Dan Mullen’s old team will be better than his new one. That’s a good thing

The stable foundation Mullen left at Mississippi State speaks highly of his potential at Florida
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads a Bulldogs team that could compete in the SEC West. [ AP FILE PHOTO ]
Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald leads a Bulldogs team that could compete in the SEC West. [ AP FILE PHOTO ]
Published July 18, 2018

ATLANTA — The difference between where the Gators are and where they could be showed up in back-to-back days behind a podium at the College Football Hall of Fame.

On Tuesday, first-year Florida coach Dan Mullen said the program he inherited has been inconsistent and unstable.

On Wednesday, first-year Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead praised the groundwork and individual pieces Mullen left behind.

"Part of our task as a staff is to elevate the program — which has a very solid foundation — from good to great," Moorhead said during SEC media days.

The Gators were a long way from great, or even good, during last year's 4-7 flop, and it's been years since their foundation was solid. That's why Urban Meyer called the program "broken" on his way out the door. And why Jim McElwain bemoaned the "really insufficient" roster and lackluster facilities after his arrival. And why Mullen said shell-shocked players have been searching for the bedrock principles that breed sustained success.

Maybe Mullen can fix those problems this year, but a multi-year rebuilding project seems more likely. That means UF fans in search of optimism shouldn't only be looking in Gainesville this fall.

They should look toward Starkville, too, where Mullen's old team will be better than his new one.

RELATED: SEC media days: Mississippi State not looking ahead to Dan Mullen's return

While the Gators continue to sort through their options at quarterback, Mississippi State knows its starter: Senior Nick Fitzgerald, who leads all returning quarterbacks nationally in career rushing touchdowns (33), 100-yard games (14) and yards per carry (6.5).

Fitzgerald still doesn't know what Mullen saw in him as a two-star recruit. But Fitzgerald does know that if the Bulldogs hadn't offered him at a summer camp, he likely would have ended up at the next school that gave him an offer: Middle Tennessee State.

"I'd probably be in Murfreesboro," Fitzgerald said.

Instead, thanks to the opportunity and coaching Mullen provided, he'll be the star player on a top-25 team.

Mullen's Bulldogs didn't land the type of star-studded recruiting classes UF should be able to attract, but he amassed and developed enough talent to leave Moorhead with an SEC West contender.

Running back Aeris Williams' 1,107 yards last season are second among SEC returners. Few teams outside of Clemson have a pair of defensive lineman as talented or touted as tackle Jeffery Simmons and all-SEC end Montez Sweat.

"That defensive line is scary," Fitzgerald said.

College football prognosticator Phil Steele counts only four teams in the country with more experience than the Bulldogs. Among Power Five teams, only Michigan State, Kansas and Baylor return more production, according to advanced metrics guru Bill Connelly.

The solid foundation Mullen left in Starkville should be ready to peak.

"Because we have a lot of starters returning and a lot of production coming back," Moorhead said, "it's probably elevated the level of expectation for us."

Whether the Bulldogs can live up to that level of expectation is up to Moorhead. But the fact that those expectations even exist at a one-time doormat is thanks to Mullen.

The years of good Mullen produced at Mississippi State won't be enough at Florida, where the Gators standard is great. But consistently good be a nice place to start.

Mullen did it in Starkville, where he left a stable program better than he found it.

Now he'll have to do it again.