Dan Mullen makes his return to Starkville as the Bulldogs hosts the Gators
After 10 months of anticipation, Dan Mullen brings his Florida Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) to the Magnolia State to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs in his return to Davis Wade Stadium. Mullen coached at MSU for nine seasons and returned to Florida — where he was once an offensive coordinator — as head coach in November.
Although MSU (3-1, 0-1 SEC) dropped its first game of the year last week to Kentucky, the hype around this game hasn’t been dampened. First-year MSU head coach Joe Moorhead has his team sitting at No. 23 in the nation, and a win against his predecessor would further energize an invigorated fan base.
Florida, too, suffered a loss at the hands of Kentucky, but the Gators have reeled off back-to-back wins since their lone blemish. Tennessee was the recipient of a 47-21 thrashing by Florida last week, and the Gators and Mullen are carrying that momentum into Starkville.
The Gators and the Bulldogs first met in 1923 in Jacksonville and played to a 13-13 tie. Florida leads the series 33-19-2, but MSU is an all-time 7-4 in games in Starkville. The last time these teams met, MSU upset then-No. 22 Florida 10-7 in 2010.
Florida at Mississippi State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. ET
Spread: Mississippi State -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The return of MSU's offense
The Bulldogs rolled into Lexington boasting the nation’s eighth-best offense after averaging 587.7 yards per game, and their 50.0 points per game last week ranked ninth in FBS. The Wildcats, however, rendered the Bulldogs’ offense useless.
Kentucky held an MSU rushing attack that had averaged 276.0 yards per game to just 56 (2.0 yards per rush). The Bulldogs’ passing game didn’t fare much better, as quarterback Nick Fitzgerald threw for 145 yards. MSU, which had 14 red zone appearances through the first three games, made it inside the red zone only once against Kentucky.
Despite the Bulldogs' struggles on the ground against Kentucky, MSU enters Saturday’s game with the SEC’s third-ranked rushing offense (247.8 yards per game). The trio of Fitzgerald and running backs Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill should yield better results against a Florida rushing defense that ranks 97th in the nation (187.8 yards rushing allowed per game).
2. Opportunistic Gators
There’s no better defense in the nation than Florida’s when it comes to forcing turnovers. Through four games this year, the Gators have gained 14 — 10 on fumbles and four on interceptions. Last week against Tennessee, Florida forced an eye-popping six of them. The Gators recorded three turnovers against Charleston Southern, two against Kentucky and three against Colorado State.
Florida defensive lineman Jachai Polite is tied for first in FBS in forced fumbles with three this season. To put Polite’s impact into perspective, Florida tallied three forced fumbles in all of 2017.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, has been consistently responsible with the football this season. The Bulldogs have yet to lose a fumble this year and have thrown just three interceptions.
3. Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks vs. MSU’s pass defense
Mullen’s magic with quarterbacks is no secret. He’s tutored Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald. Florida fans hope to add Feleipe Franks’ name to the list before he departs. Through four games, Franks is already off to a strong start.
Franks is 50 of 95 passing with 742 yards and 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. His 155.7 passing efficiency ranks No. 34 in FBS. Franks’ 12 touchdown passes have already eclipsed his 2017 total by three. Franks hasn’t exactly produced chunks of yards in his last two starts — he’s thrown for 291 yards during that span — but he’s been smart with the football and has thrown touchdowns. He tossed three touchdowns on nine completions against Tennessee, and he threw two touchdowns on eight completions against Colorado State.
MSU's defense is tied for seventh in the country in passing yards allowed (148.3 yards per game), and opposing quarterbacks have thrown just two touchdowns against the Bulldogs’ secondary. Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Andre Nunez owns the most passing yards against MSU this year, as he threw for 224 yards and one touchdown against one interception on Sept. 15.
Mississippi State fans have gripped their cowbells in anticipation while waiting for this one. The energy will be off the charts Saturday as Mullen’s former fan base will be sure to give him a hearty welcome to the stadium he once called home.
Mississippi State breezed through its first three games, and its offense and defense appeared to be everything as advertised in the process. While the Kentucky loss stung, the Bulldogs’ performance at Kroger Field last week was atypical, and they should have those problems resolved in time for the Gators.
Kentucky loss notwithstanding, Florida under Mullen appears to be on the upward trajectory. The offense and defense overwhelmed the Volunteers, and for the most part this year, both units have been upgrades from past seasons. However, if there’s one game Mississippi State’s players shouldn’t have any problems getting motivated for, it’s this one. Moorhead and the Bulldogs win a close one in Starkville.
Prediction: Mississippi State 28, Florida 21
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star, Hayes also has been an invited guest on "The Paul Finebaum Show." Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.