“Listen, winning one SEC Championship game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” Mullen said while speaking to some Florida donors. “In two of the last three years, we’ve been to the SEC Championship game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
That was before the Bulldogs beat Florida again and returned to the SEC title game last year.
Mullen appeared to take another swipe at Georgia not long after quarterback Justin Fields entered the transfer portal and left for Ohio State.
“I’d think we did a poor job recruiting if guys were coming in and then immediately walking out the door because it was something different than what they thought it would be and we lied to them during recruiting, or we sold them on a dream that wasn’t true,” he told Florida reporters.
Then there was the made-up attendance figure that Florida announced for it’s the Blue-Orange Game this past April. The crowd was announced as 39,746. Not only were there not that many spectators, but that happened to be how many years (39) and how many games Georgia had played (746) since it had won its last national championship in 1980.
“Maybe Georgia fans were really so uptight because they haven’t won in 39 years,” Mullen said when his alleged slight was exposed. “But it was pretty random, actually. It was pretty funny.”
Those who have followed Mullen for a while say it definitely was not random. In fact, he’s quite deliberate and calculating when it comes to trolling rivals.
That was the case during his nine-year tenure at Mississippi State. Mullen took all kinds of shots at that program’s primary rival, Ole Miss.
“It’s a strategy,” said Parrish Alford of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Alford has covered Mississippi sports since 1989, the Rebels mostly, in recent years. “He’s definitely one who likes to stoke the fires.”
Alford said Mullen pulled the attendance-figure stunt his first spring at Mississippi State after it beat Ole Miss 41-27 in the Egg Bowl. Attendance was announced as 34,127. After the Maroon Dogs beat the Rebels 17-10 in overtime in 2013, the announced attendance for the next spring game was 21,710.
All the while, Mullen refused to call their in-state rival by any of its accepted names -- Ole Miss, University of Mississippi or the Rebels, For the duration of his nine-year tenure in Starkville, Mullen referred to them only as, “The School Up North.”
“It didn’t take much for Ole Miss fans to be bothered by that,” Alford recalled with a laugh. “They started referring to (State) as ‘The School Beneath Us.'”
Hidden beneath Mullen’s tendency to tease is a skilled offensive coach who is equal parts playful and competitive. His rise in the ranks came as offensive coordinator at Florida under Urban Meyer, who might be as competitive a coach as there has ever been.
Then Mullen went to Starkville, arriving at a time when Ole Miss was reeling from the sudden and acrimonious departure of Houston Nutt. He quickly won three in a row in that series, then erecting highway billboards at the Mississippi borders reading “Welcome to Our State,” with Mullen depicted with arms victoriously raised.
The heat quickly escalated in that rivalry, reaching a peak in 2014. Mullen’s Maroons, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, would spend five weeks ranked No. 1 that season. They were ranked No. 4 at the end of the year when they met the Rebels in Oxford. They were upset by No. 18 Ole Miss and upstart coach Hugh Freeze 31-17.
“I’m probably not going to sleep for a year,” Mullen moaned afterward. He finished with a 5-4 record against State’s chief rival.
Mullen has gotten the Gators competitive quickly as well. Following the disastrous 4-7 campaign than punctuated Jim McElwain's tenure at Florida, he led the Gators to a 10-3 record and No. 7 ranking his first season.
Nevermind the loss to Georgia or the fact that they tied the Bulldogs in the final Associated Press poll. Mullen preferred to reference the coaches’ rankings, which posted the Gators at No. 6, ahead of the No. 8 Bulldogs.
But that’s why Florida fans like Mullen so much. His cockiness reminds them of their most successful leaders, Meyer and Steve Spurrier. Those two dominated Georgia during their respective tenures.
It’s a tough act to follow. To date, Mullen hasn’t had much success against Georgia or coach Kirby Smart.
Smart is 2-0 against Mullen head-to-head, with a 31-3 win over Mississippi State and last year’s victory against Florida in Jacksonville.
They faced off often with Smart as Alabama’s defensive coordinator and Mullen running State’s offense. Mullen never won any of those battles either, and it was close only in 2014 when the Tide won 25-20.
“He had some talented teams at Alabama when he was there,” Mullen said of Smart this week. “Every year it's a little different. He does a good job of putting players in position to be successful, but a lot of it depends on your personnel year-to-year.”
It would appear the personnel is closely matched this year. The Gators (7-1, 4-1 SEC) are playing with a backup at quarterback in Kyle Trask, though many in the Florida camp believe the 6-foot-5, 239-pound junior actually represents an upgrade from Feleipe Franks, lost early in the season to a broken ankle against Kentucky. Their 32.5 points per game, which is 57th nationally, represents an improvement over last season. And the expected return this week of big-play receiver Kadarius Toney should help the offense.
Once again, the Gators bring in a stout defense that is expected to be better next week with the return of defensive ends Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard from injury. Like Georgia (6-1, 3-1), Florida had a bye this weekend. The difference is it’s the Gators’ first open date of the season. They’ll get their second the week before the season finale against Florida State.
“We're spending this bye week right now trying to get some guys healthy, get caught up and get some of our guys rested,” Mullen said on the SEC media teleconference. “I don't think there's a lot of teams that have played eight games so far this year, and we're one of them. So we’re trying to get our guys physically and mentally fresh.”
So is Georgia, which hopes to welcome back cornerback Tyson Campbell, out since injuring a toe in the third game, and guard Solomon Kindley, who has been battling an ankle sprain. The Bulldogs also are hoping to rediscover the explosiveness of their offense, which has been limited to five touchdowns in the last two outings after averaging more than five a game in the first five games.
“I think our whole team is looking forward to the opportunity to play at Top 10 team in Jacksonville, regardless of how we have played or what we have done offensively, defensively or special teams,” Smart said Wednesday on the SEC media call. “You’re always looking forward to playing a top-10 team that’s a well-coached good football team.”
Few could argue with the assessment that the Gators are well-coached. Thanks also to Mullen, Georgia fans might say they’re more than a little irritating as well.