When Dan Mullen arrived in Starkville to much fanfare, it was supposed to be a new beginning for the program. In many ways, it was. His spread option offense brought modernity after the stone age offenses of Sylvester Croom, and for once, people could get truly excited about Bulldogs football. It was widely assumed that he would either fall on his face right away or succeed wildly and soon take a job elsewhere.
Three years in, and it's not conformed to either of those expectations. Mullen's first year was a 5-7 season, but transitions take time and no one expected immediate miracles anyway. His second in 2010 was spectacular. He went 9-4, including defeating his old boss in Gainesville and dealing the death blow to the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan. Next came 2011, and some of the strides seemed to fade away. The offense didn't take the next step, failing to manage three touchdowns per game and 300 yards per game in conference play. It was a fairly standard Mississippi State year historically, with wins over the teams it should have beaten, a couple close calls, and bad losses to the elite teams.
So now the question comes: what's next for Mullen and Mississippi State?
Winning six to eight games a year is good living in Starkville, and Mullen would be doing well to accomplish that year in and year out. Is he going to be satisfied with that? He's been talking since he arrived about competing for the SEC West title, but even in the great 2010 season he finished fifth out of six in the division. Nothing that has happened for him there has been as bad as Houston Nutt's collapse at rival Ole Miss, but he's yet to stake a claim of even being in the top half of the West. He hasn't even beaten a single West team other than the Rebels.
Given that the West has been the best division in college football the past few years, it was always going to be an uphill climb. When you put elite coaches like Nick Saban and Les Miles at elite programs like Alabama and LSU, few coaches in history could compete much with that at Mississippi State. Bobby Petrino's sudden departure from Arkansas could provide an opportunity to move up in the coming years, and Gene Chizik is of yet a one-year wonder courtesy of Cam Newton. If Chizik needs transcendent players to field elite teams, then maybe MSU could pass Auburn one day too.
Two things work against Mullen in that regard. One is that his recruiting, while not bad, hasn't been among the top of the conference. The second factor, which is related, is that the spread option isn't taking anyone by surprise anymore. It has become more of a talent magnifier than a way to get more out of less, and if Mullen's teams are constantly at a talent disadvantage, his schemes are not going to put him over the top.
So where will Mullen's tenure in Starkville go from here? Will he one day put it together and really take off? Will he end up like Steve Spurrier at South Carolina where a slow burn turns into division competitiveness? Or will he just guide the program along at the high end of its historical norms, blowing out bad non-conference foes and winning two to four SEC games per year? This year is another step along that journey, but I don't think any of us will know even once the season is over.