How Dan Mullen offenses at Florida, Mississippi State have scored against Alabama defenses

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Few know what it’s like to call an offense against a Nick Saban team as well as Florida coach Dan Mullen.

He’s faced Saban more than many, dating back to when he was offensive coordinator of the Florida Gators in the 2008 SEC Championship Game. Then, Mullen coached against Saban’s Crimson Tide every year from 2009 to 2017 while Mullen was coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

The two coaches didn't face each other again until 2020, when Alabama defeated Florida 52-46 in the 2020 SEC Championship Game.

Mullen has called plays throughout, and he’s about to have another crack at it as No. 1 Alabama faces the No. 9 Gators on Saturday. That 2008 game, in which Mullen called an offense with Tim Tebow, is the only time during Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa that Mullen has been part of a win over the Crimson Tide. 

Over that span, scoring hasn’t been easy. Mullen has run an offense 11 times against Saban at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide has given up 18 touchdowns. Nineteen if you count the fumble recovery in the end zone by a Mississippi State offensive lineman in 2013. 

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“We’re always going to look and try to play to the strengths of the personnel that we have,” Mullen said Wednesday, “and make sure that we have enough flexibility within our scheme to play to the strengths of the players."

Outside of that fumble recovery in the end zone, here's a look at the 18 ways Mullen’s offenses have scored against Alabama: 

Inside runs: 5

Running between the tackles has been one of the more effective ways for Mullen’s offenses to score against the Crimson Tide.

Three of those five inside runs came in the 2020 matchup. Running backs Nay’Quan Wright and Dameon Pierce, both of whom are still on the team, scored two. The first came from quarterback Kyle Trask, who took the shotgun snap then ran up the middle for a 1-yard score.

The two quarterbacks Florida has now, Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson, are bigger threats on the ground than Trask, was and stopping them on the ground will be key to Alabama’s success Saturday.

“When the quarterback can run,” Saban said Monday, “and they run quarterback runs, it’s almost like playing against Wildcat, so they’ve got an extra blocker but they also have the ability to make big plays in the passing game.”

The other two inside runs that Mullen’s teams scored with happened in 2017 when Mississippi State’s Aeris Williams ran for 11 and 5-yard scores.

Short passes: 5

Mullen rode the short pass to victory when calling plays against Alabama in 2008. Three of the four touchdowns the Gators scored in the 31-20 win over the Crimson Tide came via short passes. 

Tebow threw a shallow 3-yard comeback to Carl Moore, a 5-yard out to David Nelson and a 5-yard slant to Riley Cooper.

Deep passes: 4

Until the 2020 SEC Championship Game, Mullen’s teams seldom succeeded throwing touchdowns versus Alabama off the deep pass. 

The only long touchdown through the air was a 27-yard throw from Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell to Chad Bumphis via a skinny post route in 2010.

With Florida in 2020, however, Mullen’s offense scored off three long passes against Alabama. It certainly helped having two future NFL first-round picks catch two of those in Kadarius Toney and Kyle Pitts.

Toney’s 51-yard score came via a slot fade route in the first quarter. Then Trevon Grimes scored off a fly route for 50 yards in the third. Pitts caught a 27-yard pass for six in the fourth quarter.

Mullen said success in throwing the deep ball is all about creating advantageous matchups. There might not have been a more advantageous matchup for Florida than Pitts.

“Pitts, whew, I’m telling you, a defensive back couldn’t cover the guy and a linebacker couldn’t cover the guy,” Saban said during his weekly radio show. “Defensive back because of his size, the linebacker because the guy was so athletic and fast. But you’re talking about an impossible situation when you have a mismatch player like that”

Intermediate passes: 2

Intermediate passes for scores haven’t been as abundant for Mullen against the Crimson Tide. Intermediate routes, which run about 10-15 yards, have led to two touchdowns for Mullen’s offenses.

Post routes have been the source of both, one from Russell to Chris Smith in 2011 and the other from Dak Prescott to Jameon Lewis in 2014.

The 2014 game was the closest Mullen has come to beating Saban as a head coach. The Bulldogs lost 25-20.

Outside runs: 2

Mullen’s offenses haven’t had much scoreboard success trying to run outside on Alabama.

The 2008 Gators scored one as Jeffery Demps ran off the left side for a 1-yard score. Mullen didn’t put together another score running outside until 2017 with Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s 2-yard touchdown. 

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly