AP Top 25 College Football
Back in 2008, the football season wasn't turning out as well as either Tennessee or Mississippi State hoped. Both ended up looking for a new coach.
It was tough for Tennessee to fire a national championship coach, Phillip Fulmer, It was tough for Mississippi State to dump the first African-American head football coach in the SEC, Sylvester Croom.
But they did.
Saturday night, when the Vols and Bulldogs meet in Starkville, State still has the guy it hired.
Tennessee doesn't. Let the debate begin on how much there is to be said for stability in the shark tank that is SEC football.
Midway through his fourth season at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen has an unbeaten, Top 25 team.
Lane Kiffin, the guy Tennessee hired in 2008, is also doing quite well — at Southern Cal.
Kiffin's successor at UT, Derek Dooley, doesn't have to worry about the Egg Bowl but he is still trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Tennessee fans are weary — and that's putting it mildly — of speculation as to where the program might be if Kiffin had stayed, if UT hadn't had to go through three coaches in three years.
So I'll focus on Mullen.
In his first head-coaching gig, the former Florida offensive coordinator is 26-17 overall, 11-15 SEC.
Over the same span, UT is 21-22 overall, 8-18 SEC.
Mullen's best year was his second, 2010, when State finished 9-4 and beat Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
That raised expectations and a 7-6 mark in 2011 was a letdown. At least it ended with a Music City Bowl victory.
Of Mullen's 11 SEC wins, he is 3-0 against rival Ole Miss, which has been down the past two years.
He has benefitted from having Kentucky as an annual SEC East rival. A 27-14 win in Lexington on Saturday made Mullen 4-0 against the Wildcats.
He also has beaten Georgia, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Florida (in Gainesville, no less).
Tennessee hasn't beaten Florida since 2004. Kiffin did get a win over Georgia in 2009. But, of course, the Vols can't claim a 4-0 record against Kentucky the past four years.
UT also has gone 0-2 in bowl games while Mullen is 2-0.
Stability, one would think, pays its biggest dividends in recruiting. Yet hear this:
In Kiffin's one year and Dooley's three, the Vols' signing classes have ranked significantly higher than State's, according to Rivals.com.
The catch is that State has probably retained more of its signees. Only a remnant of Kiffin's 2009
class is still around.
So here we are. The 19th-ranked Bulldogs are 5-0. Tennessee is 3-2. If you flipped the schedules, I believe the Vols would be 5-0 and State 3-2.
But the records are what they are. Mullen is a hero in Bulldog Country. Dooley is fighting for his job.
One conclusion to draw is that Mississippi State is better off for having the consistency of Mullen's leadership.
Another is that the expectations are different.
If Mullen hasn't beaten Alabama or LSU or even sniffed the SEC Championship Game, it's no reason to grease the skids.
UT was clearly disadvantaged by having to make that extra hire in 2010. In the end, however, Dooley will be held to a higher standard.
That's how it is at Tennessee. If the cards fall wrong, the Vols could be looking for a new coach after this season too.