Another offseason came and went without Dan Mullen loading up the moving van and fleeing Starkville, Mississippi.
There was speculation, of course, that he would take a job elsewhere. Maybe another Power 5 program would make a run at him after watching him build Mississippi State into a perennial bowl team. Or maybe the NFL would take interest, given the way Dak Prescott, one of his former quarterbacks, transitioned so well to starting for the Cowboys. There were reports on both ends of the spectrum these past few months.
But in the end, Mullen sat tight and collected a four-year contract extension earlier this week that will pay him $ 4.5 million this season.
Not bad for playing in the shadows of the big boys of the SEC.
While he may never get Mississippi State to Alabama or LSU levels of consistent national attention, Mullen has continually found successes in his home of roughly eight years now.
In the beginning, they were small: simply reaching a bowl game merited applause. Then he found an overlooked prospect in Haughton, Louisiana, named Dakota Prescott and molded him into an All-SEC quarterback. Together, Mullen and Prescott took the school to unforeseen heights, setting records for offensive production and reaching No. 1 in the rankings for the first time in program history. And even when Prescott moved on and it looked as if a down season was in store, Mullen somehow developed a freshman quarterback while hampered with the league’s worst defense and still managed to slip through the backdoor of bowl eligibility.
Mississippi State has had 12 nine-win seasons in its 100-plus years of existence and Mullen has orchestrated three of them. He’s been a part of a bowl game for each of the past seven seasons.
Looking ahead to next season, there’s no reason to believe Mullen won’t pull off some of the same magic we’ve become accustomed to.
Already, there’s buzz that Nick Fitzgerald will become one of the best quarterbacks in the league as a junior. Donald Gray is back after racking up over 700 yards receiving last season and coaches are excited about the development of rising sophomore running back Nick Gibson.
On defense, there are nice set pieces in defensive end Jeffery Simmons, linebackers Leo Lewis and Gerri Green and safeties Brandon Bryant and Mark McLaurin. What’s more, there’s optimism in the coaching ranks now that Peter Sirmon has been replaced at defensive coordinator with former Louisville and Georgia assistant Todd Grantham.
Making a run at the division title might be farfetched, but for a program that Mullen describes as “developmental” in nature, it’s hard not to see plenty of room for growth in the future as Fitzgerald matures as a passer and the team develops more weapons around him.
If anything, this could be the season where State plays the role of spoiler in the West. LSU’s passing game is still a mystery, Auburn has questions on both sides of the football and Ole Miss faces an uncertain future with the cloud of an NCAA notice of allegations lingering over the program.
With Hugh Freeze on the hot seat, a bowl ban in place and scholarship reductions already underway, Ole Miss could leave a power vacuum in Mississippi that State would gladly fill.
Whether that happens or not is anyone’s guess, but if you’re wearing maroon and white right now it’s easy to imagine a rosy picture of the future.
And if you’re Mullen, what’s not to like? Other than Nick Saban at Alabama, who in the SEC has more job security than you?
If the right opportunity comes along one day, maybe he’ll leave. But maybe that day will never come.
No one thought we’d be looking at the ninth spring practice of Mullen’s tenure in Starkville, but that’s exactly where we’re at today.
It’s easy to look at it as if Mississippi State is stuck in the shadows of the SEC. Mullen, however, might call it nothing more than a little shade.