Florida fans should savor this division title, which may just be the beginning for Dan Mullen
Just 3 Decembers ago, Florida fans were breathing a sigh of relief. A miserable losing season, the program’s second 4-win campaign in only 5 years after over 3 decades without a losing season, was mercifully over.
The Gators had closed their season a week prior, losing to bitter in-state rival Florida State for the 5th consecutive time. The Seminoles were very average, on their way to a 7-6 season, but they throttled the Gators in The Swamp anyway, a decisive win that demonstrated just how far the Gators had fallen by 2017, 9 years after the program’s last SEC championship. As miserable as yet another loss to Florida State was, at least another lost season was behind them and another failed coaching staff was on the way out the door. A new staff, led by a familiar face from the glory days, was on the way in, and in that long winter of Florida’s discontent, that alone was reason for hope.
Three years later, on a cold December night in Knoxville, the hope of that dark December of 2017 turned into a championship celebration. Dan Mullen and Florida won the SEC East, wrestling the division away from archrival Georgia for the first time since 2016 and advancing to the SEC Championship Game for the 13th time in program history. Only Alabama, the team Florida will face in Atlanta in 2 weeks, has made the SEC’s title game as many times.
It’s been a remarkable 3-season reversal of fortune for Florida, which when Mullen arrived was deep into the worst decade of football from a winning percentage standpoint since the 1970s.
Mullen is 29-6 at Florida, a better record through 35 games than either of Florida’s national championship-winning coaches, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Of course, both of those coaches won SEC Championships before Year 3 — and in Meyer’s case, a national championship. Mullen hasn’t done that yet, and he knows it. His reaction to Florida winning the SEC East was to applaud the program’s ascent while immediately pivoting to the summit it still needs to climb.
“Winning the SEC East championship in this year, the hardest year in the history of this league where you’re going to play 10 conference games, regular-season conference games, to win our division is pretty special and shows a lot of what the team is at and what the coaches and the whole program is at,” Mullen told the media after the game.
“But we’ve got the opportunity to go undefeated at home next week. We have the opportunity to be SEC champions. If we do that, we’re going to have an opportunity of going on and playing even bigger games.”
Like his mentor Meyer, Mullen is a relentless perfectionist, always in search of the next stepping stone, never satisfied. In truth, that’s what makes him such a dynamic fit at Florida, a place he may get to stay a long time if he gets winning at this level.
But while he talks about bigger games and heftier expectations, Florida fans should take a moment to savor where they’ve been and just how tremendous this turnaround — and in particular this season — has been.
Mullen arrived at a 4-win program that was a cultural tire fire. To say Mullen walked into a swampy mess is to be polite. Florida was at rock-bottom, and when the Gators were physically manhandled by Kentucky in Mullen’s SEC home debut, Florida’s first loss to Kentucky in the sport in 31 years, it looked like a sobering, lengthy rebuild.
Somehow, Mullen and his staff coaxed 10 wins out of that 2018 team that looked lost and physically uninterested against Kentucky in early September. Florida won a New Year’s 6 bowl game for the first time since the Tebow era (when they were the BCS Bowls) and obliterated Florida State 41-14 in Tallahassee. Mullen turned Feleipe Franks from the 2nd-least efficient starter in the Power 5 in 2017 into the Peach Bowl MVP in 12 months. And his defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, flipped the worst Florida defense in a decade from a statistical standpoint into a top 25 unit. Florida also very quietly put together a top-10 recruiting class — nothing sexy, but a vast improvement on the Jim McElwain classes that had put the program in a bind from a depth standpoint.
That turnaround alone would have been impressive, but then 2019 happened.
Mullen lost his New Year’s 6 MVP quarterback in the 3rd quarter of Florida’s first SEC football game.
Instead of pouting about it, Mullen turned the offense over to Kyle Trask, who hadn’t started a football game since high school freshman football in Manvel, Texas. Trask wasn’t the running threat Franks was, so Mullen adapted his playbook into a pass-first offense that suited a pocket passer, helping turn Trask into a Florida folk legend and the 3rd-highest rated passer in the SEC, behind only Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, guys who won national championships and play on Sundays.
Mullen did all of that despite a skittish offensive line that, thanks to recruiting misses from the McElwain era, couldn’t get any push up front. Lamical Perine, Mullen’s preseason All-SEC running back in 2019, didn’t crack 700 yards as a result.
Despite a team full of warts, Mullen won the Orange Bowl anyway, becoming the first coach in the BCS or New Year’s 6 era to win back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowl games in his first 2 seasons on campus.
No, Florida didn’t beat Georgia. But Mullen inked another top-10 recruiting class, and even though Smart was outrecruiting him, Mullen’s roster had clawed its way back into the top 10 of the 247 talent composite, closing the gap on his SEC rivals.
When the programs finally met for a 3rd time last month, Mullen got over the Georgia hump, blasting Smart and the Bulldogs 44-28 in a game less close than the final score.
The main reason he won that game was the reason he’s changed Florida’s fortunes in 3 seasons and won the SEC East on Saturday: better quarterback play than the football team on the other sideline.
Trask was marvelous against Georgia and was masterful again Saturday, torching Tennessee for 433 yards and 4 touchdowns. In 15 months, Trask has gone from backup quarterback toiling in anonymity to almost certain Heisman Trophy finalist, with over 3,200 yards passing in 8 games and a staggering 38 touchdowns — ahead of Joe Burrow’s Heisman winning pace from a season ago.
Mullen had long been considered one of the better quarterback coaches in college football, with a résumé littered with names like Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Tebow and Dak Prescott all proof that the reputation was warranted. What he has done in his second stint at Florida, with Franks and now Trask, may be enough evidence to say there’s simply not a better collegiate developer of quarterbacks on the planet. At a place like Florida, where they build statues of their best quarterbacks, could there be a more perfect fit?
The NFL will come calling, almost certainly. Mullen is too good a rhythm play-caller, too good a quarterback whisperer, and too innovative an offensive mind not to receive overtures. Texas is interested too, though a source told me Saturday morning that while Mullen is flattered, he thinks Florida is a better job than Texas, or certainly will be in the next couple of years, as Florida puts the finishing touches on long-awaited facility upgrades, including a state-of-the-art standalone football facility to rival Clemson, Georgia and Alabama.
But the fit is right in Gainesville, and Mullen gives Florida fans everything they always wish for in a football coach: a brash personality who enjoys scoring points almost as much as he enjoys winning.
Mullen, of course, is right — there are bigger games to come and at places like Florida, you aren’t just hired to go to Atlanta. McElwain did that. You are hired to take a team to Atlanta that can win.
But that can wait for tomorrow. For now, Florida fans need to savor the journey. It’s a remarkable story. Saturday’s division title may just be the beginning.