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Inside Read: How Mullen changed forecast at Mississippi St., much more

No forecaster could have accurately predicted the perfect storm that’s brought Mississippi State from unranked to No. 1 in the nation. It’s the school’s first-ever top ranking in its 119-year football history. A confluence of coaching, talent and leadership has resulted in the most improbable story in college football this season. And, really, most seasons.

In the spring of 2009, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen showed up at an event on campus to celebrate the school’s meteorology department winning the forecasting equivalent of a national championship. Mississippi State edged out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Mullen worked the room to be sure to meet all of the individual forecasters. When he went on speaking tours over the summer, Mullen brought up the meteorology national title as an example of what Mississippi State is capable of. “He used it to illustrate that such championships are possible here,” said former MSU geosciences department head Darrel W. Schmitz.

No forecaster could have accurately predicted the perfect storm that’s brought Mississippi State from unranked to No. 1 in the nation. It’s the school’s first-ever top ranking in its 119-year football history. A confluence of coaching, talent and leadership has resulted in the most improbable story in college football this season. And, really, most seasons.

• RICKMAN: Mississippi State No. 1 in this week's Power Ranking

Amid the whirl of three consecutive victories over Top 10 opponents -- LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn -- Mullen’s outfit finds itself in the same rarified air of national title contention as MSU’s meteorologists. “They won three consecutive national championships,” Mullen told The Inside Read, “And when I’d come to their championship cookout I’d tell them, ‘We want to be like you.’”

Mississippi State (6-0) is tied with No. 3 Ole Miss atop the brutal SEC West and will be favored in every game until a Nov. 15 trip to Alabama

So how did we get here? When former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne and associate AD Scott Stricklin set out to hire Mullen in December 2008, they had much more modest goals. No Mississippi State coach had left Starkville without being fired or nudged out since Darrell Royal departed for Washington in 1956, so the idea wasn’t hiring someone to build a statue after. It was to find someone who could get Mississippi State in a position to win consistently.

The hiring of Mullen nearly didn’t happen. Byrne had a firm rule that if a candidate’s name came out in the media during the coaching search they’d be automatically eliminated from contention. So when Urban Meyer slipped up and mentioned Mullen as a candidate in a press conference, Byrne ruled him out. He narrowed down the field and had his sights on hiring a head coach from a lower division. (He declined to reveal who). But Byrne’s wife, Regina, nudged him getting out of bed on a Tuesday morning as the search wound down. “What about the guy from Florida?” she said. “Don’t you want to make sure you have this thing right before you pull the trigger?”

That night, Byrne, Stricklin and MSU baseball coach John Cohen met Mullen in an Embassy Suites in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. The meeting began at 9 p.m. and ended with Mullen agreeing to take the job 2:30 a.m. The group found Mullen organized, confident and ambitious, but still open to ideas. (Mullen is confident enough that he and his wife named their dog Heisman two weeks before Tim Tebow won the award in 2007; Megan Mullen joked that Tebow better win because they didn’t want to name the dog “Davey O’Brien or Walter Camp” after lesser known awards).

Mullen brought the spread offense, which was still novel in the SEC. He also brought a plan for recruiting, the strength program, academics and every aspect of running the program. He also came in a swagger. “I thought we needed an edge,” Byrne said. “He had the edge, but when I told him, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking,’ he listened. To me the most effective leaders have confidence in what they do, but they’re also good listeners.”

Mullen’s edge showed up immediately. Workouts were harder than they’d ever been. Maroon lines were drawn on the practice field, and he demanded that as soon as anyone crossed them they begin running and not stop until practice was over. In his first spring, he became irate with the lack of hustle from team managers working the first-down chains.

“He grabbed the chain and ran it down and slammed it into the ground,” Byrne said. “He said, ‘That is how you do it.’ His example across the board was that everyone was going to give great effort and get them better. He created that culture.”

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The ultimate barometer at Mississippi State is success against Ole Miss. Mullen led the Bulldogs to a 41-27 blowout of the Rebels his first year, setting a tone that things were changing. Mississippi State lost 45-0 the year before in Sylvester Croom’s final season. (Mullen is 4-1 against Ole Miss).

In Mullen’s second season, Mississippi State went 9-4 and blew out Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Prior to the start of that season, the Bulldogs found out that Cam Newton -- a former Mullen recruit at Florida -- would be enrolling at Auburn for the 2010 season instead of Mississippi State. That decision later sparked one of the biggest controversies in recent college football history, as former Mississippi State quarterback John Bond said that Newton’s father asked for payment for his son’s services. Mississippi State declined to pay.

