NCF Nation: Dan Mullen

Ranking the SEC coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
11:40
AM ET
The last decade of SEC football has put the conference at the top of the college football world.

While the last two seasons have ended without an SEC team being crowned the national champion after seven straight title runs, you can't discount the past success of this league and how tough it is to survive in it.

Coaching in the SEC can be both a blessing and a curse. The risk and reward can almost be on the same playing field, but the chance to coach in the SEC is something high-profile coaches dream of. But tread lightly, because there's always a ferocious arms race going on, and getting behind can be bad for your health.

Today, we're ranking all 14 coaching jobs in the SEC. We put our brains together, considering location, tradition, support, fan bases, facilities and recruiting access.

Here's what we came up with:

1. Florida: Location, location, location. It's the flagship university in the fertile football state of Florida. There's enough talent to share with rivals Florida State and Miami, and Georgia is basically in Gainesville's backyard. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer helped make Florida a true national brand with all those SEC titles and three national championships. Significant facility upgrades are coming, the fan base is tremendous, game days are great and the Swamp is one of the best stadiums around. The last five years haven't been great, but with rich recruiting grounds and endless resources, the right coach can quickly turn things around.

2. Alabama: If not for UF's location, Alabama would be No. 1. There's tremendous history with, like, 100 football national championships claimed by the fans. This is a job anyone would want. The facilities are some of the best, and coaches are able to recruit all over the Southeast and beyond with an extraordinary national brand. While expectations are gaudy, there's tremendous support inside and outside of the program, and there's no shortage of money for any coach out there.

3. LSU: It has the luxury of being one of the few schools across the country that is the team in its state. Prospects across Louisiana, which also has a tremendous amount of elite talent, grow up wanting to play for the Tigers. The facilities are top-notch, the fan base is incredible and chaotic, and that immense, intimidating stadium just got bigger. Nick Saban helped LSU become a premier program, but Les Miles has done a great job continuing that since his arrival in 2005.

4. Georgia: There's a great deal of talent in the state and Atlanta is essentially in its backyard. The Bulldogs are the top school in the state, rarely going to battle for recruits with rival Georgia Tech, and Georgia has a national brand that can push recruiting well outside the state's borders. The facilities are solid and an indoor practice facility is in the works. There's excellent tradition, a tremendous fan base and one of the league's best game-day atmospheres in Athens.

5. Texas A&M: You could argue that Texas A&M should be higher on this list for the simple fact that it's in Texas. I mean, isn't that where real football was invented? There's a ton of money in College Station to keep any coach happy (just ask Kevin Sumlin) and the facilities, which keep getting bigger and prettier, are exquisite. Texas A&M is rich in tradition and has one of the best game-day atmospheres in the country. However, regardless of recent success, this school is still in the Texas Longhorns' shadow.

6. Auburn: It isn't hard to recruit to Auburn and that beautiful campus. Yes, Auburn has to deal with playing second fiddle to Alabama, but getting elite talent on the Plains hasn't been difficult during Alabama's reign of terror. Auburn has a lot of tradition, one of the league's best stadiums and quality facilities. Even with that school in Tuscaloosa, a coach can win championships at Auburn.

7. Tennessee: It's been a long time since Tennessee was a nationally relevant program, but longtime tradition and a re-emergence on the recruiting trail are pushing Tennessee's stock up. Neyland Stadium has been tidied up in recent years and nearly $50 million was spent on a new football complex. The state might not have an abundance of top-tier talent, but it's not like coaches have to travel very far to pluck guys from neighboring states.

8. Arkansas: Arkansas has a lot going for it, even if it isn't in the heart of the Southeast's most fertile recruiting territory. It's essentially the only team in the state -- something LSU and Georgia can't even say -- and the school has unloaded some funds on improving facilities. However, since the state doesn't typically have a lot of top-notch prospects, coaches must heavily recruit other states such as Texas and Oklahoma.

9. South Carolina: Spurrier has proved during his 10 years in Columbia that you can win at South Carolina. He's been able to tap the state's underrated talent pool while having to compete with Clemson and those other pesky schools trying to steal guys away. An indoor practice facility is under construction, and South Carolina has one of the most faithful fan bases, which stuck with the program during some very rough years.

10. Ole Miss: In three years under Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has grown its brand a little more. Just check out that historic 2013 recruiting class. The campus is beautiful, facilities are impressive and the game-day environment in the Grove is envied by just about everyone. However, consistently recruiting elite talent to Oxford has never been easy, and the program has won nine or more games just six times since 1971 and has had 11 head coaches in that span.

11. Missouri: With two SEC East titles in three years, Missouri's move to the SEC hasn't been as daunting as a lot of us expected. Gary Pinkel made this a quality program after his 2001 arrival, and the school charged right into the SEC arms race by upgrading and expanding Memorial Stadium as part of a $200 million facilities project. Location can be an issue, but Mizzou has made it a point to have more of a Southeastern presence in recruiting.

12. Mississippi State: Consistently getting elite talent to Starkville, which can be a little out of the way for people, is an uphill battle. But the program has been on the uptick since Dan Mullen's arrival in 2009. Mississippi State's brand is growing, the fan base is incredibly loyal and the school hasn't been afraid to spend money after pumping $75 million into a stadium expansion a couple of years ago.

13. Kentucky: Let's face it: This is a basketball school. The Wildcats haven't been to a bowl game since 2010, following five straight trips. It's hard to sustain real success at Kentucky when coaches constantly have to go outside of the state for recruiting. Mark Stoops has done well on the recruiting trail recently, and that $45 million football facility will be a major upgrade, but to see a true title contender emerge from Lexington will be a rarity.

14. Vanderbilt: James Franklin showed that you can win at Vandy with three straight bowl trips, but as soon as he was gone, Derek Mason's Commodores fell flat. High academic standards restrict coaches from recruiting some of the top players in the country, but a recent facilities upgrade shows some care for the program. Vandy must go way outside the box and a take a lot of risks in recruiting.
All week we've counted down the top coaching jobs in college football. Today, that countdown comes to an end. It's time to take a look at some of the surprises when it comes to SEC jobs:

Edward Aschoff: South Carolina in the top 25

The fact that Steve Spurrier has won 84 games in his 10 seasons at South Carolina is almost absurd, when you consider South Carolina’s history. The Gamecocks are now a legit SEC East contender every season. However, I’m not sure South Carolina is a top-20 job, let alone a top-25 job, nationally, even though South Carolina comes in at No. 19 on our list. The tradition really rests on recent events. The facilities are improving, but they don’t exactly challenge the best of the SEC, and while the state of South Carolina has some underrated talent, it’s in short supply. There’s Clemson to battle, and then you have to fend off bigger schools looking to poach the few elite guys. Being in the SEC East helps, and that fan base is amazingly loyal, but I’m just not sure this job is better than those at Miami, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Sam Khan Jr.: Mississippi State as high as No. 34

I was mildly surprised to see Mississippi State as high as No. 34 in the rankings, but I think that's a testament to what Dan Mullen has accomplished and the commitment the Bulldogs have shown to improving facilities, with renovations to Davis Wade Stadium and a new football complex that opened in 2013. Starkville isn't close to a major city, so recruiting can be a challenge, but Mullen's staff proved it can recruit highly regarded prospects and also develop overlooked players. Being in the SEC West with Alabama, Auburn and LSU is a challenge, but this season Mississippi State showed it can hang with those schools. That recent success makes the job more appealing than it was, say, five years ago.

