Previewing Mississippi State: Is Dan Mullen Gone After Next Year? Is he Cousin Eddie From Christmas Vacation?
Last year, when Mississippi State was in the middle of a 7-0 start that culminated with a ranking just outside of the top-10 (11th to be exact), something didn’t feel right. That something was the Bulldogs’ schedule:
- September 1: 56-9 win over Jackson State (FCS) at home.
- September 8: 28-10 win over Auburn (0-8 in SEC, 3-9 overall) at home.
- September 15: 30-24 win at Troy (3-5 in Sun Belt Conference, 5-7 overall).
- September 22: 30-10 win over South Alabama (1-7 in Sun Belt, 2-11 overall).
- September 29: OFF
- October 6: 27-14 win at Kentucky (0-8 in SEC, 2-10 overall).
- October 13: 41-31 win over Tennessee (1-7 in SEC, 5-7 overall).
- October 20: 45-3 win over Middle Tennessee (6-2 in Sun Belt, 8-4 overall).
You could pick bones with how Mississippi State survived against some of these teams (Troy and Tennessee were particularly close games), but the important thing to note was the simple softness of the schedule. Once you understand the following points, it becomes evident that a healthy majority of teams could open 7-0 against that slate:
- Mississippi State opened with a FCS opponent, something not uncommon but something expected to be a sizeable win.
- Mississippi State played three SEC teams who combined to win 1 conference game. None of those three schools retained their coaching staff heading into 2013.
- Mississippi State played three opponents from the Sun Belt Conference. Only one of those opponents posted a winning record in conference play. Combined, the three teams went 10-14 in the conference. Similarly, only one of those teams had an overall winning record. Combined the three teams were 16-22.
- Those seven opponents combined to win just three games against Major Conference (ACC, Big 10, Bix 12, Big East, Pac-12, SEC) opponents. And one of those three games was one team from this pool (Tennessee) beating another team from this pool (Kentucky).
I’m not saying all of this to beat-down on Mississippi State. Rather, I’m laying this out to dispel the notion that Mississippi State was two different teams in 2012. Mississippi State was not really good when they started 7-0 and really bad when the finished 1-5. Mississippi State was not bipolar. They had one very clear identity, but some folks didn’t like it.
Mississippi State was an average team (on a national scale) that probably beat every team they should have beaten (the teams detailed above and Arkansas) and lost to every team they should have lost to (Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU and Northwestern). The one potential outlier to this model was a loss to an Ole Miss team in a game that was probably a toss-up.
On a more micro level, MSU was a below average SEC team that finished 4-4 in Conference play thanks to four wins against schools that fired their coaches (Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas). The Bulldogs had the fourth best record in their seven-team division. They had the eighth best record in the conference as a whole.
To be clear: I’m not blaming Mississippi State for a lack of schedule strength. Tennessee has been down for several years; that’s not Mississippi State’s fault. Auburn fell from grace when Cam Newton left; that’s not Mississippi State’s fault. Arkansas crumbled when Bobby Petrino slutted it up on a motorcycle; that’s not Mississippi State’s fault. But, I do think the majority of the evidence that framed MSU as a “good” team – as opposed to the average team that the Bulldogs happened to actually be – was a beneficial schedule.
Concerns Moving Forward
By most accounts, Dan Mullen has been a success in his four seasons in Starkville. And, by Starkville standards, I think he’s done a good job. What Mississippi State (and Ole Miss and possibly even Vanderbilt) need to understand is that success relative to recent history at a non-football-power school is not indicative of SEC Championships. In other words: I’m really glad that Mississippi State is experiencing success on the Mississippi State scale, but I don’t expect an easy jump into SEC domination and national prominence. I haven’t previewed these schools yet, but I’ll be mentioning the same thing for Ole Miss and Vandy.
Mullen inherited a team that was 4-8 under Sylvester Croom in 2008. In 2009 the Bulldogs improved to 5-7. After a 9-4 season in 2010, expectation were sky high. In 2011 the Bulldogs went 7-6, and last year they went 8-5, failing to reach the 9 win peak from Mullen’s second year.
Here are Mullen’s SEC wins accompanied by how many conference wins the losing opponent posted that season:
- 2009: Vanderbilt (0), Kentucky (3), Ole Miss (4)
- 2010: Georgia (3), Florida (4), Kentucky (2), Ole Miss (1)
- 2011: Kentucky (2), Ole Miss (0)
- 2012: Auburn (0), Kentucky (0), Tennessee (1), Arkansas (2)
Mullen’s Bulldogs averages 3.25 conference wins per season. The opponents his Bulldogs defeat average just 1.69 conference wins per season. Accordingly, it’s hard to say that he is “coaching up” the Bulldogs. Again, they’re beating teams that they should beat.
What should make Mullen nervous is how his 13 conference wins stack up relative to the rest of the conference over the past four years. Here are the conference win totals (regular season only) for the 12 SEC teams that have been around for the last four years :
- Alabama: 27
- LSU: 25
- Florida: 22
- Georgia: 21
- South Carolina: 20
- Arkansas: 17
- Auburn: 15
- Mississippi State: 13
- Tennessee: 9
- Vanderbilt: 8
- Ole Miss: 8
- Kentucky: 7
So what’s with the italics? The italicized teams have all undergone at least one coaching change since the start of the 2009 season. Mississippi State is the only team in the bottom seven to not undergo at least one coaching change. Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are on their third head coaches since 2009. Auburn and Ole Miss are on their second head coaches. Mississippi State is sticking with Mullen.
Is Mullen really good enough to simply “stay in the middle” and keep his job? Is Starkville good all that matters? It’s hard to make that case when Lexington, Oxford, Fayetteville and Nashville are packing up boxes and loading U-Haul trucks left and right.
Sadly, this year’s schedule looks significantly less beneficial. Oklahoma State is a tough out-of-conference game. Auburn and Arkansas will be better and both of those games will be on the road. Tennessee was dropped from the east and a road trip to South Carolina was added.
Mississippi State returns a lot of its offense (QB Tyler Russell is a guy I like, LeDarius Perkins is a solid back) but must replace 2200+ yards in receiving. Fortunately, the offensive line should be sufficient in giving Russell time to find new guys open downfield.
Defensively, both starting defensive ends are back as are six of the top seven linebackers. The Bulldogs may be thin at defensive back (return just one starter), but should be able to get some pressure from the front seven.
I think Mississippi State will improve slightly this year, but I think their schedule will improve more. Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green and Kentucky should be wins. Oklahoma State, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama should be losses. The season will be made or broken against Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Win all three of those games and get to 7-5 and status quo may be fine. 6-6 will make things interesting for Mullen. 5-7 could be the end.
That’s all I got/