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There is a simple formula for determining which division in the Southeastern Conference is superior.

It's the one with Dan Mullen.

Mullen is in his second season as Mississippi State's head coach, and this is the second straight year in which the West has been best. He took over in Starkville after four years as Florida's offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, and the West never bettered the East during that stretch.

"I don't know if that's happened," a laughing Mullen said of the theory. "Wherever you're playing in the SEC, you're going to be playing a tough game. There are not all kinds of teams across the country jumping up and down and saying, 'Let's go to the Swamp this week' or 'Let's go to Georgia.' There are so many tough teams in this league, and each year I think it kind of sways."

Head-to-head matchups in games between teams from opposite divisions swayed from a four-game East advantage in 2008 to a four-game West edge last year. The shift has continued this season to the West, which improved to 11-2 against the East with Alabama's 41-10 romp at Tennessee last Saturday.

The only games won by the East so far have been South Carolina's upset of Alabama and Vanderbilt's upset at Ole Miss.

"It seems this year that on our side of it there are some outstanding teams," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We all seem to be getting better, so it's going to be a challenging year from that standpoint for all of us down the road."

Saban's Crimson Tide entered this season as the defending national champions and the favorites to win a third consecutive West crown. Arkansas, Auburn and LSU expected to be factors in the race, but Mississippi State is the biggest surprise of all following the departure of 1,391-yard rusher Anthony Dixon.

In the eight seasons that preceded Mullen's arrival, the Bulldogs went 13-51 in SEC games, which topped only Vanderbilt's 12-52 mark. They victimized two East teams a year ago by winning at Vandy and at Kentucky, but their biggest triumph was a 41-27 surprise whipping of Ole Miss to cap a 5-7 season.

The No. 23 Bulldogs are bowl-eligible at 6-2 entering this week's game against visiting Kentucky and have victories over perennial East beasts Georgia and Florida. MSU's 24-12 win over Georgia on Sept. 25 was its first over the other Bulldogs since 1974, and the 10-7 win over the Gators on Oct. 16 was its first in Gainesville since 1965.

"Mississippi State has been a team that has improved on a weekly basis," LSU coach Les Miles said. "When we put that one behind us, we figured that there may be other teams that would have a difficult time beating that team."

Said Meyer: "He's doing exactly what I thought he would do. He's a very smart guy. He told me when he went down there that they had some good players. He's doing a great job."

The Bulldogs do not have the same offensive firepower that Mullen had at Florida, but they've been effective in playing to their strengths. They lead the SEC in possession time behind a ground game that has starting tailback Vick Ballard averaging 6.6 yards a carry, backup LaDarius Perkins averaging 5.5 and quarterback Chris Relf averaging 4.

Relf hasn't been forced to throw much - MSU jumped on Florida 10-0 and rushed 49 times out of 58 plays - but has been respectable, completing 55.3 percent of his passes for 815 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

Ballard suffered an ankle injury late in the Florida game and sat out last week's 29-24 escape of UAB, when Perkins rushed 18 times for 131 yards. It wasn't the prettiest victory, but Mullen gladly took it considering the increased hype surrounding the program.

"Our kids were focused during the week, but you know it happens," Mullen said. "It's not just from the students or their families back home, but it's in the kids' minds. It was great to get through that game, because now all that's behind us. We've been ranked before, so that's old hat now. When you get that attention for the first time, you can lose a little bit of focus.

"We're bowl-eligible now, so we've gotten that one over with, too. We can concentrate on going out and being a better football team."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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