Mississippi State football: Familiarity with Dan Mullen a blessing and a curse
For the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the game Saturday night against Florida is absolutely enormous. For many reasons.
Most important, it’s a conference game. It’s also a conference game coming off a very disappointing road loss last week at Kentucky. All the goodwill first-year HC Joe Moorhead earned in the offseason and the first three weeks of the season seemingly washed away on that rainy night in Lexington.
For a team that entered the season with as high of expectations as the Bulldogs did, the last thing they want to do is fall to 3-2 (0-2 in SEC play).
Losing this game will not only take them out of the race for the SEC West, but it could lead to a snowball of epic proportions. Especially with the meat of their schedule looming, with games against No. 10 Auburn, No. 5 LSU and No. 1 Alabama on the horizon. And don’t let that game against La. Tech fool you, either, if you saw them play LSU last week you know they’re not a team to take lightly.
Then, there’s the personal element to this game, which arguably makes it the most intriguing of the week. Lest anyone forget, the man who will be roaming the visiting sidelines this week is none other than Dan Mullen, who took the Gators job this offseason after leading the Bulldogs the previous nine seasons. For many State players and fans, this game is deeply, deeply personal.
The familiarity that the Bulldogs have with Mullen should prove to be a blessing and a curse.
On the bright side, they know the scheme they’ll be going against very, very well. Both offensively and defensively.
The Gators’ defense is now run by Todd Grantham, who ran the Bulldogs’ defense last year. His scheme has a few new wrinkles, but by and large, it’s very similar to what he ran last year. The offensive line will have seen most of the various fronts, stunts and blitz packages that they saw throughout all of last year in practice. QB Nick Fitzgerald will recognize many of the coverages the Gators’ secondary will show and execute.
For the Bulldogs’ defense, boy, oh boy, have they seen this offense. It’s virtually the same exact offense Mullen has been running since he started calling plays back in 2005, and the same one he ran almost exclusively in Starkville. Sure, the signals and terminology have undoubtedly changed, but it’s the same principles and scheme. How many times over the past 3 or 4 years have guys like Mark McLaurin, Jeffery Simmons, Gerri Green, Chris Rayford, Braxton Hoyett, Leo Lewis and Erroll Thompson faced a Mullen-led offense? Every day? This will be a huge benefit for the Bulldogs.
Simply put, the Bulldogs know Mullen, his schemes, his style and his play-calling tendencies. They know how he game-plans and how he manages a game. Where he likes to attack and where he doesn’t.
Unfortunately, however, Mullen knows the Bulldogs pretty well, too. I mean, he’s the one who built this roster, and he’s intimately familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each player. As much as Bulldog fans might not want to, even they have to admit he’s a shrewd coach who knows how to exploit weaknesses.
He’ll know who to take advantage of against man coverage and how to beat that. He’ll know which linebackers struggle in zone coverage and who bites on play-fakes. He’ll know which defensive linemen can’t take the run head-on and who can. He’s keenly aware that this team can lose its cool emotionally and that it can be used against them.
He also knows what Fitzgerald can do, and where his limitations lay. He knows what his tendencies are when pressured, which way he likes to bail out, where he likes to find his passing lanes, what coverages he excels against and what he struggles with.
There’s a chance the familiarity each side has with one another almost cancels each other out.
Where the Bulldogs undoubtedly have an advantage and edge over Mullen and the Gators, however, is that the game is being played in Starkville, with what should be quite a raucous crowd. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t set an attendance record this week, breaking the mark of 62,945 set in 2014.
It won’t just be a sellout, but it’s going to be an unbelievably angry and hostile crowd, as well. I mean, it’s normally one of the loudest stadiums in the SEC due to the cowbells, but this week it’ll be on another level. Teams prepare for playing on the road by bringing in speakers to practice to blare music and noise, but I don’t know if the Gators will actually be able to replicate the decibel level that 63,000 incessantly clanging cowbells will make. Their ears will likely be ringing for a week after this game.
This won’t just be a normal home game for the team and their fans. The fans especially. They feel betrayed. They feel like they took in an outsider, made him one of their own and then he jumped ship and abandoned them for more money. That they were loyal to him, but that loyalty wasn’t reciprocated.
Yes indeed, this game is very important to Mississippi State. For the team, it’s a way to get back on track and remedy mistakes made against Kentucky. To stay alive in the SEC. To gain momentum heading into a brutal stretch of games. For the fans, it’s a way to extract revenge in the only way they can, by making the game as hard on Mullen and his Gators as humanly possible.
Saturday night should be an awful lot of fun.