Chris Low: South Carolina in the top 20

Seeing the South Carolina head-coaching job crack the top 20 nationally was surprising. Having grown up in that state, I've always felt that job had potential. But let’s be honest: Nobody had won consistently there until Spurrier came along, and it took him five years to win more than eight games in a season. Spurrier has raised the national profile of that program to heights few could have envisioned, and he’s also raised expectations. The Gamecocks dipped to seven wins this past season, and judging by the outcry of some of the fans, you’d never know they were coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons. The facilities are improving but still don’t compare to the top rung of the SEC. The high school football in the state is underrated, but the state itself is small, which means the Gamecocks have to share top prospects with Clemson and several other neighboring schools. Before Spurrier arrived, South Carolina had won more than nine games in a season only once in school history. That’s become the standard now -- maybe even more than that -- which could make the job a monster for the coach (and coaches) who follow Spurrier.

Greg Ostendorf: Florida at No. 2 in the SEC

Honestly, the ESPN panel that put together the rankings did a pretty solid job, but I’m not so sure Florida is the second-best job in the SEC. Don’t get me wrong: Florida is a great job. Both Spurrier and Urban Meyer have proven that in the past. But when the Gators aren’t winning, there’s a pretty short leash on the head coach. Just ask Ron Zook and Will Muschamp. Jeremy Foley, the athletic director, has high expectations, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s not necessarily that way at other SEC schools, such as Georgia and LSU. Unlike Georgia and LSU, who essentially have the state to themselves, Florida has to compete with Florida State -- and to a lesser extent, Miami -- on the recruiting trail. When Alabama was looking for a coach eight years ago, it hit a home run with Nick Saban. If Florida is really the conference’s second-best job, don’t you think it could’ve landed a bigger name than Jim McElwain? He could be great, but he’s not yet on the same level as a Bob Stoops or even a Hugh Freeze.
For years, Dan Mullen had to convince recruits.

Have faith, he said to them on their visits and during meetings at their high schools. Never mind that Mississippi State had never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West since he took over the program in 2009. He wanted prospects to believe that as a Bulldog they could compete for national championships.

But faith and evidence are two different things. The proof had to be in the pudding -- in the win-loss record and the polls, as it were.

During one staff meeting before State’s showdown against No. 2 Auburn in mid-October, Mullen went over the week’s recruiting plans. But at one point he had to acknowledge the obvious: a win would make everything easier.

And it did, because that 38-23 victory said Mississippi State was for real. It propelled the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the country where they’d stay for five long weeks.

[+] EnlargeLeo Lewis
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesMississippi State signed five of the state's top six prospects, including the No. 2 inside linebacker in the country, Leo Lewis.
Atop the polls, faith was no longer required. Mullen and his staff no longer had to tell (or sell) anyone anything.

“A lot of these young men and their families see what we do,” Mullen told reporters on Wednesday afternoon in Starkville. “The proof -- we don’t have to show them. Before we had to talk about it a lot.”

As he would later put it, “It’s been proven that you can be No. 1 at Mississippi State.”

So it’s no small coincidence that signing day yielded what on paper is the best recruiting class in school history. With seven ESPN 300 signees and 11 four-stars overall, Mississippi State finished 16th in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings, a full 20 spots higher than the year before.

As far as the best-ever debate, Mullen said, “We’ll wait a couple of years to see if that’s true or not.” But for now he’d be forced to acknowledge that it’s at least the most star-studded with No. 2 safety Jamal Peters and No. 2 inside linebacker Leo Lewis.

Landing Lewis, in particular, was a major coup for Mississippi State. After watching in-state rival Ole Miss gain headlines in recent years for signing a number of top recruits, the Bulldogs got one of their own, and stole him away from the Rebs in the process.

“Obviously he’s got great size, he’s got great athleticism, he’s got great instincts, he’s an explosive football player; he’s got all of those,” Mullen said of the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker. “But the thing that is most exciting about him is he’s got an excellent work ethic with that.”

He later added: “His ceiling is going to be much, much higher than where he is right now today. I expect him to have a tremendous career with us.”

Like Lewis, Peters is expected to come in and contribute right away.

“Timing in life can be a lot of great things,” Mullen explained. “The opportunity is obviously for him being a special talent back there in the secondary, but also a huge need for us at that position with guys graduating and Kendrick Market coming off a severe injury. If he showed up on campus today without stepping on the field he might be in the two-deep rotation right now because of numbers, never mind talent or anything else.”

Peters might even play some offense.

“He’s pretty electric when he touches the football,” a giddy Mullen said.

But, to be clear, the signing of top talents like Lewis and Peters doesn’t necessarily signal a change in Mississippi State’s recruiting philosophy.

Mullen may be able to land more highly sought after players now that State has shown it can compete in the SEC, but he still wants to find those diamonds in the rough the program has become known for -- under-the-radar prospects like Johnthan Banks, Benardrick McKinney and Dak Prescott.

“You look at guys that maybe four years ago on this day ... guys like Preston Smith or Benardrick McKinney where a lot of people were like, ‘Who is that?’ on the national stage, and now they’re potential first-round draft picks,” Mullen said.

As much as the winning and the success in the polls, high school prospects have noticed that too.

So don’t expect the Bulldogs’ momentum on the recruiting trail to slow down anytime soon. With three ESPN Junior 300 players already committed for 2016, Mississippi State is suddenly selling itself.
DALLAS -- It's a sign of the times when you start seeing ground-and-pound Alabama running tempo.

