Florida football: Changes must be made following humiliating loss to South Carolina
Florida was pulverized 40-17 by South Carolina on Saturday night in Columbia. A crisp, perfect night for football turned quickly into a nightmare for the Gators, who led 7-3 before the Gamecocks scored 40 of the game’s next 43 points. It was the latest humiliating defeat for a Florida team that has now lost 3 consecutive games and a program that has dropped 8 of its last 10 against Power 5 opponents.
Embattled head coach Dan Mullen said he was “very disappointed” after the loss but demurred when asked if staff changes were coming, insisting that Florida would “evaluate” the situation. The Gators made no one else available for media comment, but even without speaking to Florida’s players, it’s clear there is little to “evaluate” in Gainesville.
A change needs to be made, and the financial circumstances surrounding the situation with Mullen and his staff suggest that now might be the time to act. Mullen’s buyout is $12 million, which seems steep but ranks just 8th in the SEC and 31st nationally, according to 247 Sports’ Thomas Goldkamp. The Gators also have multiple assistants, including defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose contracts run out at the end of this season. As a result, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin is faced with a choice: give Mullen a chance to right the ship, a decision which would require investment in new contracts, either for Florida’s current staff or new faces; or move on at a time when the business side of things would make a coaching change the most cost-effective it will be for several years.
SDS spoke with multiple high-level Florida boosters Saturday night, both during and after the South Carolina debacle. One such booster, who has been instrumental in helping Florida upgrade athletic facilities for football and other sports, delivered a simple message: “This has to change, and it should start to change Monday with multiple staff dismissals. If it doesn’t, we are just waiting for the guillotine to drop.”
The guillotine might drop on Stricklin himself if he doesn’t move quickly and decisively.
Already under fire for the athletic program’s mishandling of abuse allegations leveled against former women’s basketball coach Cameron Newbauer, allegations first reported by Zachary Huber of the Independent Florida Alligator, who was then later denied access to a small press gathering on the allegations, Stricklin has little margin for error. He hired Mullen, and for 3 years, it appeared to be a terrific decision. But Stricklin also signed off on Mullen keeping Grantham after Florida squandered a national championship-caliber offense with the program’s worst defense since the 0-10-1 1979 team; and for better or worse, athletic directors in the mighty SEC are defined by the decisions that impact their football programs.
Saturday night, the fruit of the Grantham decision continued to poison the roots of this program.
The Gators surrendered 284 yards rushing to a Gamecocks team that had struggled to run all season. Florida hemorrhaging rushing yards to opponents under Grantham is nothing new. In the last 3 games, the Gators have surrendered 321 yards rushing to LSU, 193 to No. 1 Georgia and 284 to South Carolina. Two of those teams entered the game ranked near the bottom of the country nationally in rushing. Throw in the 435-yard Cotton Bowl record Oklahoma managed a season ago, and you get an idea of just how horrific Florida has been up front under Grantham. As Stricklin evaluates Mullen, serious thought must be given to how Mullen could “evaluate” his program and decide Grantham was the best answer for his defense.
It isn’t just Grantham, of course.
Florida’s inability to recruit against fellow conference powers Alabama, Georgia and LSU has taken its toll on the Gators.
Look no further than Florida’s beleaguered, battered defensive front, which has relied on multiple transfer portal players all year, with only Zachary Carter and Gervon Dexter “homegrown” talents in the top 5 in total snaps taken. Florida also has been devastated by the loss of middle linebacker Ventrell Miller. Losing an All-SEC linebacker would hurt any program, but the Gators have been especially burned by the loss of Miller due to their inability to recruit another quality middle linebacker. Instead, Florida has had to play the very talented, but woefully out-of-position Mohamoud Diabate inside, and Diabate, despite great effort and football smarts, hasn’t been up to the task.
Taken together, these aren’t ailments that can be fixed overnight.
But they also aren’t issues that should result in performances as horrifying as the one Florida delivered Saturday night.
Playing a Gamecocks team under a 1st-year head coach and featuring a 3rd-string quarterback, Jason Brown, making his first Division 1 start, the Gators were walloped in all facets.
South Carolina, which went in averaging 20.9 points per contest — 13th in the SEC — had 23 before halftime against Florida even prior to Jabari Ellis’ scoop and score of an Emory Jones fumble late in the 2nd quarter made it 30-10. The Gators’ best counterpunch, their running game — which entered Saturday leading the nation in yards per attempt at 6.1 — didn’t even attempt a run until it was 10-7 Gamecocks. On the night, Florida mustered just 82 yards rushing, a season low, against a Gamecocks defensive front that had been unable to slow the run game all season.
Worse than the statistical failures, Florida seemed disinterested and disengaged. Maybe it was the cold Columbia air. Maybe it was the flu that was running through the football building all week. But for a program that shut off media access to players this week, presumably to circle the wagons and focus on South Carolina, the Gators appeared to lack focus, and, worse, fortitude. Punched in the mouth early, Florida withered. An alligator is one of the oldest, strongest, fiercest, fight-to-the-death species on the planet. Florida didn’t play like a roving band of angry alligators Saturday night. It played like shrinking lawn lizards scurrying under rocks at the first sign of danger.
This is the situation Stricklin must “evaluate,” beginning Sunday.
Is a 40-17 loss at a mediocre South Carolina team the “Gator Standard” Mullen so eloquently articulated when he was hired 4 Novembers ago? Is losing 8 of 10 games against Power 5 opponents, a streak of futility unmatched even in the darkest days of the Will Muschamp regime, acceptable in Gainesville?
Evaluating the answers to those questions doesn’t take long.
Stricklin’s decision shouldn’t, either.