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Dan Mullen: For Whom the Cowbell Tolls

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This season will be a big year for Dan Mullen and his Mississippi State Bulldogs. Mullen has improved things in Starkville, but the coaching carousel being what it is, it’s fair to wonder if he might ply his trade elsewhere.

A bad 2013 would decrease Mullen’s coaching stock with other schools while a good year might be enough to convince Mullen that Mississippi State isn’t eternally resigned to SEC mediocrity.

When Mississippi State hired Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs expected offensive fireworks.

Mullen is a protégé of former Florida and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Mullen served as the quarterbacks coach under head coach Meyer at Bowling Green from 2001-02. When Meyer left Bowling Green for Utah, Mullen followed. Then when Meyer was offered the job at Florida, he brought Mullen along to continue as the quarterbacks coach.

Through all those stops, Urban Meyer and his QB coach Dan Mullen ran a spread offense that put up huge offensive numbers and made stars of quarterbacks like Josh Harris, Alex Smith and Tim Tebow.

When Sylvester Croom resigned, Mississippi State was coming off a 4-8 season. During Croom’s five years in Starkville, the Bulldogs were 21-38 and enjoyed just one winning season. Mullen’s arrival in 2009 reinvigorated a frustrated fan base that had seen their team drop into SEC obscurity.

Utilizing Mullen’s spread offense, the Bulldogs almost immediately made serious in-roads. Though his first season concluded with a 5-7 record, Mississippi State finished with the nation’s ninth-best rushing attack by averaging 227.6 yards per game according to Hail State. The Bulldogs also beat in-state rival Ole Miss.

In only his second year at the helm, Mullen led State to a 9-4 record that included another win against Ole Miss and a bowl victory against Michigan.

Such quick success at a traditional SEC doormat raised Mullen’s profile. His coaching resume included tutelage under two-time national champion Urban Meyer, a long list of offensive players he’d developed into NFL prospects and an ability to make his high-speed spread offense work even at a program like Mississippi State.

Such a sterling reputation meant that Mullen’s name came up anytime a coaching position opened. In 2010, his name came up in connection to Miami. Since then, Tennessee, Penn State, Colorado and others have all been rumored to be interested in the Mississippi State coach.

Even though Mullen says all the right things about loving Starkville, it would seem that his tenure there is tenuous.

Since the nine-win season in his second year, Mullen won 7 games in 2011 and 8 in 2012. But the Bulldogs have not finished better than 4-4 in the SEC. The SEC West is the toughest division in the country’s toughest conference. So the question that inevitably comes up is: has Mullen taken Mississippi State as far as the Bulldogs can go?

Mullen’s coaching stock can only go so high. He continually has one of the most prolific offenses in the country and certainly holds his own in the SEC. But Mullen is 5 -16 against teams in the SEC West according to ESPN. Imagining his Bulldogs leapfrogging the likes of Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M is difficult.

Worse still, by not jettisoning Mississippi State for a program in an easier conference, Dan Mullen might have missed his window.

Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss spent the offseason putting together a monumental recruiting class. His Rebels look primed to return to glory. If Freeze breathes new life into Ole Miss, then Mullen might not be the most highly-regarded coach in the state of Mississippi.

Stay or leave, 2013 will be a big year for Dan Mullen. If things go bad, then Mullen’s coaching stock might drop to the point that big-time programs aren’t as inclined to try and lure him away from Mississippi State. If things go well, then Mullen will need to make a tough decision.

If he intends to find a program where it’s easier to win, then Mullen's best move is to go while the getting is good. If, on the other hand, he decides show the sort of loyalty to Mississippi State that Robert Jordan showed to the cause of the Spanish rebels in For Whom the Bell Tolls, then Mullen will need another solid season so that he doesn’t lose ground to Ole Miss.

Of course, it’s worth noting that if Mullen goes the Robert Jordan route, he may sacrifice himself to a lost cause out of strong sense of duty.