2012 Mississippi State Bulldogs Football Preview
When the 2010 college football season ended, the prospects for Dan Mullen's coaching career were considerably bright. The possibility of a quick and attention-grabbing ascendancy was real for the man who stood at Urban Meyer's side on two national championship teams at Florida in 2006 and 2008. However, after the end of the 2011 college football season, life has taken a 135-degree turn (not quite 180) for this X-and-O artist. As a result, his Mississippi State program stands on the fence between renewal and despair.
It wasn't very long ago that Mullen, the offensive coordinator on Florida's two championship teams who had accompanied Meyer from the University of Utah (and molded Alex Smith into the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft), was one of the hot names in the college football coaching world. In fact, when Meyer stepped down from the Florida job in 2010, Mullen was one of the people whom pundits openly talked about as a possible replacement. Florida never did offer Mullen the job, but for a week in December of 2010, Mullen was taken very seriously by the college football industry as a whole. He has always possessed his doubters, but the idea of him leaving Mississippi State to accept a plum coaching job was not seen as ludicrous or laughable.
Now, the parameters of Mullen's situation are quite different.
In a 2011 season that was going to reshape the way Mullen was perceived on a national level, Mississippi State floundered. Mullen, in his third season on the job, could not coax much of any production or – instructively – improvement from his two quarterbacks, Tyler Russell and Chris Relf. Mississippi State fattened up on the league's two worst teams, Kentucky and Ole Miss, but the Bulldogs' offense did next to nothing in every other SEC game save for a 41-34 loss at Auburn in week two. In five of its six SEC losses (excepting the one at Auburn), Mississippi State averaged 10.4 points per game. Mullen feverishly tried to create the right combinations for his offense, but nothing worked. The team finished 2-6 in the SEC, making a bowl game on the strength of a cupcake-rich diet featuring Tennessee-Martin, Memphis, and UAB. A plucky comeback win over Louisiana Tech in overtime was the most impressive achievement from the team's regular season. An ugly win over Wake Forest in the Music City Bowl made the offseason somewhat tolerable. However, the larger reality could not be denied: Dan Mullen's stock had plummeted. He is closer to a forced exit in Starkville, Miss., than to a chosen exit on his terms, in search of a higher-profile gig. That's not what most commentators were expecting when Mississippi State finished off Michigan in a lopsided 2011 Gator Bowl.
This season, Relf is gone, making Russell the unquestioned starting quarterback. How Mullen molds his main man under center will undeniably affect the course of this season, and with it, Mullen's career. The top three teams in the SEC West – LSU, Alabama and Arkansas – are all going to be formidable. If Mississippi State can't finish ahead of Auburn in the division while offering a robust challenge to at least one of the West's best teams, Mullen will lose still more political capital… not enough to be fired, but enough to ensure that he won't make an upward move in the coaching fraternity anytime soon.
Mississippi State needs Dan Mullen to succeed, yes, but it's now true that Mullen needs Mississippi State more than vice-versa. That's the unexpected plot twist which will make the upcoming football season so fascinating to behold in Starkville.
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