MISSISSIPPI STATE AT ARKANSAS:

Bulldogs' Mullen loves where he is

By: Bob Holt
Published: Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen gives an south oversized monitor a stare during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Alabama in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen gives an south oversized monitor a stare during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Alabama in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen's name is coming up for a lot of job openings, especially in the SEC.

Mullen is high atop the list of candidates to fill vacancies at Florida -- where he was Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator -- and Tennessee.

That's what happens when a coach has Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3 SEC) headed to a bowl game for the eighth consecutive season .

Before Mullen became the Bulldogs' coach in 2009, their longest stretch of consecutive bowl appearances was three years. His winning percentage of .602 (68-45) is the second-highest for a Mississippi State coach behind Allyn McKeen, who had a .764 winning percentage (65-19-3) in 1939-1948 and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

Mullen, who will lead No. 16 Mississippi State against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, has insisted he's not looking for another job.

"I love the one I have," Mullen said Monday. "I think what you see is what we've been able to build Mississippi State into. As I keep saying, I think everybody has an opinion in the world about what I should and shouldn't do. People that know me, and friends that have known me for a long time, know I like my own opinion. I'm not really interested in other people's opinions all that much."

With one notable exception: his wife Megan.

"I listen to her," Mullen said. "I've got no choice but to do that. I'd get in trouble if not."

Mullen has an annual salary of $4.5 million, which ranks fourth in the SEC and 14th nationally. He said he likes having an athletic director who was a coach -- John Cohen, Mississippi State's former baseball coach -- and a school president in Mark Keenum who "hugely supports our football team."

Mullen also said he is pleased with the upgrades at Davis Wade Stadium, where the Bulldogs took No. 1 Alabama to the wire before the Crimson Tide rallied to win 31-24 last week before a raucous, cowbell-ringing announced crowd of 61,133.

"Look at the atmosphere Saturday night," Mullen said. "I have a great job."

Despite Mullen's success, Mississippi State continues to be underestimated by many in the media.

The Bulldogs, picked in the preseason by members of the SEC media to finish sixth in the West, are fourth and have a shot to finish 5-3.

Mississippi State has been picked to finish last or next-to-last in the West seven times in Mullen's nine seasons.

The only time the Bulldogs have finished worse than their SEC media days prediction was in 2011, when they were fifth after being picked fourth.

Mississippi State was picked to finish fifth in the West in 2014 when the Bulldogs took second at 6-2, were ranked No. 1 in the nation for four weeks, went to the Orange Bowl and finished 10-3.

Even with star quarterback Dak Prescott returning in 2015, the Bulldogs were picked last. They finished 4-4 in the conference and 8-5 overall.

Prescott, who starts for the Dallas Cowboys, is among the standout quarterbacks Mullen has developed along with Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida.

Mullen's latest star quarterback is junior Nick Fitzgerald, who has ran or passed for 26 of Mississippi State's 36 touchdowns this season.

Fitzgerald, 6-5 and 230 pounds, has completed 146 of 258 passes (56.6 percent) for 1,617 yards and 13 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and rushed 137 times for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns.

"The thing I'm most excited about is his maturity of understanding of the game at this point," Mullen said. "When he comes off the sideline after a series, you're having a much more higher-level discussion about the game of football than in the past. ... It shows the understanding he has of what our offense is, why we're doing what we're doing and how we're going to use that to attack the defense."

Fitzgerald completed 15 of 23 passes for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns and rushed for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 37-7 victory over LSU in the SEC opener.

"Nick operated their game plan to perfection," LSU Coach Ed Orgeron said. "He was on fire that night. He ran the ball well, he threw the ball well. He was a great quarterback that night."

The Bulldogs' defense is led by sophomore tackle Jeffery Simmons, who has 50 tackles, 8 1/2 for 38 yards in losses.

"Mississippi State is very physical on both sides of the ball," said Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, whose Wildcats lost to the Bulldogs 45-7. "I think they're playing at a very high level."

The Bulldogs couldn't hold on to a 24-17 lead against Alabama in the fourth quarter. The Tide stayed unbeaten, thanks to a touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts to Devonta Smith with 26 seconds left and a stop by their defense on the game's final play when Fitzgerald's pass went beyond the end zone.

"I thought we went toe-to-toe with them for four quarters," Mullen said. "I thought both teams played well.

"They didn't turn it over, give up explosive plays or tip balls to keep us in the game. They just made more plays at the end, or really throughout the whole course of the game."

Mississippi State won its only SEC football title in 1941 and has played in the SEC Championship Game once, losing to Tennessee 24-14 in 1998.

"I think we're getting there," Mullen said. "I came here almost nine years ago now to build a team that's going to compete for championships. I think we've taken Step 1 of being a consistent winner, of going to bowl games. I think we flirted with it a couple of years ago.

"I think we're trying to get closer to be a team right now that can go compete for that championship. We want to be a team that does that consistently."

Mississippi State

(7-3, 3-3 SEC)

DATE OPPONENT TIME/RESULT

Sept. 2 Charleston Southern W, 49-0

Sept. 9 at Louisiana Tech W, 57-21

Sept. 16 LSU * W, 37-7

Sept. 23 at Georgia * L, 31-3

Sept. 30 at Auburn * L, 49-10

Oct. 14 BYU W, 35-10

Oct. 21 Kentucky * W, 45-7

Oct. 28 at Texas A&M * W, 35-14

Nov. 4 Massachusetts W, 34-23

Nov. 11 Alabama * L, 31-24

Saturday at Arkansas * 11 a.m.

Nov. 23 Ole Miss *

*SEC game

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