Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is a hot topic in the SEC this season. Mullen has led the Bulldogs to three consecutive bowl games, and with a win over rival Ole Miss, can extend that streak to four.
Even though Mullen has Mississippi State on the edge of a fourth consecutive bowl appearance, there’s some grumblings in the SEC and around Mississippi about his job status. No, Mullen isn’t going to lose his job this year, but there’s plenty of talk around in the SEC about the fifth-year coach moving onto the hot seat.
Even if Mississippi State falls short of a winning record, Mullen has done enough in five years to warrant more time to build this program.
Analyzing Dan Mullen's Tenure at Mississippi State
To understand where Dan Mullen is at during his tenure at Mississippi State, it’s important to examine the history of former coaches in Starkville.
Years at Miss. State
Need evidence of just how difficult it is to win at Mississippi State?
Ranking the Jobs in the SEC
5. Texas A&M
8. South Carolina
10. Ole Miss
13. Mississippi State
Take a look at the numbers above. None of the last six coaches at Mississippi State has finished their tenure with an overall winning or SEC record. Jackie Sherrill is the only coach to get close, sporting a .500 overall record in his tenure with the Bulldogs. Sherrill also brought the program its only appearance in the SEC Championship. Although a SEC West title is a title, the division was very average in 1998, as Alabama went 7-5 and LSU and Auburn combined for a 7-15 mark.
In terms of job hierarchy, Mississippi State is near the bottom of the SEC. Attracting top talent and overall program resources just aren’t the same as what coaches can get at Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU.
In USA Today’s 2012 athletic department revenue study, Mississippi State ranked 11th in the SEC, just ahead of Ole Miss and Missouri (Vanderbilt did not disclose its revenue).
While athletic revenue isn’t necessarily a true indicator of success, it’s important to note when considering where Mississippi State is on the food chain in the SEC. The Bulldogs’ 2012 revenue of $69.8 million was considerably off SEC West rivals Arkansas ($99.7 million), Auburn ($105.9 million), Alabama ($124.9 million), LSU ($114.8 million) and Texas A&M ($119.7 million).
Without the necessary dollars and fertile location for recruiting, Mississippi State is at a sizeable disadvantage to its SEC West opponents.
Dan Mullen's Win/Loss Record
T-4th SEC West
5th SEC West
5th SEC West
4th SEC West
5th SEC West
If Mississippi State beats Ole Miss on Thursday night, the Bulldogs will earn a school-record fourth consecutive bowl appearance. Mullen’s 24 wins from 2010-12 are the most for Mississippi State since Jackie Sherrill won 26 from 1998-2000.
Of Mississippi State’s 15 SEC wins, none have occurred against Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M. However, the Bulldogs lost by only 13 against the Crimson Tide this season, which was Alabama’s second-closest loss in 2013.
Five of Mullen’s SEC victories have been against Kentucky, two against Arkansas, one against Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt and three against rival Ole Miss. The Bulldogs also have a win over Georgia and a victory at Florida under Mullen’s watch.
Recruiting information by 247Sports
Recruiting Within Mississippi - Top 25 Recruits
Considering where Mississippi State is on the SEC’s totem poll, back-to-back top-25 recruiting classes is a solid step for this program. And it’s too early to judge the 2014 class, especially since the Bulldogs have only 19 commitments. Without a huge group of departing seniors, Mississippi State isn’t going to sign a monster class this year, so it’s likely the Bulldogs rank outside of the top 25.
In the three years prior to Mullen’s arrival, Mississippi State did not rank in the top 35 nationally in signing classes. In all five of Mullen’s classes, the Bulldogs have reached that plateau, including the No. 19 overall class in 2009.
Within the state of Mississippi, the balance of power seems to have shifted back to Ole Miss. The Rebels signed seven of the state’s top prospects in 2013 after inking three in 2012. And with a few months to go in the recruiting cycle, Ole Miss has a nine to five edge in top-25 recruits.
It’s not a sizeable difference in the last two years, but Mississippi State has to continue to hold its own within the state.
Mississippi State's Offense Under Mullen
* Conference-only stats
Yards Per Play
With a background on offense, Mississippi State’s performance on this side of the ball should factor into the evaluation of Mullen.
The Bulldogs have not ranked higher than seventh in total offense, but their scoring average and yards per play have increased in each of the last two seasons. The SEC has lost some key defensive talent in recent years, and there’s a trend to more offense, but Mississippi State has made gains on offense under Mullen’s watch.
One positive sign: Dak Prescott showed flashes of potential in limited action this season. If the sophomore quarterback can build on that success, Mississippi State’s offense could show solid growth in 2014.
“You always just have to completely block that out. Like one question, are you on the hot seat? Well, I hate to break it to you, if you’re coaching in the Southeastern Conference, I've been on the hot seat here for five years now."- Dan Mullen
Judging or ranking coaches isn’t an easy task. But just relying on wins and losses to judge a successful tenure isn’t the way to go. Program hierarchy plays a large role in how teams and coaches should be judged. Is a national title possible at Mississippi State? Sure. But is it likely? It’s a tough assignment for any coach. Coaching in Starkville without the tradition of success or recruiting ability of Alabama or Florida makes the Mississippi State job one of the toughest in the SEC.
Could another coach perform better than Mullen? Sure. But let’s swap Mullen with Les Miles or Kevin Sumlin tomorrow. Will either perform drastically better at Mississippi State? Probably not.
At a program like Mississippi State, it’s reasonable to expect finishes in the top 25, bowl games every year and an upset here and there against the best in the SEC.
According to Mississippi State’s game notes, the Bulldogs have only six seniors as starters. The two-deep depth chart also features 13 freshmen. This is clearly not a team built to win in 2013. With most of the core returning in 2014, combined with improvement on the recruiting trail, the Bulldogs should be in better shape to make a move in the SEC West. And with LSU, Texas A&M and Alabama losing key personnel, Mississippi State will have an opportunity to win eight games in 2014.
Considering how difficult and loaded the SEC West has developed into over the last few seasons, the Bulldogs (already at a program disadvantage to the rest of the division) are already fighting an uphill battle.
If Mullen regresses to multiple years with a losing record, then it’s time for Mississippi State to make a coaching change. But for now, Mullen is on pace to exceed the previous tenures in Starkville. And with improving facilities, Mullen has more ammunition to work on closing the gap in the SEC West.
Mississippi State is a tough job, but Mullen has made progress. If the Bulldogs regress in 2014, then it’s time to put Mullen on the hot seat.
As long as the Bulldogs make bowl games and continue to narrow the gap with the top teams in the SEC West, Mullen should be employed in Starkville.