There's a reason one of Will Muschamp's final orders at Florida was to have his team attempt to run more of a spread offense with some tempo. There's a reason Texas A&M and Missouri's offenses have flourished and have a combined record of 56-23 during their first three seasons in the SEC. There's a reason the Mississippi schools have been on the rise. There's a reason Gus Malzahn has had immediate success in two short years as head coach at Auburn.

There's a reason we saw two spread-minded teams -- one incredibly tempo-driven -- with offenses ranked in the top 10 and defenses outside the top four of their own conferences reach the first College Football Playoff National Championship game.

As rugged and as defensive-minded as the SEC has been for years and years, offense is taking over college football, and the SEC -- for the most part -- is trying not to get left behind.

“Any offense is trying to find any advantage against the defense," Oregon running back Royce Freeman said during media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. "Why wouldn’t you? If it’s tempo or if it’s different personnel, if it’s by the rules, do it.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAlabama's Nick Saban once led a crusade against up-tempo offenses, but employed a little of it himself this past season.
Exactly.

Times are changing in all forms of football. Offense is in and defense is ailing.

In each of the last two seasons, the SEC has had six teams finish the year allowing more than 390 yards per game. From 2008-12, only nine teams allowed more than 390 yards a game. The disintegration of defense is apparent in the SEC, and how long it lasts is unknown. Offense is having a trickle-up effect with high school teams adopting the spread more and more and ramping up the tempo. Running quarterbacks feel like more of a necessity in the sport than a luxury.

Nobody thought the spread would work in the NFL, but the read-option is there to stay (hello, Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) and even the New England Patriots have been running a version of the spread during the last few years at times.

It's a natural evolution in sports for people to try and find the next best thing. Football is no different. For a while, defenses were stagnant and offenses would shift and motion to create leverage. Now, defenses can move at and before the snap to create temporary advantages and mismatches. So offenses have answered by lining up quicker and snapping the ball faster.

It's in all forms of the sport, but Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose Ducks have been perfecting this thing since the Chip Kelly days, believes this offensive fad his school helped create might not be the future of football.

“It’ll cycle though. People that believe in certain things will keep it at their core," Helfrich said. "… There are also certain people who are just experimenting with it, so to speak.”

Cyclical or not, programs are realizing that the current offensive evolution -- or revolution -- is real. Most teams in the SEC implement some form of higher tempo in their offenses. Some are spreading guys out more and finding homes in the shotgun. While it goes against all old-school football mantras, it's something coaches realize is the style of the times, and it's working and it's greatly affecting defenses.

Just look at Alabama. This is a team that dominated college football with a very traditional -- and successful -- offense. But Nick Saban's defenses have struggled with the spread recently. Johnny Manziel and his high-flying Texas A&M Aggies lit up Alabama for an average of 523 yards and 35.5 points in games in 2012 and 2013. Against Auburn and that uptempo Malzahn spread the last two years, Alabama has surrendered 1,023 yards and 78 points.

Alabama went 2-2 in those four games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsDan Mullen has turned Mississippi State into a league power with a personnel-based spread offense he helped develop with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
Take it a step further and look at Alabama's two-game losing streak in the postseason where Oklahoma (spread and tempo) and Ohio State (spread) combined to score 87 points and reeled off 966 yards.

Running quarterbacks, spread and tempo have been weaknesses for Saban's defenses, so he added all three to his offense this year and watched Alabama set all sorts of offensive records and average 484.5 yards per game (most during his Alabama tenure) and 36.9 points a contest.

“Three or four years ago, Nick Saban was talking about how he didn’t really like [uptempo offense], and the disadvantages to it," Oregon defensive back Juwaan Williams said. "He’s making the evolution himself.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a week removed from his third national championship victory, began some of the transformation down South by bringing his version of the spread offense from Utah to Florida in 2005. His very personnel-driven philosophy changed as the players did. That's why you saw Florida's 2008 national championship-winning offense look so different from the 2006 one.

And that's why Dan Mullen's spread at Mississippi State looks a little different from the one he helped run as the offensive coordinator at Florida. That's why Hugh Freeze's spread at Ole Miss has some philosophical differences from Mizzou's. That's why Tennessee is now spreading things out more now to go with its tempo with a more mobile quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

“It’s not system-driven; it’s personnel-based," Meyer said of the spread.

That's why Bret Bielema isn't interested in it at Arkansas. He has his big guys plowing into everyone every chance they get, and he likes it. And that's fine, but as we continue to look around the league, more tempo and more spread is coming. Even new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who was a part of the ground-and-pound Bama philosophy during his time with Saban, would like to inject more tempo in the Gators. Steve Spurrier has even experimented with some tempo at South Carolina.

As we dive into this new playoff thing and football gets faster and faster, the SEC appears for the most part to be ready and adapting. And really, it had better be.

“It seems like every team is trying to conform to that," Ohio State offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin said. "I guess it’s more about scoring points now than playing defense now."
For most of the 2014 college football season, Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott made a mighty push for the Heisman Trophy. While Prescott -- who helped lead the Bulldogs to 10 wins and their highest Associated Press poll finish since 1940 (11th) -- didn't make that coveted December trip to New York City, he was still going to have a tough decision to make at season's end.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesMississippi State QB Dak Prescott's decision to return for his senior season will allow him to fine-tune the technical areas of his game.
That decision, whether to forgo his senior year and turn pro or stay in school, was officially made Wednesday with Prescott deciding to stick around in Starkville for another year.

While Prescott had every reason to flirt with the NFL after a breakout season that included 3,449 passing yards with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, he made a wise decision to stay. He not only gets another shot at an SEC title but he can also improve his draft status by making crucial in-game improvements during one more year of college ball.

There's no doubt that Prescott is physically ready for the NFL. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder is an excellent dual threat (986 yards and 14 scores) who had no issue running over opponents -- big and small -- but there are technical things he must improve on before he's really ready for the big show. His decision-making and patience in the pocket have to get better when things break down around him.

He has to learn that he can't make great plays every time he has the ball. Even the great quarterbacks have to know when to take marginal losses to keep from creating bigger problems. Sometimes, Prescott lacked in that area.

There were times down the stretch when Prescott rushed through progressions and hurt his team by pressing. Eight of Prescott's 11 interceptions came in conference play, including three in Mississippi State's 25-20 loss to Alabama. In the Bulldogs' three losses, Prescott threw six touchdowns with five turnovers, and during a three-game stretch against Auburn, Kentucky and Arkansas -- all Mississippi State wins -- Prescott threw five interceptions to three touchdowns.

But another year with quarterback guru Dan Mullen should go a long way for the senior-to-be. Just think about how raw he was coming out of high school. Now he just turned down a chance to get drafted after his junior year in college. That's pretty remarkable, and Prescott still has more he can accomplish.

