The storylines surrounding Saturday have run consistently in the 10 months since Dan Mullen left Mississippi State for Florida, and the arrival of the match-up means they’re in full gear.
But on the practice field, Florida’s focus has been just that: staying focused, avoiding the outside noise and any resulting distractions. That’s for Mullen to handle — the players can only control the X’s and O’s and the 60 minutes of football Saturday.
It’s a message the Gators have heard repeatedly in practice following the team’s 47-21 win at Tennessee: focus on playing Florida football rather than emotions surrounding Mullen’s return.
“Coming into this game, it’s not about (Mullen),” wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland said. “He tells us to just play physical and be consistent, and just come out there and work hard, play hard, play physical and give relentless effort.”
Regardless of the effect it has on UF’s game plan, it’ll be hard to ignore the Mississippi State fans, who will likely jeer the return of the head coach who built the program into a respectable SEC one over nearly a decade. Mullen is more than just familiar with the passion the fans have for MSU, saying he understands if mixed emotions are displayed throughout the evening from the Bulldogs faithful, although most will reckon with his lasting legacy in Starkville sooner rather than later.
“I think there will be a lot of passion on Saturday night with people there,” Mullen said. “I think for the most part they were appreciative in what we were able to accomplish in the nine years that we were there. I don’t know if that will show on Saturday night, but I think they were most appreciative with what I was able to accomplish in nine years there.”
The last time Mullen faced a former program, it was in 2009 in his first season as MSU’s head coach. After taking the Bulldogs coaching gig following his prolific run as UF’s offensive coordinator, Mullen and Mississippi State battled Florida at Davis Wade Stadium.
As Mullen recalled Monday, his players responded then, too. Although on Saturday, Mullen will look to accomplish with the Gators what he couldn’t in 2009: beat his former program.
“It was a big game because you’re trying to build a program. I remember the game. It was a pretty raucous environment,” Mullen said. “John Banks had two pick-sixes of Timmy Tebow that were huge. It was a battle right down to the end.”
Ultimately, Florida’s players have witnessed more coaching staff turnover in recent history than Mississippi State has, and the discussion rarely comes up. Prior to last week’s win over the Volunteers, the Gators didn’t discuss the return of two assistant coaches to a program which they had formerly coached. So in the eyes of the players, the week has been business as usual, at least in Gainesville.
“I mean, it’ll be cool to get that win. We’re obviously always going to want to play hard and win every single game. I don’t think this one is going to be any different as far as we’re concerned. Last week we were going back to Knoxville where Coach Warren and Coach Scott came from last year,” tight end R.J. Raymond said. “I think as far as the players are concerned I don’t think it’s going to be anything different. We’re going go out there and play our hardest to get a win like we do every single week.”