Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Starkville: The Mogadishu of the United States

No official announcement yet, but by every indication UF offensive coordinator Dan Mullen will be the new head coach at Mississippi State.

I'll get into the ramifications of that in a minute, but I do want to write a few lines about Mullen's evolution. He's incredibly young by football standards, only 36, and when he came over with Urban Meyer from Utah in 2005 he was just 33. The Gators' offense in that 2005 season was pathetic, and not just in comparison to the high-flying Spurrier days. UF was 61st in the country in total offense, 56th in rushing. Poor Chris Leak tried to adapt to a foreign offense while running for his life behind a porous line that allowed 35 sacks on the year. It all culminated in a mid-season loss to LSU that featured what had to have been one of the worst offensive performances in Florida history. Mullen was not a popular guy in Gator Nation after that season.

He wasn't substantially more popular in 2006 despite the national championship. UF's offense, while statistically superior and notably more explosive than the 2005 unit, was inconsistent, as was the quality of Mullen's play-calling. He'd call a great game (the first half of the loss to Auburn) only to degenerate into predictability and ineffectiveness. (The second half of the loss to Auburn, the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Arkansas)

The talk died down slightly in 2007 as the Tim Tebow-led offense racked up huge numbers. Tebow won the Heisman and gave much of the credit to Mullen, who also acts as Florida's QB coach. Some still grumbled, as UF's offense sputtered in the fourth quarter of every one of the team's four losses, but it was hard to criticize him.

That criticism exploded to the fore this year after the Mississippi loss and actually intensified further after UF's relatively unimpressive victory over Arkansas. It was no longer possible to rationalize the offense's failings; the 2005 team had an awful line and precious few wide receivers of any value. The 2008 squad had all the talent needed to be a behemoth and Mullen was in the SEC long enough to know how to call plays in the conference. Mullen was dangerously close to falling off the cliff.

Then came the flawless win over LSU, a win that was followed by an extraordinary stretch of dominating football. And all of a sudden, the offensive coordinator of that juggernaut became a highly valued commodity.

It will be a struggle for Mullen at Mississippi State. Ole Miss is a much more prestigious university, has a much more prestigious football team and is, in innumerable ways, a more desirable place than MSU. He's not taking over a talent laden team, and the Bulldogs don't have the playmakers to successfully run a spread offense.

The more immediate concern is how this announcement will affect Florida in the National Championship Game. (Wooo!) As The Gainesville Sun story I linked indicated, there's as yet no word on whether Mullen will stick around for the game. I suspect he will. The pundits are already drawing comparisons to Mark Richt in 2000, when he took the Georgia job while preparing Florida State's gameplan for the national championship game against... Oklahoma. (Seriously, this is some Twilight Zone stuff) FSU's previously explosive offense sputtered, scoring zero points in FSU's 13-2 loss.

On the other hand, Bo Pellini took the Nebraska job while preparing LSU's defense for last year's championship game and the Tigers dominated Ohio State. And Urban Meyer himself served two masters in late 2004, preparing his Utah team for the Fiesta Bowl while recruiting for Florida. Utah eviscerated Pittsburgh, though that Panthers squad was probably the worst team to ever play in a BCS bowl. So there are certainly some positive precedents here.

It's hard to say until the details are clear, but if you figure that Mullen's departure was essentially inevitable, than this is as good a time as any for it to happen. It's early in the process, and you can hope (pray?) that the media will exhaust its distraction questions relatively soon. Better to deal with questions about whether this will distract the team than to answer "will he or won't he" questions with non-denial denials for the next month.

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