We've talked before about how close Dan Mullen is to the Glen Mason Zone. And this season has only confirmed that the head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, set to play the Kentucky Wildcats tonight on ESPN, is in a bit of trouble. He might not be on the verge of getting fired, but he's not exactly safe, and he's certainly firmly entrenched on the hot seat. A loss tonight would increase the calls for Mullen's head.
It's worth noting that this has not been Mullen's finest season. Both SEC games have been losses, including the 59-26 wipeout against LSU. State beat Bowling Green by one, and the Bulldogs have yet to score 30 points against an FBS team not named Troy -- something that reflects particularly poorly on a head coach that was expected to be an offensive guru.
And the prospects for Mississippi State to keep its bowl streak alive are dimming, in large part thanks to the loss to Auburn in the third game of the year. As it is, the Bulldogs are going to have to beat one of South Carolina, Texas A&M, Alabama and Ole Miss to get to the postseason; if they lose tonight, they will have to win two of those games, even if they win at Arkansas in a few weeks. A victory in one of the more difficult games is feasible, though the South Carolina and A&M games are on the road. Two is stretching things.
But all of the criticism ignores the fact that, by record, Mullen is still one of the better Mississippi State coaches in recent years -- and maybe the best in almost 60 years. At 32-25, Mullen is the first coach since Darrell Royal in 1954-55 to have a winning record over his entire tenure at Mississippi State. (Even if the Bulldogs wipe out completely this year and finish 3-9, which is extremely unlikely, Mullen will be 32-31.) He is only the third coach who has spent more than four seasons at Mississippi State to have a winning record; the others are Allyn McKeen, who had a .764 winning percentage from 1939-48, and W.D. Chadwick, who had a .698 mark from 1909-13.
Over its entire history, Mississippi State has a .484 winning percentage. Currently, Mullen's winning percentage is .561 -- almost 80 points higher. Even if he lost every remaining game this year, the improvement would still be more than 20 points. In a more likely worst-case scenario where the Bulldogs go 4-8, Mullen would still be at .523, an uptick of nearly 40 points.
Any State fans ready to show Mullen the door should also consider that there is a cost to replacing any head coach. The season after Minnesota fired Glen Mason, the team went 1-11. It has had one winning season since Mason left and three bowl bids, after Mason led them to five straight before he was let go. The Gophers still need at least one win -- perhaps against Indiana -- to get bowl eligible as they face by far the most difficult part of their schedule. It has been a long road back just to where Minnesota was when Mason was fired.
That doesn't mean that Mullen should be invulnerable to criticism. There are plenty of caveats to keep in mind when it comes to his record -- the easier standards for playing FCS schools, the proliferation of midmajors that count as FBS games, etc. For Mullen to face some increased pressure to at least be more competitive against the likes of Alabama and LSU is reasonable. But for him to face a win-or-else season this year is a bit too much.