With Mississippi State's offense losing a few valuable pieces from the 2014 season, Prescott has a chance to prove himself in 2015 with changes coming around him. Star running back Josh Robinson, who finished the season ranked third in the SEC with 1,203 rushing yards, declared for the draft early, while three starters along the offensive line are gone. Top receiver De'Runnya Wilson is back with a solid group of youngsters, but Prescott will have his work cut out for him when it comes to keeping this offense going after last season's success.

Keeping things steady will depend on Prescott's improvements with the little things. If Prescott can engineer this offense similarly to the way he did in 2014, the Bulldogs will fight to be contenders in the SEC West again and plenty of NFL folks will be even more impressed with him.
» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season may have just ended, but it's never to early to look ahead to next season. With all the obligatory caveats, here's our first look at SEC power rankings for 2015.

It's hard to pin down just one thing that went wrong for Mississippi State down the stretch.

After being ranked No. 1 in the polls for the first time in school history, something changed. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs lost their edge, and both sides of the football faltered, leading to three losses in their final four games.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisAs Dak Prescott completes what most would consider a stellar season, coach Dan Mullen is anxious to see just how successful the Bulldogs' quarterback can be in 2015.
The defense went from bend-but-don't-break to flat-out folding against Ole Miss and Georgia Tech, surrendering a combined 80 points and 1,109 yards in the two losses. The offense, meanwhile, wasn't as explosive as the line struggled to win the point of attack and running back Josh Robinson went from four 100-yard games in September and October to none in November and December.

But in spite of Mississippi State's struggles to end the 2014 season, there's reason for hope in 2015. There's always the talent of Dak Prescott to dream on.

For the Bulldogs to rebound next season and get back into the playoff hunt, it will take another Heisman Trophy-type run from their strong-armed, big-bodied QB. If Prescott can develop into a better passer as a senior, he could help get Mullen's squad over the hump.

And by "better," we really mean more consistent. Because it's not Prescott's arm strength or accuracy that's in question. There's no doubt he can throw the football and make plays with his feet. But it's also undeniable that he needs to improve his decision-making.

Just look at what Prescott did in the first part of the season versus the second. Against LSU on Sept. 20, he threw two touchdowns and no interceptions. The next week, he was similarly spotless with five total touchdowns and no turnovers against Texas A&M. But what began during a win against Auburn on Oct. 11 with two interceptions snowballed in subsequent games. Against Kentucky and Arkansas, he combined for two touchdowns and three interceptions. Then, against No. 5 Alabama, the dam broke as he threw three picks in a five-point loss.

Much like the program as a whole, Prescott wasn't the same during the second half of the season. He was hampered some by injuries, to be sure, but he also seemed to lose a bit of his confidence. He was tentative at times, throwing too softly to open receivers or too forcefully to covered targets.

He needs to "just continue to take the next step as far as being a passer," Mullen said.

"To me, so much about it in the passing game is control of the offense, how fast you can make decisions and then how accurate you can get the ball where it needs to be," he said. "I think his comfort in recognizing defenses is the more reps he gets, the faster he recognizes things. The more he works on his balance, the more accurate he gets as a passer, the more success he's going to have."

Most importantly, Mullen said, is that Prescott knows he can do better.

"I think he understands that, within his skill set the areas he needs to improve," he said.

With an entire offseason to study the film and work on his mechanics, there's nowhere for Prescott to go but up.

If he does, Mississippi State will continue to be a playoff threat.

He's shown he's capable of making all the plays. Now he has to show that he can do it for a full season.
To be clear, Dan Mullen doesn’t expect to have anyone in place at defensive coordinator before his Mississippi State Bulldogs play Georgia Tech in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

There’s no rush to fill the vacancy left by Geoff Collins, the sixth-year head coach explained.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Thomas GraningDan Mullen is spending more time on the defensive side than ever as the Bulldogs prep for the Orange Bowl without a defensive coordinator.
“We’ll go around and we’ll get quality coaches,” he said. “I’ve gone out and the last couple defensive coordinators I’ve hired have been successful guys that nobody ever knew their name before they came here and they became household names while they were here.

“So we’re going to go do the same again.”

While former assistant Manny Diaz has been floated as a possibility, Mullen said he hadn’t “gone through all that stuff.” Jon Clark, his director of football operations “keeps a list for me and does research.”

Behind the scenes there is a lot going on at Mississippi State, from a new contract for Mullen to a new coordinator to the possibility of a few underclassmen turning pro. But, according to Mullen, the attention is precisely where it needs to be.

“It’s really the premier bowl game of the non-playoff games,” he said of the Orange Bowl. “I think our guys know that and are so into that. Their focus has been more that than anything else.”

Mullen’s focus, meanwhile, has shifted. With Collins gone to work with the new staff at Florida, Mullen has had to lend a bigger hand on defense. For the former offensive coordinator, it’s the most time he ever has spent on that side of the ball.

However, “it’s kind of my defense,” Mullen said, from the time he installed it at the end of his first season.

But his defense has rarely seen the likes of Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets, guided by coach Paul Johnson’s brand of the triple-option, can test even the most stable and disciplined of defenses. This year, they rank 21st nationally in yards per game (468.8) and second in rushing offense.

“They’re just unorthodox,” Mullen said. “Everyone has their own unique style of offense, but often times there’s a lot of crossover. Today, people are going to run this play under center, from the shotgun, from four-wide, from three tight ends, but the schemes are similar. When you play Tech, it’s very, very unique in their schemes and how they do things -- all the chop-blocking they do and all that stuff is just something that’s very, very different that you don’t see on a weekly basis.”

Ironically, given the unfamiliarity with Tech’s scheme and its heavy use of misdirection, focus might be the chief priority for Mississippi State. With so many moving parts both on and off the field, paying attention to the little things is going to be vital.

The good news, it seems, is that the players aren’t hung up on the loss of their defensive coordinator.

“Everybody in this facility could see what a great coach Coach Collins was,” QB Dak Prescott said. “We’re all happy for him and wish him the best of luck. ... But the guys who make the plays on the field are still here. They haven’t left.”

Said Mullen: “They know they’re what the program is all about. I think they just said, ‘Let’s move on. We’ll go make the plays on the field. We’re the Psycho Defense out there. We’re the guys that have all that swagger and make it happen.’ They’re not missing a beat. They’re ready to go play.”


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was already more than enough evidence proving the sharpness of Urban Meyer's eye for talent, but add one more perfect example to the Ohio State coach's file.

