Coach Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville will grab most of the headlines when his Florida Gators travel to face No. 23 Mississippi State on Saturday.
But much more is at stake than an emotional reunion.
Florida (3-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) and Mississippi State (3-1, 0-1) have already stumbled once during league play — both against Kentucky — and now face a game that could eliminate one program from being a surprise contender for an SEC title.
Florida lost to Kentucky on Sept. 8, but has bounced back with two straight wins over Colorado State and Tennessee. Quarterback Feleipe Franks threw for 172 yards and three touchdowns in the road win against the Volunteers .
The Gators now head to another road environment that will be at least as challenging.
“I think it comes with playing in the SEC, you go win a big game and the next week it’s even harder, you know what I’m saying so it’s fun,” Franks said. “I think our guys are up for the challenge.”
Mullen’s return will be hard to ignore. Mississippi State’s fan base has been looking forward to this game since November, when Mullen left Starkville after nine mostly successful seasons to lead Florida.
Mullen had a 69-46 record with the Bulldogs and led the program to five straight weeks as the No. 1 team in the nation in 2014. The success helped galvanize the Mississippi State fan base and turned Davis Wade Stadium into a formidable home field advantage.
“Now I get to go back and I guess see what it’s like to be on the other sideline with the tradition we created,” Mullen said.
Mississippi State’s first-year coach Joe Moorhead said Saturday’s game will certainly be emotional for many of his players and that it’s their job to channel that emotion into positive energy and bounce back from last week’s 28-7 loss to Kentucky .
“I don’t think you can discount the emotional part of it, but you have to manage that,” Moorhead said. “People use different things for motivation, and that’s not for me to tell them what to use for their individual motivation.
“I know it’s not going to have a bearing or factor in the outcome of the game once the ball gets kicked off.”
Here are some other things to watch when the Bulldogs host the Gators on Saturday:
HAVE TO RUN
Mississippi State’s strength over the past few seasons has been a top-notch running game, but Kentucky shut it down last weekend. The Bulldogs managed just 56 yards on 28 carries. Even after the bad game against Kentucky, Mississippi State is averaging 247.8 yards rushing per game, which ranks third in the SEC and 18th nationally.
Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald has 2,772 yards rushing in his career, which is the second-most for an SEC quarterback. He needs 176 yards against Florida to grab the top spot away from former Florida QB Tim Tebow, who ran for 2,947 yards.
Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons have combined for 14½ tackles for a loss in four games this season. In the 17 career games they’ve played together, they have a combined 42 tackles for a loss.
Florida leads the nation with 14 takeaways through four games after forcing just 17 turnovers all of last season. The Gators have scored 43 points off the turnovers, which include 10 forced fumbles.
Florida has a 33-19-2 record against Mississippi State in the all-time series, but the two programs have split the last six meetings dating back to 2000. Mississippi State has a 7-4 record against the Gators in Starkville.
Source: The Associated Press