STARKVILLE, Miss. — Most of the focus heading into Saturday’s Florida-Mississippi State game, of course, has been on Dan Mullen and his much-anticipated return to Starkville.
Mullen has been OK with that. In fact, he’s encouraged it.
“It takes pressure off everyone else,” he said. “Our guys can focus on the opponent, beating an excellent team. Our guys have a lot going on and a lot to worry about.
“So, I guess if any other outside focus is on me, it takes it off our guys and lets them prepare for the game.”
Knowing the outside focus would be on his return, Mullen has been accommodating throughout the week, answering all kinds of questions about his nine years in Starkville and what kind of reception he expects tonight from the fans and his former players.
But while he’s been doing a lot of talking about his homecoming, he apparently hasn’t spent much time actually thinking about it or worrying about what he might be personally facing tonight in Davis Wade Stadium.
Mullen has moved on. It’s all about football now, and getting ready for a tough opponent that just happens to be No. 23 Mississippi State, his former team.
“Like any SEC road game, you’re going to a really tough environment against one of the most talented teams out there,” Mullen said. “Emotionally, for me, it’s not much.
“My focus is really on the game and trying to make sure our team comes in ready to go and execute at a high level. That’s really been my main focus, the game on the field.”
When it comes to the actual game, there’s probably a bigger, potentially more impactful storyline to this than Mullen’s return.
It’s the storyline about how well Mullen knows the Bulldogs — and how well they know him.
MSU has a new head coach who has installed new offensive and defensive schemes, but the players in those schemes are, for the most part, the same players Mullen recruited, coached and helped develop.
He knows their tendencies, their weaknesses, their strengths. He knows how they’ll react to certain situations. He knows what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable.
Mullen has been able to pass along significant intel to his players on the Bulldogs.
“You have an understanding of the personnel on the team and familiarity with the players,” Mullen said. “As you’re watching them do things, that helps a little bit.
“Instead of having to spend a lot more time studying every strength of the guys on the field, you already have a good idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
There’s one strength the Gators are well aware of: MSU is a tough, physical team in all phases.
“We’ve talked about it,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to make sure our guys understand it. We played a lot more physical last week than the week before, but this is going to be a whole different challenge. We’re playing a team where the whole program was built on being a tough, physical team.”
Mullen knows that because he knows the Bulldogs.
On the flip side, they know him, also — his schemes on offense and defense, his tendencies.
That knowledge has led Mullen and his staff to alter some things this week.
“We have a little bit,” he said. “We’ve tried to change a lot of terminology, of signals, of all kinds of different stuff, because the players know a lot of the different things that we do.
“But, unfortunately, they’re going to have comfort against the schemes, because that defense has gone against our offense. Their offense has gone against our defense. So there’s going to be some comfort with them against the scheme in which we run.
“We’re a little bit different this year than we were last year, but overall there’s still a lot of similarities, so that gives their players on the field an advantage.”
The Bulldogs have another significant advantage — the home field. It’s going to be crazy loud — a hostile environment that Mullen helped create, and now has to contend with.
“It will be fun,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”