Tom Herman wasn't toiling away in total anonymity while at Iowa State and building his case as one of the hottest young coordinators in the nation, but he also wasn't so well known that it was obvious Meyer would have to pursue him when he was putting together his first Buckeyes coaching staff three seasons ago. In fact, there really was no previous relationship between the two of them at all.

But Herman shared a similar philosophy with Meyer and won him over quickly despite not popping up on many coaching hot lists. The same was true for current co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, when Meyer was in the market for an assistant on that side of the ball after last season.

With a coaching tree that has sprouted yet another branch -- Herman is officially taking over as Houston's coach -- and so many Meyer protégés scattered around the country, by now it should be no secret that Meyer is as successful at spotting what he wants in his coaches as he is recruiting top-shelf talent for them to work with on the field.

Filling Herman's shoes won't be easy, not after his wild success preparing four quarterbacks in the past two seasons -- thanks to a string of injuries that almost certainly would have crippled most attacks but barely slowed down the Buckeyes -- to operate the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. But when added to a list of former assistants -- like Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday, Tim Beckman and Gary Andersen -- who are now in charge of programs, the loss of Herman represents another chance for Meyer to add fresh ideas and continue evolving, rather than pose an insurmountable obstacle for title chances in 2015.

The hiring of Herman by the Cougars also offers a fantastic fit for both parties. Herman's ties to recruiting Texas, his knowledge of quarterback play and the spread offense, and his personality will be smash hits with fans and boosters of his new program. It's a victory for the Buckeyes in that they'll keep him around for as long as they're alive in the College Football Playoff.

So even though there's always uncertainty when a job this critical to a major program like Ohio State comes open, Meyer has earned the benefit of the doubt that he'll get his hire right, probably by nabbing an up-and-comer who wasn't widely considered an option when the process began. And given the somewhat unusual way Meyer operates with his offensive staff, he's already working from ahead because he doesn't have to also replace his invaluable offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who like Herman is destined to run his own program at some point in the near future.

"Like on offense right now, we have two coordinators -- Ed Warinner, Tom Herman -- and myself," Meyer said recently. "It’s not one guy calling plays, that’s not the way how we do business. At some places, that’s maybe how they do it.

"But we script each play, everybody is involved in the game plan and that’s the only way I’m going to have it. I don’t want that dictator in there, that’s not the way we do business."

Losing another coordinator, even the reigning Broyles Award winner as the best assistant in the nation, isn't going to run the Buckeyes out of business.

It's probably going to provide a major boost for Houston and it sets Herman on the path to prove himself and potentially land a bigger job down the road, while leaving Meyer to do a bit of professional recruiting again this offseason. In the end, the odds look good that everybody gets what they want.
The runs by Mississippi State and Georgia Tech to a New Year's Six bowl game have seemingly come out of nowhere. Both programs' coaches were under heavy scrutiny last season. Both programs entered 2014 as afterthoughts in their respective conferences. But the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami will provide a great opportunity for one of these teams to end the season with a signature win on Dec. 31.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMississippi State coach Dan Mullen's only losses this season were to ranked teams -- Bama and Ole Miss.
So who's done more with less this season? SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf and ACC reporter Matt Fortuna debate about Dan Mullen and Paul Johnson -- both of whom won league coach of the year awards in 2014.

Ostendorf says Mullen: It's not easy to win at Mississippi State. Before this season, the program had just two 10-win seasons, and the Bulldogs have been playing football since the early 1900s. Ironically, the first time they won 10 games (1940) was the last time they played in the Orange Bowl. And now it's all come back full circle -- thanks to Mullen.

He's turned Mississippi State, a perennial doormat for other SEC teams over the years, into a legitimate contender. And to think, just last season the Bulldogs had to rally against rival Ole Miss to become bowl-eligible. If they lost that game, there's a chance Mullen might have been gone. Now he's one of the top candidates for coach of the year, and the only way he's leaving is if he takes a promotion and leaves for a bigger program.

Don't get me wrong. I like Johnson. I like that he's stuck to his offense despite the criticism over the years. But Mississippi State's offense ranks top 10 nationally in yards per game, and not one starter was ranked in the ESPN 150 recruiting rankings.

Quarterback Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit coming out of high school. Thanks to Mullen's tutelage, he was one of the SEC's best players this season. He threw for 2,996 yards and rushed for 939 yards and was tops in the conference with 37 total touchdowns.

The same goes for running back Josh Robinson, a two-star recruit in high school, and wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson, who was a better basketball prospect than he was a football prospect. The Bulldogs' roster is littered with players who weren't given a chance by other SEC programs, and now those same players are knocking off the league's top teams.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
AP Photo/David TulisCoach Paul Johnson guided the No. 12 Yellow Jackets to a 10-3 overall record this season.
And that might be the difference between Mullen and Johnson. Georgia Tech had a great season and nearly took down Florida State in the ACC title game, but Mississippi State won 10 games playing in the SEC West, arguably the best conference in college football. The Bulldogs beat teams such as Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M when nobody gave them a chance.

Fortuna says Johnson: It's not always so easy to win at Georgia Tech, either. Just ask Johnson, who was candid last offseason in saying that the tone in the Atlanta area surrounding his program was often too negative. Sure, the Yellow Jackets are going to their 18th straight bowl game this season, but there always seems to be a ceiling with them. Heck, in a summer poll on ESPN.com, 55 percent of voters said that "something needs to change around the program." And those fans were given two other choices in the poll, not just one.

Moreover, Johnson lost more than a dozen non-senior players this offseason for a variety of reasons. That, coupled with no wins over rival Georgia since a victory in Johnson's 2008 debut, made for a cloud of uncertainty around Georgia Tech entering 2014. The Jackets were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the preseason ACC media poll.

Instead, Johnson gave his critics one more shove to the side, earning a four-year contract extension in the process.

Mullen may not have had an ESPN 150 recruit on his offense, but he has company: Johnson did not, either. (Nor did he on defense.) All the Jackets did was finish second nationally in rushing (333.62 yards per game), a further testament to Johnson's system -- regardless of the recruiting obstacles, academic or otherwise, that may hamstring him in the crowded, fertile Atlanta area.

He brushed off the sudden departure of starting quarterback Vad Lee, who would've been the only ESPN 150 recruit on this roster, and helped turn a redshirt sophomore, Justin Thomas, into one of the most efficient signal-callers in the country. He overcame stretches without go-to backs such as Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins. His defense overcame its flaws by making big plays, forcing 27 turnovers, which was tied for 16th nationally.

