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Which is the REAL Mississippi State Under Mullen? 9-4 or 7-6?

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In today's college football world we need answers fast. A coach generally has 3-5 years to make his mark or he is out the door. The grace period for Dan Mullen is over, and Mississippi State fans are poised and ready for big things from their $2.5 million head coach.

Most MSU fans believe in Mullen and the job he is doing - backing him 100%. But there is a segment of fans and onlookers who have grown skeptical after last season's 7-6 mark. The common sentiment is that Mullen can beat the teams he is supposed to beat, but no one else. Some critics suggest 2010's 9-4 season may have been more smoke and mirrors than a reflection of how good that team was.

This said, I wanted to take a deeper look into his first three years at State. My hypothesis is that he has been able to develop a winning program by beating who he is supposed to beat...that he has spent the last few seasons laying a foundation by feeding on the weaker teams; creating a winning mentality, stepping up recruiting, which will hopefully lead to a Western Division Championship at some point. But which is the real Mississippi State: 9-4 or 7-6? Should State fans expect 9-4 and hope for 11-2, or should they expect 7-6 and hope for 9-4?

(1) Has Mullen just beaten the teams he was supposed to? (2) How big is the gap between the elite programs and Mississippi State under Mullen?

The easiest way to answer question one would be the Vegas point spreads, but I wanted to take it a step further. So I compiled the national recruiting rankings for all the teams Mississippi State has played under Dan Mullen. I used Scout, Rivals and 24/7 (only available since 2010) - then averaged them together to get a number for each year. I took that number from each year and pooled it with the four-year group that would have played in that game. For example, 2009 vs. LSU would include LSU's 2006, '07, '08 and '09 recruiting classes. I added all those up and divided by four to get the number - which is reflected in the 'recruiting score' number below.

2009 - Recruiting score for MSU's roster: 34

Score W or L Opponent Recruiting Score MSU's Line Win vs. Spread?
45-7 W Jackson State N/A (FCS) N/A (FCS) N/A
49-24 L at Auburn 13.13 +14 No
15-3 W at Vanderbilt 68.9 +9 Yes
30-26 L #7 LSU 5.75 +12 Yes
42-31 L #25 Georgia Tech 38.25 +5 No
31-24 L Houston 78 -2 No
27-6 W Middle Tennessee State 96.88 -4 Yes
29-19 L #2 Florida 6.625 +22 Yes
31-24 W at Kentucky 45 +3 Yes
31-3 L #3 Alabama 8.25 +12 No
42-21 L at Arkansas 27.25 +11 No
41-27 W #20 Ole Miss 23.75 +7 Yes

State went 5-7 in '09...but were 6-5 with the points as they beat LSU and Florida against the spread. MSU had the toughest schedule in the country that year facing three Top 10 teams, five Top 25 teams, the ACC Champion and CUSA runner-up. And you can see the recruiting scores match that - played three Top 10 teams and five Top 25 teams. Including Jackson State, Mullen was 4-2 vs. teams whose recruiting score was less. He was 1-5 vs. teams whose recruiting score was more.

2010 - Recruiting score for MSU's roster: 32.79

Score W or L Opponent Recruiting Score MSU's Line Win vs. Spread?
49-7 W Memphis 83.04 -21 Yes
17-14 L #21 Auburn 12.08 +1 No
29-7 L at #15 LSU 6.17 +7 No
24-12 W Georgia 10.5 -1 Yes
49-16 W Alcorn State N/A (FCS) N/A (FCS) N/A
47-24 W at Houston 70.92 -5 Yes
10-7 W at #22 Florida 6.46 +7 Yes
29-24 W UAB 94.63 -19 No
24-17 W Kentucky 48.08 -6 Yes
30-10 L at #11 Alabama 5.46 +13 No
38-31 L #13 Arkansas 28.13 +3 No
31-23 W at Ole Miss 25.58 -2 Yes
52-14 W vs. Michigan 12.4 -5 Yes

9-4 this year, 7-5 against the spread. Again, State had one of the toughest schedules in the nation facing the last three national champions on the road...and Auburn won the national title in this year. MSU was 5-0 vs. teams with a lesser recruiting score, and 4-4 vs. teams that had a higher score.

