Football

Mark Story: UK fans have reasons to sweat over Meyer's potential replacements

Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen has led the Bulldogs to victory over Kentucky both years he's been in charge. Mississippi State racked up 210 rushing yards against UK in 2010.
Mississippi State Coach Dan Mullen has led the Bulldogs to victory over Kentucky both years he's been in charge. Mississippi State racked up 210 rushing yards against UK in 2010. ASSOCIATED PRESS

To whatever extent stress played a role in Urban Meyer's second annual resignation as Florida football coach, this much is sure: No one can blame Kentucky.

Other than one play — a Taylor Wyndham sack of a rather famous Florida quarterback in 2009 — Kentucky didn't produce much discomfort for Meyer. In six tries, his Gators outscored the Cats by a cumulative 272-84 (152-26 over the past three years) and never lost to UK.

Yet Meyer's departure from one of the two best college football head coaching jobs in the country (Texas being the other), could create an extremely interesting dilemma for backers of Kentucky Wildcats football.

Two of the names being most often mentioned in the Florida pipeline are Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. Mullen and Strong were, respectively, the offensive and defensive coordinators for Meyer's two BCS championship teams at Florida.

Now, Mullen is the head coach at Mississippi State, while Strong serves as head man at Louisville.

On each seasons' Kentucky football schedule, intrastate rival U of L and permanent SEC West opponent MSU just happen to be two of the most vital "swing games."

So the question before the floor this morning is: Would UK benefit more if Florida plucked Mullen out of Starkville or Strong out of The 'Ville?

To build and then maintain over the long term a successful football program at Kentucky, Mississippi State is a team UK has to beat. The Bulldogs are one of only three SEC opponents (Arkansas and Vanderbilt are the others) against whom Kentucky enjoys an all-time winning record (21-17).

In the years immediately before former MSU Athletics Director Greg Byrne tabbed Mullen in 2009, the Wildcats had beaten Mississippi State five out of the last seven.

During years one and two A.M. (after Mullen), UK is 0-2 against the Dogs. Mullen's run-oriented, spread attack has hurt the Cats, rolling up 348 yards on the ground against Kentucky in 2009 and 214 rushing yards in 2010.

Combine Mullen's recruiting ties into Florida with the talent produced in the state of Mississippi and it seems likely that the coach will make MSU a consistently formidable foe going forward — if he stays.

That would make the task of winning at Kentucky far more daunting.

At Louisville, Strong inherited this season a senior-laden team from the dysfunctional reign of former Cards head coach Steve Kragthorpe. Strong led the Cardinals from 4-8 a season ago to 6-6 this year, including a victory over one of the eventual Big East tri-champions, Connecticut.

Later this month, U of L will make its first bowl appearance (the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg) since the 2007 Orange Bowl. For Strong, that isn't a "walk-on-water" debut, but it was rock solid.

From the UK perspective, Strong's most worrisome success in his first full season has been locking in commitments from several highly regarded Jefferson County high school recruits, including Seneca quarterback DeMarcus Smith and Ballard wide receiver DeVante Parker.

The more recruiting success Louisville has inside the commonwealth, the more difficult it is apt to be for Kentucky to build a program capable of winning in the SEC.

For that one reason alone, UK backers ought to root for Strong over Mullen in the Florida coaching derby.

Of course, there is another outcome that would leave Mullen at MSU and Strong at U of L yet see Florida hire someone who, for a time, thoroughly occupied UK nightmares.

Gators Athletics Director Jeremy Foley could choose to pursue a coach who 1.) has a proven track record in the SEC; 2.) is considered by many to be the best offensive tactician at any level of football; 3.) has shown a robust willingness to accept new career challenges.

Combine the abundant athleticism the state of Florida produces in recruits with the shrewd strategic mind of current Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, and you'd soon have something truly frightening.

For UK — and the rest of college football — Petrino hired by Florida would be the ultimate worst-case scenario.

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