As good as some of those wins by Mississippi State looked at the time, they dimmed considerably once everyone's body of work was complete: Auburn finished ranked 19th, LSU 23rd and Texas A&M unranked. Georgia Tech closed the season by beating No. 17 Clemson and by winning at No. 13 Georgia. Reigning national champion Florida State had to play arguably its most complete game of the season to finally fend off the Jackets in the ACC title game. And the Seminoles won by just two points.

Mississippi State, of course, was last seen losing to rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, an indignity that, in the eyes of some, will cast this otherwise remarkable campaign in an entirely different light.

With both overachieving teams entering this finale off a loss, perhaps we will get a definitive answer to this question between the Bulldogs and Jackets when the dust settles on the Sun Life Stadium field, right around the time the ball drops to close 2014.
Who wants to have the better 2015?

That’s the essential question facing Mississippi State and Ole Miss, as the two teams who, at one time, had playoff aspirations must now must turn their attention to bowls that neither saw coming. They’re not bad bowls, mind you, but they’re not where they’d hoped to be only a few weeks ago.

So better to think of New Years Eve as the beginning of another push toward the playoff, rather than the last leg of a 2014 campaign that left both camps wanting.

“Guys get a feel for the future,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen of the extra practices bowl games allow. “There are guys [who] were kind of in redshirt-mode this year or backup mode where they’re not involved. This is kind of a reminder, when I pull out the seniors and call up the first and second-team defense, offense or special teams, those guys are now in that rotation.”

And there are a lot of those seniors to be replaced, as many as 15 in the two-deep depth chart. There’s also the possibility that linebacker Benardrick McKinney and running back Josh Robinson turn pro a year early.

Said Mullen, “It’s a huge wake-up call for those guys in the sense of urgency they need to have in practice ... for their future.”

Mullen joked that the Bulldogs would “party like it’s 1941” -- the last time the program went to the Capital One Orange Bowl. But as exciting as the return trip to Florida and the opportunity to play Georgia Tech might be, what’s really at stake is momentum.

Last year, coming off a thrilling win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State pounded Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Dak Prescott emerged as a playmaker at quarterback, the defense began winning the line of scrimmage more frequently and that forward progress carried over into the next season when the team got off to a 9-0 start for the first time in program history.

Maybe now, coming off two losses in their past three games, a strong finish is even more vital for the Bulldogs’ hopes of moving forward.

Ole Miss, on the other hand, doesn’t need to establish momentum as much as retain it. The Rebs, who looked down in the dumps after losing to Arkansas, 30-0, turned it around on the final day of the regular season by knocking Mississippi State out of playoff contention with a 31-17 win in Oxford.

Now coach Hugh Freeze and his staff must prepare for another playoff hopeful in TCU. The Horned Frogs, feeling snubbed from the final round of four, should come out for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl with something to prove.

“It's a bit ironic [TCU coach Gary Patterson is] brining in one of the top offenses and we're bringing in a top defense,” Freeze said. “He's the guru on the defensive side I've wanted to learn from."

Ole Miss’ offense has been humming all season long, but next year’s outlook is in doubt with quarterback Bo Wallace set to graduate.

That means it’s up to freshmen Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade to make a push during bowl prep. If they don’t use those practices to make an impression, Freeze could look outside the program to find his QB of 2015.

Meanwhile, coordinator Dave Womack should already be looking to retool the Landshark defense for next season when Serderius Bryant, DT Shackelford, Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt will have all moved on.

Given the way Feeze and his staff have recruited the past few years, there’s plenty on talent on campus to reload on. But until we see it in action, as we might against TCU, how good Ole Miss’ defense will be in 2015 is unknown.

While it’s right to want to finish the 2014 season, what lies ahead is more important than the final score.

The Orange and Peach Bowls should be fun, but for two teams in Mississippi State and Ole Miss that have come within earshot of the playoff, it’s about gearing up for the next run.
OXFORD, Miss. -- As Mississippi State's faithful tries to wash away the stench of Saturday's Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss, their attention will now turn to their coach.

Yes, a nice bowl game is on the horizon for the Bulldogs, and that's great, but you know Bulldogs fans are probably a little more concerned with the next move by Dan Mullen. Over and over, Mullen has expressed how happy he and his family are in Starkville, but after a 10-2 regular season -- the first 10-win season for the Bulldogs since 1999 -- Mullen will hear his name linked to a few big openings in college football.

Nebraska now has a vacancy, and if Michigan opens up, Mullen could very much be a candidate there.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesDan Mullen will hear his name linked to a few big openings after leading Mississippi State to its first 10-win season since 1999.
Big schools would be crazy not to go after Mullen, who is in his sixth year at Mississippi State, and Mullen would be doing himself an injustice if he didn't at least listen. What Mullen has done during his time at Mississippi State has been very impressive. He won nine games in his second year, and the Bulldogs are headed to a bowl game for a school-record fifth consecutive time. He had his team just on the cusp of the College Football Playoff for the latter part of the season, and his quarterback was in the Heisman Trophy conversation for much of the season.

Mullen has made Mississippi State a truly competitive program in the SEC, something few thought could be done before he landed in Starkville. When he first talked about winning championships at Mississippi State, many scoffed at the thought, but Mullen -- and the people around him -- never wavered on that idea.

"You know where they never laughed? People inside our building. They never even laughed at that once," Mullen said. "They knew that that was what the expectation was of us and themselves.

"As I tell them, we’re going to win a championship here at Mississippi State. I don’t know when. Came close this year, some point we will."

So will Mullen be there to guide that championship team? Though Mullen has built something that certainly has the potential to last under his watchful eye, he will likely have a big decision to make in the coming weeks, and no one should fault him for weighing his potential offers.

Life as a coach in the state of Mississippi isn't easy, especially when you're in the SEC Western Division. Like his northern counterpart at Ole Miss, Mullen will be a hot coaching commodity, and he has to think about how long he can sustain what he did in 2014.

"We’ve built a program that can sustain success as much as you can have success on a consistent basis in the SEC West," Mullen said.

That quote is very telling. Mullen understands the struggle he's up against in the toughest division in college football. Let's also face facts: Mississippi State isn't Alabama or LSU. Those teams have the brand and resources to stay competitive in the SEC West every single year. Mississippi State's name is growing and it's a completely different world in Starkville, thanks to Mullen, but it will always be difficult to continuously get out of the shadow of the West's big boys.

It's not like the West is going to get any easier. All the teams around Mississippi State have the potential to be even better in 2015, and the Bulldogs will lose 12 seniors who have made big contributions this season. Plus, junior quarterback Dak Prescott will at least explore his NFL prospects before making a decision about returning next season.