- Recruiting score for MSU's roster: 35.12

Score W or L Opponent Recruiting Score MSU's Line Win vs. Spread?
59-14 W at Memphis 78.37 -27 Yes
41-34 L at Auburn 11.87 -6 No
19-6 L #3 LSU 6.62 +3 No
26-20 W Louisiana Tech 88.08 -18 No
24-10 L at Georgia 8.58 +7 No
21-3 W at UAB 92.54 -19 No
14-12 L #15 South Carolina 19.62 +3 Yes
28-16 W at Kentucky 45.33 -10 Yes
55-17 W Tennessee-Martin N/A (FCS) N/A (FCS) N/A
24-7 L #4 Alabama 2.21 +17 Push
44-17 L at #6 Arkansas 25.33 +13 No
31-3 W Ole Miss 23.08 -17 Yes
23-17 W vs. Wake Forest 64.04 -6 Push

A step down from 2010 as we all know: 7-6 record and only 4-6-2 against the spread. A difficult year again facing four teams who finished in the Top 10 and five teams in the Top 20 of the AP poll. The Bulldogs were 6-0 vs. teams with lower recruiting scores, 1-6 vs. higher.


Year / Record vs. the Spread vs. teams with higher R.S. vs. teams with lower R.S.
'09 / 5-7 6-5 1-5 4-2
'10 / 9-4 7-5 4-4 5-0
'11 / 7-6 4-6-2 1-6 6-0

Totaling those numbers out, that's a 21-17 overall record, 17-16-2 vs. the spread, 6-15 vs. teams with a higher recruiting score, and 15-2 vs. teams with a lower recruiting score.

My hypothesis was right - Dan Mullen has feasted against teams he is supposed to beat. .882 winning % when facing a team that MSU has "out-recruited". When favored, Mullen is 14-2 for a .875 winning %. So you can basically take it to the bank that Mullen will win when playing one of these teams. It's obviously a different story vs. teams with a higher recruiting score - .286 WP. State is 7-15 as the underdog - .318.

The good news is that Dan Mullen has been able to actually beat the lesser teams consistently, something MSU could not do for the better part of the 00's. He's been able to sneak past a few teams that were 'higher on the food chain', but as we all know....the West... If this is the case, shouldn't we really be expecting 6-6 regular seasons with the hope for 8-4? Well, to look at this I wanted to go back and see just how close we were against those 'upper tier' programs.

Let's not beat around the bush, how close are we to beating the 'big four' SEC West teams....

Team Average Point Margin vs. MSU
Alabama 21.6
Arkansas 18.3
Auburn 11.6
LSU 13

Well, do you believe Mullen? No game against Alabama has been close, that is for sure...MSU did hang tight in 2011, but it was a 17 point margin in the end. But LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn have all featured games where State was within a touchdown - two with Aubie. So maybe there is something to that statement from Mullen. He has already beaten Georgia, Florida and Michigan - all of whom have much better recruiting numbers than Mississippi State. He has lost to Auburn the last two years by an average of 5 points, and their recruiting numbers are 3 times as good as State's. Ole Miss' numbers are in the 20s every year while MSU's are in the 30s - if Mullen is able to get up to TSUN's numbers and mix in his coaching ability, could State reach the level of say, Arkansas?

Back to my original question - what is the real Mississippi State? Is it 8-4, or 6-6? What will 2012 bring? A year closer to 2010 or 2011?

This Year

2012 - Recruiting score for MSU's roster: 31.66

Opponent Recruiting Score Will MSU be Favored?
Jackson State N/A (FCS) Yes
Auburn 9.79 Toss-up
at Troy 91.33 Yes
South Alabama N/A (Transition to FBS) Yes
at Kentucky 43.83 Yes
Tennessee 14.58 Toss-up
Middle Tennessee State 101.83 Yes
at Alabama 2.25 No
Texas A&M 19.08 Probable
at LSU 7.46 No
Arkansas 24.5 Doubtful
at Ole Miss 26.28 Yes

By my guesstimated 'favored' category, MSU will win 7, lose 3 and have two swing games. I kind of feel safe in saying State will be a slight favorite against Auburn and Tennessee only because the game is in Starkville. So that would mean our beloved Dawgs will be favored in NINE games this coming year. That looks to me like Mullen has this program on a path towards expecting 8-9 wins.

Look at the opponent's recruiting scores. MSU will go into only 5 games with more talent. That's all four non-conference games and Kentucky. So, Mullen and Co. should be favored 9 games, but have only beaten 5 teams in recruiting. What does that say about Mullen's ability to coach 'em up?

Now, on to what we should expect this season. Based on my previous math, State should win 87% of the games in which they are favored - so that's 8 out of 9. They have a 32% chance of winning as an underdog, so 1 out of 3. But, of course, I don't set the lines so I might miss a game or two. In the recruiting scores, it looks like 4.5 wins out of 5 vs. lesser teams, and 2 out of 7 for higher teams. That would give State 6-7 wins in the regular year. We'll just say seven wins since it was 6.5 anyway and the point spreads say based on this long drawn out deal Mississippi State will go 8-4 in 2012.

Conclusion: the REAL Mississippi State is the 9-4 version, not the 7-6 one.