Bull­dogs’ Mullen loves where he is

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - 11 a.m. Satur­day, Reynolds Ra­zor­back Sta­dium, Fayet­teville (CBS) BOB HOLT

FAYET­TEVILLE — Mis­sis­sippi State Coach Dan Mullen’s name is com­ing up for a lot of job open­ings, es­pe­cially in the SEC.

Mullen is high atop the list of can­di­dates to fill va­can­cies at Florida — where he was Ur­ban Meyer’s of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor — and Ten­nessee.

That’s what hap­pens when a coach has Mis­sis­sippi State (7-3, 3-3 SEC) headed to a bowl game for the eighth con­sec­u­tive sea­son.

Be­fore Mullen be­came the Bull­dogs’ coach in 2009, their long­est stretch of con­sec­u­tive bowl ap­pear­ances was three years. His win­ning per­cent­age of .602 (68-45) is the sec­ond-high­est for a Mis­sis­sippi State coach be­hind Al­lyn McKeen, who had a .764 win­ning per­cent­age (65-19-3) in 1939-1948 and is a mem­ber of the Col­lege Foot­ball Hall of Fame.

Mullen, who will lead No. 16 Mis­sis­sippi State against the Arkansas Ra­zor­backs on Satur­day, has in­sisted he’s not look­ing for an­other job.

“I love the one I have,” Mullen said Mon­day. “I think

what you see is what we’ve been able to build Mis­sis­sippi State into. As I keep say­ing, I think everybody has an opin­ion in the world about what I should and shouldn’t do. Peo­ple that know me, and friends that have known me for a long time, know I like my own opin­ion. I’m not re­ally in­ter­ested in other peo­ple’s opin­ions all that much.”

With one no­table ex­cep­tion: his wife Megan.

“I lis­ten to her,” Mullen said. “I’ve got no choice but to do that. I’d get in trouble if not.”

Mullen has an an­nual salary of $4.5 mil­lion, which ranks fourth in the SEC and 14th na­tion­ally. He said he likes hav­ing an ath­letic di­rec­tor who was a coach — John Co­hen, Mis­sis­sippi State’s for­mer baseball coach — and a school pres­i­dent in Mark Keenum who “hugely sup­ports our foot­ball team.”

Mullen also said he is pleased with the up­grades at Davis Wade Sta­dium, where the Bull­dogs took No. 1 Alabama to the wire be­fore the Crim­son Tide ral­lied to win 31-24 last week be­fore a rau­cous, cow­bell-ring­ing an­nounced crowd of 61,133.

“Look at the at­mos­phere Satur­day night,” Mullen said. “I have a great job.”

De­spite Mullen’s suc­cess, Mis­sis­sippi State con­tin­ues to be un­der­es­ti­mated by many in the me­dia.

The Bull­dogs, picked in

the pre­sea­son by mem­bers of the SEC me­dia to fin­ish sixth in the West, are fourth and have a shot to fin­ish 5-3.

Mis­sis­sippi State has been picked to fin­ish last or nextto-last in the West seven times in Mullen’s nine sea­sons.

The only time the Bull­dogs have fin­ished worse than their SEC me­dia days pre­dic­tion was in 2011, when they were fifth af­ter be­ing picked fourth.

Mis­sis­sippi State was picked to fin­ish fifth in the West in 2014 when the Bull­dogs took sec­ond at 6-2, were ranked No. 1 in the na­tion for four weeks, went to the Or­ange Bowl and fin­ished 10-3.

Even with star quar­ter­back Dak Prescott re­turn­ing in 2015, the Bull­dogs were picked last. They fin­ished 4-4 in the con­fer­ence and 8-5 over­all.

Prescott, who starts for the Dal­las Cow­boys, is among the

stand­out quar­ter­backs Mullen has de­vel­oped along with Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Te­bow at Florida.

Mullen’s lat­est star quar­ter­back is ju­nior Nick Fitzger­ald, who has ran or passed for 26 of Mis­sis­sippi State’s 36 touch­downs this sea­son.

Fitzger­ald, 6-5 and 230 pounds, has com­pleted 146 of 258 passes (56.6 per­cent) for 1,617 yards and 13 touch­downs with 10 in­ter­cep­tions and rushed 137 times for 867 yards and 13 touch­downs.

“The thing I’m most ex­cited about is his ma­tu­rity of un­der­stand­ing of the game at this point,” Mullen said. “When he comes off the side­line af­ter a se­ries, you’re hav­ing a much more higher-level dis­cus­sion about the game of foot­ball than in the past. … It shows the un­der­stand­ing he has of what our of­fense is, why we’re do­ing what we’re do­ing and how we’re go­ing to use that to at­tack the de­fense.”

Fitzger­ald com­pleted 15 of 23 passes for 180 yards and 2 touch­downs and rushed for 90 yards and 2 touch­downs in the Bull­dogs’ 37-7 vic­tory over LSU in the SEC opener.

“Nick op­er­ated their game plan to per­fec­tion,” LSU Coach Ed Org­eron said. “He was on fire that night. He ran the ball well, he threw the ball well. He was a great quar­ter­back that night.”

The Bull­dogs’ de­fense is led by sopho­more tackle Jef­fery Sim­mons, who has 50 tack­les, 81/2 for 38 yards in losses.

“Mis­sis­sippi State is very

phys­i­cal on both sides of the ball,” said Ken­tucky Coach Mark Stoops, whose Wild­cats lost to the Bull­dogs 45-7. “I think they’re play­ing at a very high level.”

The Bull­dogs couldn’t hold on to a 24-17 lead against Alabama in the fourth quar­ter. The Tide stayed un­beaten, thanks to a touch­down pass from Jalen Hurts to Devonta Smith with 26 sec­onds left and a stop by their de­fense on the game’s fi­nal play when Fitzger­ald’s pass went be­yond the end zone.

“I thought we went toe-to­toe with them for four quar­ters,” Mullen said. “I thought both teams played well.

“They didn’t turn it over, give up ex­plo­sive plays or tip balls to keep us in the game. They just made more plays at the end, or re­ally through­out the whole course of the game.”

Mis­sis­sippi State won its only SEC foot­ball ti­tle in 1941 and has played in the SEC Cham­pi­onship Game once, los­ing to Ten­nessee 24-14 in 1998.

“I think we’re get­ting there,” Mullen said. “I came here al­most nine years ago now to build a team that’s go­ing to com­pete for cham­pi­onships. I think we’ve taken Step 1 of be­ing a con­sis­tent win­ner, of go­ing to bowl games. I think we flirted with it a cou­ple of years ago.

“I think we’re try­ing to get closer to be a team right now that can go com­pete for that cham­pi­onship. We want to be a team that does that con­sis­tently.”

AP/RO­GE­LIO V. SOLIS

Mis­sis­sippi State Coach Dan Mullen (right) in­sists he is not look­ing for an­other job, de­spite his name be­ing men­tioned for va­can­cies at Florida and Ten­nessee.

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