It's not like talent will just wash out of Starkville (Mississippi State's 2015 recruiting class ranks 10th nationally), but if this team, which might have been the most talented and most complete in school history, couldn't make it to Atlanta or slip into a playoff spot, next season's team will have an even tougher road ahead.

Mullen is the ultimate competitor, and I know that he is proud of what he's accomplished over the past six years, but he also knows what he's up against when it comes to winning a championship. Mullen should get looks form bigger schools, and he shouldn't be afraid to think about his future.
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OXFORD, Miss. -- Maybe things would have been different for Mississippi State if it had been placed in the SEC East.

At one point, the fourth-ranked Bulldogs had beaten three top-10 opponents in a row. At one point, this was the No. 1 team in the country. This team had maneuvered its way through the SEC West with just one loss, and in the days prior to Saturday's bout with archrival Ole Miss, the country endlessly debated if Mississippi State would be worthy enough for a spot in the College Football Playoff if it won out.

Now, that's a moot point, because after all the talking and meaningless chatter, football happened. On Saturday, Mississippi State's hopes of sneaking into the playoff vanished with a 31-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.

In the shadow of the Alabamas and LSUs, coach Dan Mullen has built a program that can compete with SEC opponents year in and year out. However, his misfortune is that the year he had easily his most talented team -- and maybe the most talented team in school history -- he had to go through the SEC West, which has ruthlessly cannibalized itself in 2014.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Thomas GraningA loss to Ole Miss on Saturday knocked Dan Mullen's Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff picture.
 "10-2 is a dream season for most people. It doesn't even get you the SEC West title," Mullen said.

And it eliminated the Bulldogs from the College Football Playoff.

Saturday's pain for the Bulldogs was the college football world's gain because now the playoff committee has one less one-loss team to sort through when it comes to filling one of those final playoff spots. Baylor, TCU and Ohio State are all yelling "Hotty Toddy" at the top of their lungs, with those clanging cowbells now silent.

But how much of a debate would we have really had? If Mississippi State and the three above mentioned teams had won out, would the Bulldogs even be in the real conversation amongst the committee members? Despite a lone loss to the No. 1 team in the country and escaping the SEC West, Mullen isn't so sure.

"Even if we had won, we might not have had any of that," he said. "Now, we'll never know. I'm sure we made a lot of people around the country happy and a lot of committee members breathe a big sigh of relief right now."

And that shows some of the early flaws in this brand-new playoff system. While we will finally get to see the national championship decided on the field during the last month of the season, the chaos that four deserving one-loss teams would have created shows the holes in this process.

What means more: good wins or good losses?

Does strength of schedule go out the window if your nonconference slate is weak, even though you play in a division that should replace the NFC South in the NFL?

Does a bad loss to Virginia Tech (by Ohio State) mean nothing anymore?

These are just a few questions we'd be asking if the doomsday scenario had played out. We saw one team cut down the chaos a little this weekend, but Mullen said an 11-1 Mississippi State team would have changed the course of the playoff forever because of the controversy it would have created.

"You could go over to our school of engineering, which is one of the best in the country, and have them start figuring out the best formula to get the job done, and I don't know if they would [be able to]," Mullen said.

Well, what if you have eight teams instead of just four? Wouldn't he feel a lot better about his 10-2 team?

"Unless you're [ranked] nine. Right now, I guess I'd be lobbying to be eight," Mullen said.

Saturday also told us we really don't know everything. What's made this season so entertaining is that there isn't a dominant team in college football. Even that undefeated team in Tallahassee, Florida, isn't impressive enough to warrant No. 1 status.

We have one more weekend of football ahead of us, and nothing should be assured or assumed. Mississippi State was supposed to win in Oxford and sit on the cusp of the playoff. Then, Mississippi State's tackling was atrocious and the offense sputtered.

Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott looked anything like an award-winning quarterback for most of the game, and the beat-up Rebels found stars in tight end Evan Engram and running back Jaylen Walton, who combined for 324 yards of offense and had jaw-dropping plays of 83 and 91 yards, respectively.

With hobbled quarterback Bo Wallace toughing it out on a bum ankle, the Rebels rolled up 532 yards of offense and averaged 8.6 yards per play.

Football happened, and Mississippi State was on the wrong end of it … against that school he hates.

"I don't think it takes away from the season. It's just disgusting to lose this game," said Mullen, who fell to 4-2 against Ole Miss. "This game is really not part of the season. It's the Egg Bowl, and it's kind of a bowl game in itself. It's a game that's separate of the rest of the season. It certainly is awful to lose."

Egg Bowl stakes never higher

November, 25, 2014
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Sitting inside Mississippi State’s football facility is something Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze desperately wants. After he got his hands on the Golden Egg Trophy with a win over the Bulldogs in 2012, he watched the in-state rival reclaim it after his quarterback fumbled near the goal line in the final seconds.

“The bottom line is we lost the most prized possession of this university’s football program …" Freeze said. “That’s the facts of it, and it should be enough motivation.”

To get back that coveted prize, Freeze will have to topple a team with College Football Playoff aspirations. The Rebels are hurting, but they're dangerous and have nothing to lose, while Mississippi State has all the pressure on its side.

The Rebels (8-3, 4-3 SEC) have a chance to ruin everything the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (10-1, 6-1) have worked so hard for. The Rebels understand that while their SEC and playoff hopes are gone, they can end Mississippi State’s same hopes Saturday afternoon.

“They’re trying to ruin our season," Mississippi State center Ben Beckwith said. "We’re the top dog in the state right now."

Ah, but one does not merely walk into the Egg Bowl and snatch the egg. Not with so much on the line for the guys in maroon, and the boys in blue looking for redemption. This game might not spark the rest of the country -- or even the Deep South -- like the Iron Bowl, but its hatred is palpable.

Families are divided. Friendships are damaged. Recruiting bitterness motivates guys, and bragging rights fuel that extra push. This is a yearlong rivalry that consumes a state that has no pro sports teams.

There’s a clock that ticks down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the Egg Bowl inside Mississippi State’s locker room. Freeze has family and friends on both sides. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork even picks at Mississippi State fans on Twitter, and southern transplant Dan Mullen can count the number of times he has said the words “Ole Miss” on a couple of fingers.

“This is always the biggest game of the year for us,” said Mullen, who refers to Ole Miss only as "The School Up North."

“We’re going to get into a hostile environment," Mullen said. "I’ve heard that people in Oxford don’t like me very much. I don’t know, I’m a pretty nice guy. I’m sure they’ll have a lot of choice things to say to me. … This is a special week, this is what makes the game so much fun. I know for everyone in this state, this whole week is all about the Egg Bowl.”

