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These are heady times that Dan Mullen has cultivated in two full seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State, that's for sure.
The Bulldogs are coming off a demolition of Michigan in the Gator Bowl, State's first January bowl game in 12 years. And though they were hardly a speed bump in the talent-rich Southeastern Conference Western Division last year, they were still a tough out. (Though the LSU and Alabama losses weren't exactly close, State lost to Arkansas in double overtime and to national champion Auburn by a field goal.) To cap off the season, Mullen's Bulldogs went to Oxford and delivered a 31-23 win over Ole Miss -- or, to hear Mullen call it in the lingo that has spiced up the Magnolia State's bitter rivalry, "The School Up North."
But it doesn't end there. In the off-season, on the strength of a string of consecutive sellouts, increased donations and a generally momentum-filled fan base, the Bulldogs unveiled plans to build a new football complex and designs of what Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field would look like if it seated 75,000 fans. No doubt, State fans are as optimistic as they have been in quite some time.
That's nice and all, but how does that impact the product Mullen and the Bulldogs will roll out on that field this fall? Probably not much. But the factors that go into whether State will be successful this fall continue to paint a rosy picture.
The Bulldogs return 15 starters, including a senior quarterback, Chris Relf, who only continues to ascend toward one of the all-time best to play the spot in Starkville. A talented defensive front returns almost en masse, and State is able to pull the rare trick of returning five defensive backs who started at some point last season.
And while the offense showed room for improvement in 2010, consider this: State returns its top nine rushers, its top six receivers, all of its quarterbacks and the players who accounted for all but two of its touchdowns last fall. Vick Ballard, a senior, returns to the lineup after setting the school record for touchdowns last season (19).
Mullen's coaching staff took a couple of hits, but the way he engineered things means there probably won't be much of a drop-off. Manny Diaz, last year's defensive coordinator, is now in that role at Texas. But Chris Wilson, the new defensive coordinator, was a co-coordinator last year. Mullen hired Geoff Collins from FIU as co-coordinator and linebackers coach.
"The stability of what we do on the defensive side of the ball is really not going to change," Mullen said.
And when Mark Hudspeth left to become the head coach at Louisiana, Mullen turned to graduate assistant Angelo Mirando.
Yep, the facts sure do Mullen quite a few favors as he looks to duplicate last year's success.
The negatives? Well, some of those departed players were pretty good. Graduation depleted essentially all of the Bulldogs' linebacking corps, stole its All-Southeastern Conference left tackle (Derek Sherrod, a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers) and a center, J.C. Brignone, who was one of the team's leaders. Recruiting wasn't earth shattering in February, and the Bulldogs still compete in the toughest division of the toughest conference in the nation.
But if there's one thing Mullen has shown, it's that he's seemingly able to adapt his plan to whatever situation his roster presents him.
Maybe that's why they're so wild about him down in Starkville these days.
Head Coach: Dan Mullen (Ursinus '94)
Record at School: 14-11 (2 years)
Career Record: 14-11 (2 years)
• Les Koenning (Texas '81) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Chris Wilson (Oklahoma '92) Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line
• Geoff Collins (Western Carolina '94) Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
• John Hevesy (Maine '94) Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
• Tony Hughes (Southern Miss '80) Safeties/Recruiting Coordinator
• Greg Knox (Northeastern State '86) Running Backs
• Angelo Mirando (Case Western '08) Wide Receivers
• Scott Sallach (Ursinus '94) Tight Ends
• Melvin Smith (Millsaps '82) Cornerbacks/Nickels