JACKSONVILLE — Did Dan Mullen know? Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he did. Whatever the case, he coached like he knew.

Ah, I should back up. What did Mullen know, you ask? That his team hadn’t been shut out since 1988.

The Gators entered Saturday’s showdown with No. 1 Georgia sporting an NCAA record 417 games with points. That included a 2015 game in which Florida scored on a safety in a 27-2 loss to Florida State. That also included the 2017 Georgia game when the Gators scored with 2 minutes and 42 seconds left in a 42-7 loss. Jim McElwain might’ve coached in his last game that day, but he at least got points. Ron Zook never failed to get points. Either did Will Muschamp.

With 6:27 to play in the third quarter on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida trailed Georgia 24-0 facing a 4th and 6 from the UGA 6-yard line. Mullen, naturally, opted for the field goal. Never mind the fact that he went for it on 4th and 13 earlier in the second quarter (he didn’t make it).

So I ask. Did Mullen know that there was a shutout streak? And is that why he opted for a field goal inside the 10-yard line down 24-0 in his biggest rivalry game of the year?

Mullen avoided being the first Florida coach to get shut out since before the Steve Spurrier era, but not on that missed 23-yard field goal attempt. That came thanks to a Florida touchdown with 2:49 to play.

I suppose that’s a bit irrelevant whether Mullen was more concerned with being a new form of Georgia trivia than trying to win a football game. Saturday was the first time that Mullen was held to single digits since he took over at Florida. But on the bright side, Florida out-gained Georgia 355-354. By the Mullen standard, that was a win.

You know what wasn’t a win? Mullen, in Year 4, watched Florida fans clear out of the stadium in the third quarter. It’s the first time that Florida will enter November with 4 SEC losses since 2011. Mullen is now 2-7 against Power 5 teams in his last 9 games.

Hot seat time for Mullen? Absolutely.

If you want to say that Saturday was just a few plays that totally flipped the script, sure, go ahead. That’s on you.

As for me, I’ll point to why Anthony Richardson made his first career start against a Georgia defense who might be the best we’ve seen in the 21st century.

Richardson wasn’t necessarily at fault for not lighting up a Georgia defense who allowed 5.6 points per game entering Saturday (take away the non-offensive touchdowns and that’s the real number). It was, however, Mullen who insisted on gritting his teeth through Emory Jones’ interception-filled start to 2021 with 7 consecutive starts while Richardson looked like Dak Prescott when he was healthy.

One had to feel bad watching Richardson try to pick up extra yardage deep in his own territory, only to realize that staying on your feet against the Georgia defense is actually a bad thing. Was forward progress stopped? Eh. Maybe. But Richardson threw 2 interceptions in the first half that totally flipped the momentum of a 3-0 game. The second of which went for 6 the other way. And in his defense, usually a running back lined up on a linebacker in space is a favorable matchup. But Nakobe Dean schooled the redshirt freshman and jumped the route:

If you want to excuse the play-calling, sure, that’s also on you.

As for me, I’ll ask why Dameon Pierce had 69 rushing yards and just 9 carries. He had a 19-yard run, which was the longest any SEC player had against the UGA defense in 2021. Game flow wasn’t responsible for that, either. Pierce had 3 carries in the first half, one of which was that 19-yard run. Remember, it was 3-0 with 2:16 left in the first half.

But knowing Mullen, that 3-point margin was more of a sign that his team hung tough with the No. 1 Dawgs.

What’s not debatable was that Mullen lost that game before his team took the field. His stubbornness was what got us to this point. It wasn’t just refusing to turn to Richardson or not giving Pierce more carries. It was failing to recruit anywhere close to the level of the guy across the sidelines from him. It was not being willing to shake up the staff when the defensive coordinator led the program’s worst defensive season since 1917.

Yep. Mullen cannot out-scheme his way to an SEC title. Shoot, he couldn’t out-scheme his way to a win against Kentucky or LSU.

Saturday was an embarrassment for Florida, and not just because you could hear Georgia fans at halftime yelling on the concourse of TIAA Bank Field “when y’all gonna score?” It was a fair question. It’s also fair to ask what Mullen’s future is.

Is he an overqualified offensive coordinator? If we’ve seen Mullen’s ceiling, well, it wasn’t high enough for the Gator standard. The ceiling looks like 8-4 with a win against Georgia in 2020. He’s now 2-6 against LSU and Georgia (it’s 4-10 if you want to add Kentucky in there). That 2-28 career mark vs. AP Top 10 finishers will surely take a hit again this year.

Irrelevant was the contract extension he signed in the offseason to make him one of the 5 highest-paid coaches in the sport. Relevant was the $12 million buyout that Mullen agreed to. In 2021, more Power 5 head coaches have 8-figure buyouts than not. We’re a year removed from watching South Carolina pay Muschamp a buyout of $12.9 million. It’s Florida. That buyout number is not an obstacle if that’s the direction that athletic director Scott Stricklin wants to go in.

If Mullen is indeed fired at season’s end, he’ll exit under different circumstances than McElwain, who received a $7.5 million buyout following his death threat claims. Mullen is in this position because the future has never been more in question.

Jones spent 4 years in the system and he clearly wasn’t the answer. Richardson might be the answer, but we’re not really going to know that by the end of 2021. It took the Georgia defense to show just how far away Florida really is.

With 4 games left, Mullen is now faced with a challenge he’s never dealt with. There’s no New Year’s 6 Bowl or top-10 finish at stake. It’s pride at this point. Well, I suppose a bowl berth technically still hangs in the balance.

There’s no telling if the wheels will fall off. The wheels fell off down the stretch last year, and that team was in much better position to compete with anybody in the country. Perhaps Mullen goes 4-0 in 4 games that his team should be favored, and the conversations about his future will die down.

But Saturday was telling. Mullen said there were “a lot of positives” to take away from a 34-7 loss to Georgia. Let that sink in.

It’s a game of inches, but Mullen’s team isn’t an inch away.

Hopefully he knows that.