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Rivalry renewal: Mullen vs. Ole Miss

Robbie Andreu
Gator Sports
The last time Florida coach Dan Mullen led a team to the state of Mississippi, the Gators returned with a 13-6 win over Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., on Sept. 29, 2018.

Calling Florida-Ole Miss a rivalry game would be quite a stretch, seeing as how the Gators and Rebels have played only five times in the last 25 years and just 24 times dating back to 1926.

 But, if you’re looking across at that Ole Miss sideline Saturday from Dan Mullen’s perspective, and the perspective of eight of his assistant coaches, this very much is going to look and feel like a rivalry game.

 Because for those nine years Mullen was the head coach at Mississippi State, the Rebels were his biggest rival — and it wasn’t even close.

 So, Saturday in Oxford is not just going to be the season opener for the Gators. It’s also going to be the renewal of the Mullen-Ole Miss rivalry.

 Well, sort of.

 Mullen likely will be less loathed than he used to be in Oxford now that he’s wearing different colors.

 “Hopefully, Ole Miss, they’re cheering, they like me now,” Mullen said. “I was at a high school game once and I had a lady come up and say, ‘Coach I pray for you every day.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s so nice of you.’ She goes, ‘I’m an Ole Miss fan. I pray somebody comes and gets you the heck out of this state as soon as possible.’ So now I left so maybe they like me a little bit.” 

 That’s probably doubtful.

 The MSU-Ole Miss rivalry has always been intense, but it seems to reach a higher level during those nine years Mullen was down the road in Starkville. He had no love — and not a whole lot of respect — for his archrival.

 During those nine years, Mullen never referred to Ole Miss as Ole Miss. He called it the school up north, just like Urban Meyer used to call FSU the school out west when Meyer was at Florida.

  “I don’t think I said Ole Miss for nine years, but now I say it,” Mullen said. “That was all just part of the rivalry. It became a pretty big deal. I got people all worked up. It’s just one of those things you do. It sparks the rivalry.

 “It’s something about your kids. It was always something that made that game so different than every other game because that was your big rivalry game of the year. It was always just little things we would do to make that game different and feel different and kind of stand alone in a uniqueness and being a big game in our rivalry. So that was just one of the things we did for them.” 

 Mullen had a way of riling up the Rebels and their fans. The main way he did it was by beating them. He won his first three games in the rivalry, putting a 31-3 hurtin’ on Ole Miss in that third game in 2011.

 Overall, he went 5-4 against the Rebels and was 2-2 in Oxford. One of the highs was the 55-20 win in Oxford in 2016. One of the lows was the way the Rebels sent Mullen off to Florida, with a 31-28 upset in Starkville in 2017.

 From start to finish, it was intense. The memories are many for Mullen.

 “Oh wow, a bunch,” he said. “That game is one of the great rivalries in sports. So to be involved in that, such a huge, huge deal. So, yeah, I have five great memories and four terrible memories.

 “I think of that game, of playing against them. Any time you win, holding that Egg Bowl trophy up, that’s really, really, really special. Those are the things that make college football so great and so special — the passion of the fans. 

 “And you have the in-state rivalries. You’re talking neighbor against neighbor. I have a bunch of good ones, I have a couple bad ones, too, in that game. It’s different now.”

 It really is. Mullen is in another world now, where there are multiple rivalry games, but Ole Miss isn’t one of them.

 Still, being back in Mississippi, back in Oxford, likely will stir some of those memories for Mullen, some of the old intensity. The rivalry was such a big part of him for almost a decade.

 “When I first got there, the teams were kind of fighting for their identity,” Mullen said. “Then all of the sudden, both teams became top 10, national programs. I don’t know if it helped bring it to that level or the rivalry brought it to that level or the intensity got both teams to that level of playing. But it certainly became a big deal and it became a huge game.” 

Saturday

Who: No. 6 Florida vs. Ole Miss

Where: Vaught Hemingway Stadium, Oxford, Miss.

When: Noon

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850