The Dan Mullen era begins Saturday night in Gainesville and with it, a program lost in the wilderness for most a decade gets what it desperately needs: a new beginning.
Saturday night in The Swamp. It’s special and it’s back this weekend.
If you’re hopeful, you should be.
If you’re chomping at the bit to kick it off, you’re not alone. Dan Mullen has been chomping and ready since he got off the plane in Gainesville last November to take the job.
If you’re skeptical, that’s understandable.
Gator Nation ended 2017 broken.
At a minimum, last autumn’s exercise in futility was the second worst season of Gator football since 1979, when the Gators closed a decade of mediocrity by bottoming out at 0-10-1. From a wins and losses perspective, only Will Muschamp’s disastrous 4-8 2013 campaign compares, and at least that Florida team points to a series of horrifying season-ending injuries as an excuse.
Florida’s 2017 season imploded before it began, with a devastating injury to team captain Marcell Harris and the investigation and suspension of nine scholarship players, including starting tailback Jordan Scarlett and All-American WR Antonio Callaway, from the team in the “Credit Card Nine” scandal.
Florida’s culture was already a toxic, black hole of a hellscape by the time Jim McElwain, who never seemed to want the job in Gainesville, alleged with zero evidentiary support that his players were receiving “death threats” as a result of a season gone sideways. As the Gators tried hopelessly to prepare for a resurgent Georgia under Kirby Smart, the “death threats” allegations swallowed what was left of McElwain hole, spitting him out on the other side after the Bulldogs rudely dispatched the Gators 42-7 in a game that aside from formalities was over after five minutes. A week later, with McElwain gone and Randy Shannon left to cobble together what was left of the season, Florida hit rock bottom, quitting on the field at Missouri in a lopsided 42-13 defeat.
Last year alone would be enough to make even the sunniest fan a cynic.
Florida’s malaise, however, goes far deeper than one lost season.
Long way from Fun-‘N’-Gun
Florida, the program that dragged a 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust SEC in 1990 into the 21st century under Steve Spurrier and then ushered in nearly a decade of the SEC’s national dominance under Urban Meyer in 2006, has been lost awhile.
From 1990-2010, Florida won 80 percent of its football games, the highest figure in the SEC in that era. Not counting the 1990 season, when a Florida team on probation finished first in the SEC, the Gators captured 8 SEC and 3 national championships in that era, and played for three other SEC titles and one other national title.
From 1990-2001, Florida lost four games in a season only twice, and lost an astonishingly low 5 home games in 12 seasons. Under Urban Meyer, Florida won 13 football games in three of four seasons from 2006-2009; the other season, Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.
Call it spoiled if you want, but for a generation, this was a fan base that demanded and received excellence. It wasn’t enough to win big, either. Florida won with swagger. Style points mattered.
Since Tebow graduated in 2009, Florida has lost four or more games in 7 of 8 seasons. After a span of 33 seasons without a losing campaign, Florida has lost 7 or more games twice in the past five years. Florida has played for two SEC Championships this decade, but the Gators were hardly competitive in those games, losing to gold standard Alabama by the combined tally of 83-31.
Florida football has spent a decade in the wilderness as a parochial in-state afterthought, a slow-motion horror show, a wicked maelstrom of coaching incompetence, fractured culture, offensive ineptitude and lost or uncultivated talent that finally, maybe, seemingly crashed to the floor in 2017.
How bad have things been in Hogtown?
In terms of winning percentage, Florida’s 59 percent from 2010-2017 makes this decade the second-worst decade for Florida football since 1960.
Forever a football school, the frustration on the gridiron has only been compounded by Florida’s excellence elsewhere. This decade alone, Florida basketball under Billy Donovan and Mike White has advanced to five Elite Eights and one Final Four. Florida baseball under Kevin O’Sullivan has advanced to seven College World Series and won one national championship.
Florida football’s crowning achievement this decade? Two titles in a down SEC East and the school’s ninth Sugar Bowl appearance, in 2012, where the Gators were promptly blown out by former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong’s Louisville team.
The lost decade has affected recruiting, revenue, attendance (and with it, The Swamp’s veneer of invincibility) and the psyche of a once proud fan base.
Saturday night in The Swamp, all of that gets a reset.
Finally, a new beginning
Gators fans, longing for a winner, welcome home a coach who has seen what Florida can be when it’s right, who knows the roadmap to get there and who has experienced the magic of a Saturday night in an electric Swamp.
Sure, there are still questions at quarterback.
But Gators fans should cheer Feleipe Franks on Saturday night and respect the work and mentality it took for him to win the job back after last year, when the failed McElwain-Nussmeier brained trust asked too much of him too fast and rarely put him in a position to succeed.
Franks still has the rocket arm that made him coveted out of high school, and he’s a much better athlete than most folks think. Give him a chance. After all, if Mullen, the quarterback coach with an elite resume who developed Joshua Harris, Alex Smith, Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald can’t fix Franks, who can?
Yes, I read what Matt Hayes wrote in this space, that Florida’s problems on offense are largely due to the fact that the Gators “lack one variable that exceeds all: good players.”
A rebuttal in a word? Hogwash.
Florida’s roster features as many blue-chip players (consensus 4- or 5-stars) at wide receiver and tight end (9) as Alabama and in the SEC, only rival Georgia has more (11). Florida features a stable of running back talent led by the limitless talent of Jordan Scarlett and the explosive Malik Davis. The Gators return an offensive line with more starts than all but one unit in the SEC, led by preseason All-American, Martez Ivey.
On defense, there’s Todd Grantham’s attacking scheme that should have Florida playing fast and downhill and to their strengths, which are largely up front thanks to a host of NFL-caliber edge players in Jachai Polite, Cece Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga. On the back end, there are concerns at safety but DBU should be DBU on the corners, with Marco Wilson a better, sleeker version of his NFL big brother and sophomore C.J. Henderson and freshman Trey Dean both immense talents.
Are there question marks and depth issues, particularly at safety and linebacker? Of course.
Is there work to do recruiting, sealing a vital “bump” class for a new staff?
But this isn’t a program without talent, as the countless NFL Draft picks produced by the Gators this decade despite the lack of on-field success demonstrates.
It’s time for a coach to come in and cultivate it.
Relentless effort and relentless energy. That’s been the mantra for Dan Mullen since he returned to Gainesville.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) August 30, 2018
He has promised anyone who would listen that he’ll flip the culture. He has demanded, in meetings and through a revitalized strength and conditioning program that Florida players strive to meet the “Gator standard” that was the foundation for so many victories for two decades.
He has pleaded with fans to come full-throated to The Swamp, hopeful, ready to begin again.
It’s one of life’s greatest tragedies that college football season only lasts thirteen to fifteen Saturday every year. That tragedy becomes abject sadness when a program loses its way, and season after season is lost to malfunction and mismanagement.
In Gainesville, that ends Saturday.
At least Florida fans can finally hope.