Florida football: Game at struggling LSU is massive for Mullen and Gators
Here’s a sentence I didn’t think I would write in 2021.
The LSU game is Florida’s biggest of the season.
Before you roll your eyes into the back of your head, yes, I know Florida plays in the Cocktail Party in 3 weeks. Just hear me out.
At the midway point of the 2021 season, Florida is 4-2, and a return to trip to Atlanta, while mathematically possible, is exceedingly unlikely. To return to Atlanta, the Gators would need to beat Georgia, see the Dawgs lose again, and also need Kentucky to lose 3 times. Rather than focusing on the chaos that such a scenario would require, let’s be radically honest. Florida has lost the 2 toughest games on its schedule thus far, and for the most part it plodded along through 6 games. The Gators have yet to put together 60 quality minutes, and until Saturday, that reality didn’t seem to bother Florida’s staff.
It’s not quite “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” time in Gainesville, but if you had 2021 pegged as a “transitional year” for Dan Mullen’s program, not only did you nail it, you are probably a bit concerned by the lack of progress.
There’s also the matter of what’s happening with your rivals and main competitors on the road back to national prominence.
Georgia is a prohibitive favorite to win the national championship, Tennessee is showing signs of life under Josh Heupel, and Saturday night, by playing 4 quarters of football, Jimbo Fisher slayed Nick Saban’s Alabama dragon that Mullen couldn’t last December or last month. Heck, even FSU is slowly stirring from its slumber.
If you view Saturday’s trip to Baton Rouge in that lens, you can frame the weird claim that “the LSU game is the biggest game of the season” for Florida a bit more fairly.
Florida is 1-2 against teams with winning records this season, and while the Gators won’t face an LSU team with a winning record in Death Valley next Saturday, the victory would certainly represent their best win given opposing talent and venue of the campaign. For that matter, it would be Florida’s best win under Mullen since last year’s Cocktail Party rout of archrival Georgia.
A win Saturday would also be a solid reset for the Gators after last year’s “shoe game,” where Florida quite literally threw away a 9-1 regular-season record and lost on Senior Day to maybe the most average LSU team this century. Beginning with that fateful, foggy December night in The Swamp, Mullen’s Gators have won just 2 of their last 7 games against Power 5 opponents. That’s yucky, but it gets even worse if Florida loses in Baton Rouge. A loss Saturday means not only that Florida likely limps out of the Cocktail Party at 4-4, but it leaves Jacksonville having won just 2 of its last 9 contests against the Power 5 under Mullen. For some perspective, that’s a worse stretch than FSU (3-6) is currently suffering through.
Florida-LSU has delivered some wonderful, wild, wacky games over the past 20 years. From shoe tosses to game-winning fake field goals and goal-line stands to Jacob Hester on 4th down 5 times to Joe Burrow and Kyle Trask going blow-for-blow under the lights, it has quietly been one of the SEC’s best annual contests.
Saturday won’t share the luster or national spotlight of the previous few seasons. There will be no SEC Nation, no College Gameday, no Heisman moment performance or Senior Night sendoff to a Heisman finalist quarterback.
Instead, you’ll get an 11 a.m. ET kickoff, LSU fans that — at the earliest — arrive midway through the 1st quarter and a game that is used to being the main course treated as an appetizer for big-ticket games like Auburn at Arkansas and — wait for it — Kentucky at Georgia.
That doesn’t make the game any less huge.
It’s big for LSU.
The Bayou Bengals are 3-3, and their head coach, Ed Orgeron, is a dead man walking. If Orgeron coaches the game against Florida (it’s LSU, so who knows with that athletic department), you can bet he’ll use it as his Alamo, one last rallying point for a program he helped guide to a national championship just 2 seasons ago.
It’s just that it’s an even bigger game for Florida.
In fact, the LSU game might be more than an inflection point for Mullen’s program. It might be a referendum.
When Mullen arrived in Gainesville, he preached about restoring the “Gator Standard” and consistently competing for championships. In his first 3 seasons, that mission was building, and the “competing” part was accomplished. Florida played 3 Cocktail Party games that decided the SEC East and, after winning 1 of them, played a tremendous game against perhaps the best Alabama team of all time that it happened to lose in the SEC Championship Game. Mullen took Florida to 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl games and dramatically improved the talent on the roster.
The problem is that he hasn’t improved the margin for error. Florida’s margin is still perilously thin. The Gators have to play well to win. If they don’t play well, they lose. Elite programs don’t worry as much about a night where they are “just average.” Florida does.
The book on Mullen at Mississippi State was that he won the games he should win almost all the time. He only rarely won the ones he shouldn’t, but the bottom never fell out, and the floor was high. Over the last 2 seasons at Florida, there have been too many nights when the Gators have been “just average” against the teams they should beat and ended up punished for it.
Is that Mullen’s “Gator Standard?” Is a loss at a struggling LSU team and a probable 4-4 record leaving the Cocktail Party Mullen’s “Gator Standard?” Mullen knows it isn’t.
Avoiding a debate about those hard questions? That’s why Saturday at LSU is Florida’s biggest game of the season.