STARKVILLE, Miss. – The SEC conference, which for nearly a decade was considered the deepest in all of college football, has evolved into a compelling dichotomy. The SEC has two juggernaut teams on target to reach the College Football Playoff and five programs that project to fire or have already fired their coach. Then, of course, there’s Auburn, which offers a convenient portrait of the league’s boom-or-bust nature. The Tigers could either end up firing their coach, Gus Malzahn, or make the College Football Playoff. (He’d be the sixth, and potentially the fourth in the SEC West to get let go if he did.)
In a league defined by extremes – the SEC brags that “it just means more” – an improbable program has managed to find a comfortable place below the elite and above the fray. Mississippi State, for decades an SEC punchline, has transformed itself into one of the steadiest football programs in the SEC. The Bulldogs’ last and only SEC title came in 1941, and rural Starkville has long been synonymous with remoteness in college athletics. Since 2014, State has the second-most overall wins among SEC West programs(32), and the No. 16 Bulldogs rank as the league’s fourth-highest-ranked team in the College Football Playoff standings.
While a connecting flight may be needed to find the nearest full-service hotel, Starkville can proudly boast one of the marquee games in college football this weekend. The Bulldogs host No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night, and there’s a strong argument that the game showcases the two best coaches in the SEC. There’s no argument about who is the best, as Nick Saban ranks as one of the all-time greats in college football history.
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen makes a strong case for No. 2, as he’s become a model of consistency at a place that for decades became defined by losing. State clinched its eighth consecutive bowl appearance under Mullen, a feat than can only be appreciated when considering that they’d made eight bowls in the previous 29 years. “If you’d have told me in 1990 when I graduated that we were going to have an electric atmosphere for football and enclosed our stadium, I’d have looked at you sideways and said, ‘There’s no way,’ ” said athletic director John Cohen. ” ‘We can’t do that at Mississippi State.’ ”
But nine years into Mullen’s tenure, the jokes have slowed and Starkville has gone from the Timbuktu of the SEC to a destination. The din of the cowbells – once a point of derision – have turned Davis Wade Stadium into one of the league’s most intimidating environments. Playing at Mississippi State means the echo of cowbells in your head for days, the ear-drum equivalent of a four-hour Iron Maiden concert. “I think our fans understand how important they are for this game Saturday to create a hostile environment to play in,” Mullen said in an interview with Yahoo Sports in his office this week. “We went to Athens, Georgia, earlier this season and they created a hostile environment we didn’t handle well. We want to do the same for Alabama.”
Since Dak Prescott’s junior year in 2014, State has been ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff standings, become fixtures in the national recruiting rankings and emerged as a bedrock of reliability in an unreliable business. “The minute Dan walked in the room, his hair was on fire,” said Cohen, the former baseball coach who was part of Mullen’s hiring process. “He just really believed that he could change the culture of our football program. From that moment until now, he’s the same guy with the same energy.”
Along with culture, the key to Mullen’s success has been offensive innovation. Since 2014, Mississippi State has more games of 500 yards of total offense than any other SEC team. Mullen calls the plays, runs the offense, and his development of Alex Smith, Tim Tebow and Prescott has cemented him as one of this generation’s top quarterback tutors. Junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald could be the next in line. He’s progressed into a solid SEC starter and the league’s most dangerous running quarterback (801 rushing yards). He’s been an efficient conductor of an offense that Mullen has tailored around a strong offensive line, as assistant coach John Hevesy’s unit is No. 3 nationally with just five sacks allowed the entire season.
State’s 7-2 record has followed the SEC’s extreme theme. Its two losses came at Georgia (31-3) and at Auburn (49-10), and its victories include eviscerations of LSU (37-7) and Texas A&M (35-14). Perhaps the season’s most important development has been new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who has brought a defensive edge and toughness that went missing during last year’s 6-7 season. State has gone from No. 93 in scoring defense to No. 14, allowing nearly two touchdowns less per game.
Mississippi State is a two-touchdown underdog on Saturday, a game that serves as an annual referendum on how far it needs to go to compete at the highest level. (“There’s no weakness,” Mullen said of Alabama.) MSU’s 2014 season, which saw it climb to No. 1 and compete for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, helped changed the paradigm of the program. The recruiting uptick from that season can be felt in the program, and there’s a strong feeling that next year – with likely 18 starters returning, including Fitzgerald – could be one that has the Bulldogs competing again at that highest level. “We have the opportunity to be a great team next year,” Mullen said. “You can have a great team in this league and be the fourth best.” He adds: “One of these years, our best is going to be enough to be a championship team.”
The big question looming around Starkville will be whether Mullen is around after this cycle of coaching changes. With at least Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss expected to open, there’s going to be chaos in the hiring market. Mullen has proven to be a consistent winner at a place that never won consistently. He’ll like have an opportunity to choose between sticking around to become the school’s all-time winningest coach – he’s 68-44 and eight wins from passing Jackie Sherrill – or reviving a blue blood elsewhere. “When anyone is successful, you’re concerned about losing them,” Cohen said. “Our entire administration from the president on down, we’re committed to Dan and [his wife] Megan. We want him to be here indefinitely, not just as a coach but a member of the Mississippi State community.”
State has backed up its commitment to Mullen, paying him $4.5 million and making him among the top 15 in the country in salary (his buyout to leave is tiny). They’ve also built state-of-the art facilities, making the infrastructure of the program ahead of rival SEC programs like Florida.
But Mullen’s potential decision on his future epitomizes the fickle fates of programs in the SEC. If he leaves, the Bulldogs are in flux searching for a comparable coach with a juggernaut team returning. If he stays, they could be a preseason top-10 team next year in the hunt for an SEC title. So Saturday, with a full stadium and cowbells at full pitch, the moment will be cherished. “It means so much,” Cohen said. “Mississippi State fans will never take for granted this journey that Dan has taken us on.”