Note: The following article was contributed by a regular reader/commenter who posts with the screen name Rocketdawg.
A popular meme of the 2020 offseason is that Dan Mullen is a coaching genius, some would argue that he is a Top 3-5 coach in college football. When pressed to justify their praise for a coach in his 11th season at the helm of an SEC program who has yet to win a division title much less a conference championship the familiar refrain is that he “won at Mississippi State which is very hard to do and went to 7 bowl games”.
I decided to go back and do a deep dive on Mullen’s coaching career and see if a closer examination of the stats would settle the argument in one way or the other.
By definition Mullen is an above-average coach according to his win percentage, however, all wins are not created equally. Mississippi State has a natural in conference rival (Ole Miss) which allows the Bizzaro Bulldogs to schedule four “body bag” games per year in the non-conference slate.
Of Mullen’s 90 career wins 38 have come at the expense of FCS (13), Conference USA (12), Sun Belt (6), and other Group of 5/Independents (not named Notre Dame) (7). Occasionally the sacrificial lamb will not roll over as they are supposed to which has resulted in losses to Houston (CUSA), South Alabama (Sun Belt), and BYU (Independent).
When the Bulldogs ventured out of conference against a power 5 opponent it hasn’t gone well either with losses against Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech (non-bowl).
Mullen’s teams have also feasted on the cellar dwellers of the SEC with 26 wins against Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.
Against the middle of the pack SEC teams Mullen has 8 wins (South Carolina, Missouri, and Texas A&M) with 5 coming against teams that were over .500.
Mullen has not faired well against the upper echelon of the conference notching 9 combined wins against Auburn (4, one was the 3-9 team), LSU (3 all 8,9,10 win teams), UGA (1, 6-7 2010 team), UF (1, 8-5 record), and Alabama (zero wins). The biggest scalp that a Mullen team has claimed would be the 2014 Auburn team that came into Starkville ranked #2.
The 2014 Mississippi State team could be considered the high water mark thus far in Mullen’s career. That team featured Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott and debuted at #1 in the first-ever College Football Playoff rankings. After dispatching three ranked teams in a row (#8 LSU, #6 TAMU, #2 Auburn) the Bulldogs were flying high until running into a highly motivated Alabama team (ranked #4 at the time) which gave them their first loss. Ole Miss managed to pull off the upset in the Egg Bowl with Georgia Tech handing Mullen his third loss of the season. On paper, this looks like a fantastic season and would lend credence to the legend of Mullen’s coaching prowess. Upon further review, this season was a lot of smoke and mirrors and beating up on some bad football teams. 4 wins would come against two CUSA, one Sun Belt, and one FCS team. UK (5-7) and Vandy (3-9) would add two more wins to the total. Those three wins against ranked teams? LSU (8-5), TAMU (8-5), Auburn at (you guessed it) 8-5. A 7-6 Arkansas team would count for the 10th win.
Since taking over at Florida, Mullen has amassed an impressive 21-5 record with two New Year’s Six bowl wins. Five of the 21 wins are against FCS or Group of 5 teams, 8 more are against teams with sub-.500 records, 8 wins are against teams with over .500 records. 3 wins are against ranked teams with two against teams in the top 10 (LSU ‘18, Auburn ‘19). Mullen has four wins against teams with 9 or more wins.
Winning at a program like Mississippi State where there is little established culture of success is impressive on the surface, however with the 12 game schedule which includes four non-conference “buy-a-win” games, a fixed crossover opponent in Kentucky, an in-state rival in Ole Miss, a down SEC East for most of the 2010s, and a mediocre to bad Arkansas team Mullen was almost guaranteed a 6-8 win season. Pick off an LSU, Auburn, or TAMU on a down year and all of a sudden people are noticing you. Winning at a school like Florida is expected and I suspect another loss to UGA with no division title in 2020 and Mullen’s seat will start to get warm.
Based on my research Mullen is a good coach who beats the teams he is supposed to Beat and loses to teams who are of equal or greater talent. The statements of him being one of the 3-5 best coaches in college football are greatly exaggerated.