The last time Dan Mullen coached at Sun Life Stadium he had two jobs — offensive coordinator for the national championship Florida Gators and new head coach at Mississippi State.
On Wednesday, the 42-year-old Mullen was more than happy to be back in South Florida preparing to coach his seventh-ranked Bulldogs (10-2) in the New Year’s Eve Capital One Orange Bowl.
In six years, Mullen has turned Mississippi State from a bottom-dweller in the Southeastern Conference to the top-ranked team in the country until a few weeks ago.
With a win over Atlantic Coast Conference runner-up Georgia Tech (10-3) here in three weeks, the Bulldogs would complete their first 11-win season. But win or lose, Mullen said the road back here has been pretty special.
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“They actually found our Orange Bowl trophy from 1941 the other day, cleaned it up and have it out on display right now [at Mississippi State],” Mullen said Wednesday as he sat across from Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, 57, pool side at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood.
“When I took over at Mississippi State there were a lot of people doubting what we could do, what we could accomplish,” Mullen continued. “What an unbelievable reward it is for us to come and get to play in one of the most prestigious bowls there are. I think it’s lifted everybody up to a whole new level. [There’s] a new set of expectations at Mississippi State University now and for the future.”
Johnson, who had his contract extended four years through the 2020 season last Saturday (before his Yellow Jackets fought Florida State to the finish in the ACC title game), said reaching the Orange Bowl was his team’s goal from the start of the season.
“We took kind of an indirect route here this time, but we’re excited to be here,” said Johnson, who led the Yellow Jackets to the Orange Bowl in 2010.
“We’re excited to play a team the caliber of Mississippi State from the SEC. What Dan has accomplished there, it’s really amazing when you think about it. He does a tremendous job and this is a tremendous football team, so we know we’ll have a big challenge.”
The Bulldogs, early seven-point favorites for the Dec.31 game, have the biggest star on either team on their side — quarterback Dak Prescott.
The 6-4, 230-pound junior has drawn plenty of comparisons to Mullen’s most famous pupil, Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow at Florida. They both wear the same jersey number (15) and they both are as dangerous running the ball as they are throwing it.
“Their quarterback may be bigger than our defensive linemen, so we’ll have to figure out a way to get him down,” Johnson said of Prescott. “He’s quite the player. I was joking with somebody earlier, we probably have to stack [our quarterback] Justin [Thomas] up twice to get up to him.”
On paper, Thomas (5-11, 189) is clearly smaller than Prescott. But that means little to Johnson, who said Thomas has the best skill set of any quarterback he’s had at Georgia Tech “as far as being able to run the [triple-option] offense.”
Both teams come in averaging more than 37 points a game. The Yellow Jackets rank third in rushing offense (333.6 yards per game), lead the nation in third-down efficiency (57.0 percent) and rank second in defensive touchdowns scored (six).
Mississippi State ranks ninth in total offense (506.2 yards per game), 13th in third-down defense (32.8 percent) and 25th in rush defense (126.5 yards per game).
“The key for us when you’re playing a team like Georgia Tech, with the discipline they play and how fundamentally sound they are, you’re not going to get a lot of possessions on offense,” Mullen said. “So we have to be completely sound on every single snap of the game on defense. One missed assignment and they’re going to be walking into the end zone.”
▪ Mullen said Mississippi State will be without starting safety and fifth-leading tackler Kendick Market (achilles) for the bowl game. Johnson said Georgia Tech will be without leading receiver DeAndre Smelter (ACL) and running back Tony Zenon (ACL).