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Mullen returns with Florida to face No. 23 Mississippi State

FILE - In this Sept. 15, 2018, file photo, Florida head coach Dan Mullen watches his team warm up before an NCAA college football game against Colorado State,in Gainesville, Fla. Mullen's return to Starkville will grab most of the headlines when his Florida Gators travel to face No. 23 Mississippi State on Saturday. Mullen coached the Bulldogs for nine seasons before leaving for Florida in November. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

STARKVILLE, Miss. • Coach Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville will grab most of the headlines when his Florida Gators 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 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.”