Mississippi State fans think Ole Miss fans exude an annoying arrogance, while there’s a big-brother complex with Rebels fans. It’s blue collar vs. white collar.

Recruiting gets ugly, too. Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson had to deal with Mississippi State fans alleging wild NCAA violations surrounding his recruitment. Mississippi State defensive lineman Chris Jones received with death threats -- from both sides -- before and after he signed with the Bulldogs.

After winning in 2010, Mullen proudly proclaimed, “We’re never losing to this team again.” In 2012, video of Mullen saying that was looped on the video board inside Vaught-Heminway Stadium late in the Rebels’ 41-24 win.

“I’m ready to go back to Oxford and take care of business,” said Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, who was there in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesOle Miss is desperate to allow no such celebration for Dak Prescott this season.
Saturday will mark the 111th time these two, separated by roughly 95 miles of rural highways, have played, and it’ll be the first time since 1999 that both will meet as ranked opponents. This one could be the biggest yet. It’s a special game that is getting primetime treatment because of SEC and playoff implications. This is what rivalry games are made of, and while the Egg Bowl’s rich tradition hasn’t really resonated fully on the entire college football landscape, many eyes will be on the Grove this weekend.

"It's the most important game of the year, especially them being 10-1," Ole Miss receiver Vince Sanders told members of the media this week. "They're going to come in after our performance last week and feel like it's an easy win. But I think our guys understand the importance of this game. … All the work we go through in the summer and spring, we worked for this game.

“Everybody will understand it."

In all honesty, these sides plain don’t like each other. There’s some respect, but not much love.

Beckwith, who grew up about 50 miles north of Oxford in Benton, Mississippi, but was never recruited by the Rebels, has friends on Ole Miss’ team and his brother actually went there for school, so there’s nothing personal, but …

“I just don’t like them,” Beckwith said of the Rebels. “I’ll be honest with you.”

And if his brother tries to cheer for Ole Miss?

“It’s kinda, ‘Hey, you can either cheer for me or you can get out of here,’” Beckwith said.

For Freeze, who grew up in the backyard of the rivalry in Independence, Mississippi, he chooses the respect route. He isn’t into name-calling, is fine with one of his best friends attending Mississippi State and is cordial with Mullen.

“I know this one is pretty intense and sometimes in my opinion it crosses the line to what is good and all of that,” Freeze said. “I want to beat them as bad as they want to beat us, particularly two days out of the year -- this Saturday and then national signing day. Those are the two days I feel that way. I feel that way all the time, but I don’t let it control my emotions. I wish it wasn’t that way."

It’s a game that is gaining national steam this season for all the right reasons, and there will be no shortage of motivation in Oxford.

"It's State,” Ole Miss linebacker DT Shackleford said. “I feel like if you can't get up for that, you probably don't need to be playing. It's everything. It's the Egg Bowl. It's Senior Day. If I have to motivate some people for next week, they probably shouldn't be playing."
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Dan Mullen couldn't duck the question. From Sunday to Friday, he was asked over and over by media and fans alike, "How are you going to respond? How is our team going to respond?"

And every time he'd tell them the truth. He'd say, "We had a great week of practice."

It wasn't satisfying, of course, and he knew that. It wasn't coach speak, though. It was reality, he said. Even he needed to see how his team would respond on game day.

"It was going to be interesting," he said.

By the end of Saturday night, Mullen was all smiles. His Mississippi State Bulldogs didn't go in the dumps after last weekend's loss at Alabama. Instead, they took it to Vanderbilt, winning 51-0 on Senior Night. It was the program's largest margin of victory in an SEC game since 1936.

"I couldn't be happier with how our guys responded; offense, defense, kicking game, guys flying around, making plays, playing with that chip on their shoulder and really believing we have an awful lot still to play for," Mullen said. "You saw that on the field with how our guys played."

You saw it in any number of ways, really.

Even Mullen himself was feisty. At one point he grabbed his punter's facemask and gave him an earful. A few moments later he became irate over a pass interference call and ripped into a referee, drawing another flag.

Davis-Wade Stadium had life again.

The defense was aggressive and the offensive line was dominant. It was the best rhythm quarterback Dak Prescott & Co. had shown in more than a month.

On one play, linebacker Christian Holmes stripped the football, recovered the fumble and ran 51 yards for a touchdown. It was the play of the night. When Holmes got to the sideline, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins told him, "Turtle, we needed that."

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Rogelio V. Solis/AP PhotoDak Prescott and the Bulldogs shut out Vanderbilt on Saturday in a much-needed win for Mississippi State prior to its game at Ole Miss.
"After that, Tolando [Cleveland] caught the interception, and then there was one more turnover we had," Holmes said. "It was kind of a domino effect.

"Hopefully next week we can do the same thing."

A win against Ole Miss on Saturday would keep Mississippi State's dream of reaching the College Football Playoff alive. If Alabama loses to Auburn, it would also mean a trip to Atlanta to compete in the SEC championship game.

But this past weekend's game against Vanderbilt was about setting the table.

It was about making a statement, players said.

"We just wanted to come back and respond," said linebacker Matt Wells. "It was a tough loss last week, so we wanted to come back and redeem ourselves."

Ben Beckwith called it "a huge, big momentum swing."

"We were kind of in a lull," the offensive lineman said. "I wouldn't say we were playing bad, we weren't playing with a lot of juice, a lot of action. We were playing timid with that No. 1 beside us. We got the loss last week in a tough game and we played well in the second half, and I think that carried over into today."

He later added, "It was an awesome win, a dominant win, a statement win that says, 'Hey, we lost a game, but we came back stronger. We're going to keep doing our thing. We're still one of the best team in the country.'"

It came against 3-8 Vanderbilt, granted, but Mississippi State can't help its schedule. Judged in a vacuum, the outcome was impressive.

It was just what the doctor ordered.

"That's exactly what we wanted to do, to come out and show how hungry we were after that loss," said Prescott, who fired off three touchdowns and no interceptions. "We just had to respond, and we did exactly that on offense and defense. Just a good, complete game from the whole team.

"We got back to that team we were earlier in the year."

Back to the team that rose to No. 1 in a hurry.

Some other team took its place in the weeks that followed.

Now No. 4 in the polls with a razor-thin margin for error, the question becomes which team shows up for Saturday's must-win game in Oxford.

"What we want is still ahead of us," said receiver Joe Morrow. "We still have to get there. We just have to work, work, work, and then hopefully we'll be in the final four."

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