a revolving door of quarterbacks stink up The Swamp.
Almost all of them received a higher grade at the high school level than Dak Prescott or Nick Fitzgerald, who both flourished under Mullen with the Bulldogs.
Prescott and Fitzgerald have traits in common, of course. Not only has each been a dual-threat monster statistically in the best conference in America, but neither got anywhere near a scholarship offer to line up in shotgun formation for a behemoth like Florida.
But if Mullen doesn’t turn Feleipe Franks — or another QB, as he seems like a 4-star miss at this point — into Prescott or Fitzgerald, he can’t use the “Well, it’s Florida” excuse. “Well, it’s Mississippi State” is no longer available to him. For the first time as a head coach, he has to live up to actual championship-or-bust expectations.
Mullen could’ve been fat and happy as the big fish in a small pond for the rest of his career. It remains to be seen if he can swim so well in deeper waters.