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Florida Gators-Miami Hurricanes coaching matchup began a decade ago at ... Middle Tennessee?

Dan Mullen had never heard of Manny Diaz before their random 2009 non-conference meeting. The ripples of that game lead directly to Saturday’s big one in Orlando.
Dan Mullen, left, and Manny Diaz first met on Oct. 17, 2009, when Mullen was coaching at Mississippi State and Diaz was a defensive coordinator for Middle Tennessee. [SCG/ZUMAPRESS.COM, MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY | Special to the Times]
Published Aug. 23
Updated Aug. 23

The coaching clash between Florida’s Dan Mullen and Miami’s Manny Diaz will be the center of the college football universe Saturday night.

Mullen’s No. 8 Gators boast sky-high expectations following a breakthrough first year. Diaz is making his head coaching debut after an offseason spent trying to revitalize what he calls The New Miami. Their meeting in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium will rekindle a dormant rivalry between big-name programs and kick off the sport’s 150th anniversary.

RELATED: Florida Gators, Miami Hurricanes have the national focus. Now they must show they deserve it.

It couldn’t be much different than their first matchup a decade ago.

There was no national buzz on that blustery, mid-October afternoon in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Mullen was slogging through a 5-7 season as a first-time head coach at Mississippi State when his Bulldogs took the SEC’s first ever trip to a Sun Belt stadium. The opponent: Middle Tennessee and a defense led by some Miami native named Manny.

“I had never heard of him,” Mullen said.

Mullen learned quickly.

The creativity and passion Diaz showed in that three-touchdown loss convinced Mullen to give Diaz his first Power Five coaching job a few months later.

The ripples of that 2009 SEC-Sun Belt beat-down lead directly to Saturday’s Mullen-Manny rematch, on a stage the two could have only dreamed about 10 years ago.

Dan Mullen (seen here against LSU in 2009) was a first-time head coach at Mississippi State when he first faced Manny Diaz, a few weeks after this photo was taken. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) [ROGELIO V. SOLIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS]

• • •

The crowd of 23,882 at Floyd Stadium had barely settled in when the duel between Diaz and Mullen began.

Two minutes into the first quarter, Diaz sent a Middle Tennessee linebacker backpedaling 8 yards into the secondary. A defensive back crept to the line of scrimmage, moved back 5 yards then returned to the line to rush off the edge.

As all of that happened to the quarterback’s right, a linebacker blitzed from his left. Another one paused, then shot through up the middle.

It was chaotic. It was unconventional.

It worked. The pass fell incomplete.

RELATED: What Jimbo Fisher, Manny Diaz have in common

“It was just a lot of movement,” said Gators co-offensive coordinator John Hevesy, then Mullen’s offensive line coach.

The movement had a point. Diaz’s Blue Raiders weren’t going to beat an SEC team on skill. He had to win on strategy.

Linebackers twisted. Defensive backs blitzed. Three-man fronts morphed into six-man rushes.

The creativity wasn’t enough for Diaz to overcome the talent gap; Mississippi State pulled away for a 27-6 win. But Diaz made a statement.

His defense held the Bulldogs to 5-of-17 on third down and 333 yards. In Mullen’s 48 non-conference games as a head coach, only Northwestern in the Gator Bowl has stymied his offense more. Diaz’s fist pumps were unmistakable from the opposing sideline.

RELATED: Miami Hurricanes: Seven position coaches have Scott Patchan ready to star

Mullen was so impressed with Diaz’s energy and innovation that he added the name of a coach he knew nothing about to his folder of potential hires.

“You don’t know when someone’s going to walk out that door,” Mullen said.

A few months later, someone did.

Manny Diaz spent two years (2010 and 2015) with Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle, 2015) [JIM LYTLE | AP]

• • •

After Mullen lost defensive coordinator Carl Torbush to Kansas — yes, Kansas — that offseason, his program didn’t have the money to poach an established, high-profile assistant. He needed to hire a rising star with the creativity to overcome the Bulldogs’ talent gap in the loaded SEC West.

“You had to think outside the box for a lot of different things,” Mullen said.

Diaz had already shown he could do that, which is why his name was in Mullen’s folder. When Mullen interviewed him, Diaz’s intelligence backed up what he had seen from the field.

Diaz was impressed, too. His Blue Raiders had faced Mississippi State the year before Mullen’s arrival, and the Bulldogs’ year-over-year growth was obvious.

RELATED: Can Florida Gators jump from very good to great?

“We did not work at Middle Tennessee hoping to audition for a bigger job one day…” Diaz said. “We were enjoying our life in Murfreesboro. When Dan called, had the opportunity to bring me to Mississippi State the first time, I think we found we had a lot in common.”

They still do.

The staffs they’ve built 350 miles apart stress loyalty and familiarity. Their programs use the same buzzwords — toughness, effort, compete. They still innovate the way they did at Bowling Green and Middle Tennessee, whether it’s through Mullen’s trick plays or Diaz’s turnover chain.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they clicked at Mississippi State after Mullen hired Diaz before the 2010 season. Their defense ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring, turnovers forced and tackles for loss. When they reunited in 2015, their Bulldogs finished in the top 10 in red zone defense and tackles for a loss.

In 114 seasons of Mississippi State football, the Bulldogs have won at least nine games only nine times.

Mullen and Diaz did it both years together.

Florida coach Dan Mullen leaves the field after last season's Peach Bowl victory over Michigan in Atlanta. Associated Press [JOHN BAZEMORE | AP]

• • •

The success Mullen and Diaz shared in Starkville catapulted both men to destination jobs.

Mullen went from an SEC also-ran to one with a championship history. Diaz climbed from unknown assistant to head coach of his hometown Hurricanes — an ascent Mullen and his lieutenants expected.

“You could see it coming a mile away,” said UF running backs coach Greg Knox, who worked with Diaz at Mississippi State and coached against him in ’09.

RELATED: Orlando opener comes full circle for Florida Gators’ Jonathan Greenard

Look hard enough, and you can even see it during that matchup in Murfreesboro.

There’s three minutes left in the second quarter when Diaz fires another blitz at Mullen. A safety swaps spots with a linebacker. An end crashes inside to draw in a blocker and open a hole. The safety squeezes through.

Sack. Diaz’s arms rise triumphantly.

It’s only one play from a meaningless, decade-old game, but it’s all there. The creativity. The energy. The success.

All the things that brought Manny Diaz and Dan Mullen together years ago and now have them at two major powers, on opposite sidelines of the biggest game of college football’s opening weekend.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes

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