Mullen has Bulldogs on a fast track

When former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne went looking for a head football coach two years ago, it didn’t take him long to settle on Dan Mullen.

Byrne, now the athletic director at Arizona, liked Mullen’s energy, liked his plan and liked his pedigree.

There were a few eyebrows raised around the league when the hire was announced. After all, Mullen was only 36 at the time and had been an offensive coordinator for just four years. He was a quarterbacks coach previously.

Sure, Florida had record-setting offenses while he was in Gainesville, but the Gators also had a couple of guys named Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin on the roster for three of the years Mullen was calling plays.

So perhaps Byrne was going out on a limb a little bit, trying to cash in on Florida’s success and bring somebody over from that staff even if he wasn’t quite ready.

At least, that was the overriding sentiment among those in SEC coaching circles, especially those guys whose résumés were far beefier than Mullen’s.

As I watched Mississippi State put the finishing touches on its 10-7 victory over Florida last Saturday -- the first time the Bulldogs had won at the Swamp in 45 years -- I couldn’t help but think back to that process nearly two years ago.

Dan Mullen? Really, Dan Mullen?

Yeah, Dan Mullen.

And in only his second season in Starkville, where they don’t print money like they do at a lot of places in this league and they don’t have their pick of the players they want nationally, he has one of the hottest football teams in the SEC.

The Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2) have won four straight games and will be heavily favored to make it five in a row this Saturday against UAB. The only two games they lost were to Auburn and LSU, both Top 10 teams.

Against Auburn, Mississippi State had its chances time and time again in the second half, but simply couldn’t sustain any drives.

Finishing games had been a problem a year ago. But the Bulldogs dominated the second half against Georgia two weeks later in a 24-12 win and then held off the Gators in the fourth quarter last Saturday in the biggest win to date for Mullen.

It’s not every day that you beat your mentor.

And whether anybody at Florida wants to admit it, the Gators haven’t been the same on offense since he left.

He’s done it at Mississippi State by using the personnel available to him, while continuing to recruit to his spread offense. The Bulldogs were an excellent running team a year ago. They’re equally good again this year, even without Anthony Dixon.

He’s also done it with solid hires. First-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was a big-time get from Middle Tennessee State, and Mullen was also able to lure Chris Wilson away from Oklahoma this past offseason as the Bulldogs’ co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.

Of course, the first thing Mullen did when he got the job two years ago was go out and find the best strength coach he could find -- following Meyer's advice -- and Mullen didn’t waste any time bringing Matt Balis to Starkville from Virginia. Balis had been the Gators’ assistant strength and conditioning coach when Mullen was there.

Even though the program was down in terms of wins and losses when Mullen took over, his predecessor, Sylvester Croom, deserves his share of props.

In a lot of ways, Croom came in and disinfected the program and left Mullen with some quality kids and some quality players. Mullen has taken the base he inherited and added to it. He's still adding. He’s also made it known that the state of Mississippi will be where the Bulldogs make their living on the recruiting trail.

He hasn’t been shy, either, about stirring it up with Mississippi State’s arch-rival, refusing to call Ole Miss by name and instead referring to the Rebels as the “school up north.”

Last season, not only did Mississippi State beat Ole Miss on the field, 41-27, but Mullen took it a step further by proclaiming that it was obvious one school in the state was heading in the right direction.

Well, here the Bulldogs are, ranked in the Top 25 polls for the first time in nine years.

The only concern for the Mississippi State fans is that maybe Mullen is having too much success too soon.

When the next big school with deep pockets goes looking for a coach, and invariably there will be a few in the market at the end of this season, you can bet that Mullen will be on their radar.