If you believe that Saturday’s showdown in Jacksonville is a “nothing to lose” game for Dan Mullen, well, I’d beg to differ.

Mullen has a game to lose. Specifically, he has a rivalry game that he can lose for the 3rd time in his 4 years at Florida. He’s in danger of suffering his 4th SEC loss of 2021 before the calendar turns to November. That hasn’t happened to Florida since 2011, which was Year 1 of the Will Muschamp era.

There’s also another piece to Saturday’s matchup that could feed into the worsening Mullen optics.

Close your eyes and picture this perfectly realistic scenario. It’s 7:08 p.m. ET. Georgia is high-fiving fans in the end zone having earned a decisive Cocktail Party victory.

The problem isn’t just that Georgia is doing all the high-fiving as a 14.5-point favorite. It’s that Stetson Bennett IV is the guy leading the parade. As in, the guy who last year got benched in this game and had his “it was fun while it lasted moment” against the Gators (getting hurt that day didn’t really change that). Bennett’s day ended with a loss and a 5-for-16, 78-yard dud. Mullen clearly had the better quarterback (Kyle Trask) while UGA had the disaster at quarterback.

How quickly things have changed.

Would anybody be surprised if Bennett, who is averaging 12.1 yards per attempt, threw for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns in a blowout Georgia win? They shouldn’t be. That would say a lot about Mullen, who made the controversial decision to bring back Todd Grantham. It was Grantham’s defense that appeared to have put the nail in the coffin on Bennett’s time as a starter. If Bennett comes back a year later and torches a more experienced Grantham defense? Yikes. What a rough look that would be for Mullen.

And to be clear, it’s not a given that Bennett starts against Florida. JT Daniels has been working his way back from an oblique injury for the last month. He suited up against Kentucky and with a bye week, we shouldn’t rule out the idea of Daniels being the guy, no matter how much Smart appreciates Bennett’s impact.

Let’s spin this a different way if Daniels leads the offensive explosion against Florida. Daniels would be in Year 2 in Monken’s system, and he will have actually spent less time learning the offense than even Anthony Richardson spent learning Mullen’s system (don’t forget that Richardson started practicing with Florida as it prepped for the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2019 season while Daniels enrolled at Georgia in summer of 2020).

Knowing Mullen, though, he’ll again turn to the struggling Emory Jones to be his starter. As in, the guy who is in Year 4 in the same system but who made all sorts of Year 1 mistakes in his first year as Mullen’s QB1. What would that say about Mullen as an offensive mind if Bennett torched the Florida defense but his 2 hand-picked quarterbacks struggled?

I know, I know. It’s not a fair comparison. Bennett would get to face Grantham’s group while Jones/Richardson have to face a Georgia defense that has yet to miss a tackle this year.

(I don’t think that’s true, but I also can’t definitively say it’s not true. I’ll also assume any clip you send me of a Georgia player missing a tackle was doctored.)

At the same time, this is Year 4 of the Mullen era. Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney thrived in Mullen’s system, but they were also recruited by Jim McElwain staff. Jones and Richardson weren’t developed by Mullen just so they could turtle against Georgia.

On the flip side, look at Georgia’s passing game right now. This isn’t some group that’s loaded with 5-star playmakers who have been in the system for 3 years. George Pickens hasn’t played a game this season. Same with Arik Gilbert, albeit for a different reason. Darnell Washington has 3 catches all year. Kearis Jackson, who led the team in receiving last year, has 7 catches for 67 yards and 0 touchdowns.

UGA’s leading receivers in 2021? At this time last year, one of them (Brock Bowers) was playing high school ball in wine country and the other (Ladd McConkey) was a true freshman on the scout team who didn’t even crack the top 1,000 recruits in the 2020 class. Come Saturday, will those 2 end up with more combined touchdowns than Richardson and Jones? I wouldn’t doubt it.

Monken is the guy who looks like he has the plug-and-play offense, not Mullen. That’s a problem.

And it’s not to say the Florida offense has been bad by any means. The Gators have the No. 2 non-service academy rushing attack in FBS. A year removed from having the No. 1 passing attack in FBS, that’s a testament to Mullen.

Yet at the same time, the Gators’ offense still doesn’t really have an identity because of how Mullen has handled the quarterback situation. The defense certainly doesn’t have an identity because of how Mullen handled the coordinator situation. What hope is there that either thing will be figured out against No. 1 Georgia?

At SEC Media Days in July, I asked Mullen why his defense never figured it out in 2020. Keep in mind, that was coming off a year in which the Gators had their worst scoring defense (30.7 points per game) since 1917. Here was Mullen’s response to that question:

“I don’t know about that because I think, if you look in different games, we’re a very maybe erratic defensively at different times, but there’s a lot of different things that go into that. There’s some games we played really, really well defensively. There’s games where I thought we played well, but statistically maybe weren’t great.

“And if you look in a lot of those games, if you were going to play us on the other side of the ball, you had to play a different style game maybe than you wanted to or expected to and take a lot of chances because we were going to try to score points and keep up with us, or we jumped out to a big lead and you were just kind of — you know, just throw caution to the wind to try to put up yards and points as fast as possible.

“There’s other games, one or two early in the year, I certainly think the learning curve of missing a spring practice and the time off and the speed of the game of going to tackle live for the players and the time off of not being able to do that, I think that showed early in the season, and that improved as the year went on.”

Basically, Mullen said that because of how his team lit up the scoreboard, they were protecting leads. Yeah, about that.

Georgia is 7-0 having played 420 minutes of football, only 5 minutes and 24 seconds of which were spent trailing (it was a 3-0 deficit in the first quarter against Auburn). By Mullen’s logic, Georgia’s defense should have some rough numbers having played with a lead so much.

The Dawgs’ pass defense is:

  • A) No. 2 in FBS in yards allowed
  • B) No. 2 in FBS in opposing QB rating
  • C) No. 1 in FBS in yards/attempt allowed
  • D) No. 1 in FBS in touchdown passes allowed
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

Saturday is shaping up to be a rough dose of reality for Florida. It’s not necessarily the 100 or so 5-stars that Georgia has (shoutout Shane Beamer). Last year, UGA had the No. 1 team in the country in 247sports talent composite rankings, yet it lost to Florida. It’s that Smart has done a better job of maximizing his team’s potential than Mullen. It’s as simple as that. Mullen could’ve cut bait on Grantham, and he could’ve gone with Richardson sooner.

We’ll see how those decisions impact Mullen’s long-term future. In the short-term future, I’d say this.

There’s a whole lot to lose in Jacksonville.