An NCAA investigation cleared Auburn of any wrongdoing and Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national title. Mississippi State got mocked by SEC fans for missing out on Newton. “Somehow, that reflected poorly on us,” said Stricklin, now the athletic director. “And I know how, but I don’t really know if that’s fair.”

Nearly a year later, a lightly regarded quarterback from Louisiana named Dak Prescott called Mullen and told him he’d just called LSU and informed them he’d be upholding his commitment to Mississippi State. Prescott had committed six months earlier, but a prolific senior year had intensified LSU’s interest in him. “Twelve months later, we didn’t have Cam Newton, but we have a kid we’re proud of,” Stricklin said.

Nearly 11 months ago, Mississippi State was 4-6, but back-to-back comeback November overtime wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss made the Bulldogs bowl eligible. Prescott came off the bench in the Ole Miss victory and led the Bulldogs to a thrilling comeback, cementing his role as the team’s indelible leader for 2014.

Stricklin’s faith in Mullen never wavered, as he laughed recently that the same writers who put Mullen on the “hot seat” lists last season are listing him as candidates for jobs like Michigan and Florida that could potentially open this year.

If this run continues through January, it could set the table for a scene no one could have forecast at Mississippi State -- the championship football team inviting the meteorologists over for a celebration.

• ​Get framed print of Miss. State, Ole Miss's SI cover | Get magazine issue

Three-and-out

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1. Believe the hype in Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

The broken finger that Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered in Saturday’s 23-17 win over Louisville will sideline him for a month, but the relentless hype won’t subside. Some within the Tigers’ program believe that the dual-threat Watson is already better than his predecessor, Tajh Boyd, a sixth-round pick in last May’s NFL Draft. Boyd owns the ACC record for career touchdown passes (106) along with nearly every school passing mark. Except for the school record for touchdown passes in a game (six) that Watson set in his first collegiate start on the way to throwing for 435 yards in a 50-35 win over North Carolina last month. He’s thrown for 1,176 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions this season.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Watson is already going through his progressions in a way Boyd wasn’t able to do until his senior year. He is also finding checkdowns instead of throwing deep into double-coverage like Boyd often did.Watson is a calm presence, whose innocent and fun demeanor is contagious. It’s a stark difference from the emotional Boyd, who often got rattled early in big games and never rebounded. Watson has wowed the Clemson coaching staff so much that many wonder what might have happened had he started instead of coming off the bench in a 23-17 overtime loss to Florida State last month.

Clemson coaches had eyed the North Carolina game as Watson’s first potential start because it was the first of three straight homes games, which ended with Saturday’s win against Louisville. The logic in waiting until then was he would avoid potential struggles in the Tigers’ season-opener at Georgia, a 45-21 loss, and at Florida State that could impact him long term.

Clemson has always had huge expectations for Watson, the Class of 2014’s top-rated dual-threat quarterback, since it began recruiting him as a freshman at Gainesville (Ga.) High. The Tigers were sold enough on Watson that they didn’t sign a quarterback in the recruiting class prior to his in February.

STAPLES: What do we know at the season's midway point?

Watson has already shattered those expectations, just as he’s likely to do to Clemson’s records.

2. Florida State's Rashad Greene always gets last laugh

Rashad Greene has a habit of frustrating opposing defensive backs. It’s not just the soft-spoken star Florida State wide receiver’s sure-handed play, but also his rapid laugh. The one defenders hear when they try to rattle or hit him. "It’s pretty much pointless for them to talk trash to me,” Greene said.

Because if opposing defenders ever hear Greene respond, they’ll regret it. “It will be after I made them look bad,” Greene said.

That’s what Greene is once again doing this season entering his team’s showdown Saturday against Notre Dame. He leads the ACC in catches (44) and receiving yards (683).

The 6-foot, 180-pound speedy senior quietly led Florida State in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches the three previous seasons, even though former Seminoles wide receiver and NFL first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin often got higher billing. He too could have turned turn pro after last season like Benjamin, but elected to stay after receiving what he said was a second-day NFL Draft grade.

“I consider myself a workhorse,” Greene said. “I do a lot of work and just keep going. All the fame and attention doesn’t really matter to me. I’m more concerned about my teammates and myself getting better and just making sure we win. All the other stuff, I feel like pretty much will take care of itself.”

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After Greene broke Florida State’s previous school record for career receptions (215) in last Saturday’s 38-20 win at Syracuse, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher compared him to Derek Jeter. Greene could also break the school records for receiving yards (3,598) and touchdown catches (31) this season.