Florida football: Grading the Gators' 2021 season
Florida wrapped up its regular season Saturday with a hard-fought 24-21 victory over rival Florida State. Florida’s third consecutive win over the Seminoles was one of the few highlights for a program that underachieved so dramatically that 4th-year head coach Dan Mullen was dismissed after a 24-23 loss to Missouri. Florida finished 6-6 with a 2-6 SEC record, its worst SEC finish since 1986. Only Vanderbilt (0-8) finished with a worse SEC record.
Florida’s next head coach will be its 8th since Tim Tebow left the field as MVP of the Sugar Bowl after the 2009 season. The Gators’ program desperately needs stability and success on the recruiting trail. Mullen’s failure to deliver the latter is one of the largest reasons he wasn’t provided a 5th season to deliver the former.
As Florida awaits its bowl destination (likely the Duke’s Mayo Bowl or Gasparilla Bowl), here is an SDS report card on the 2021 season.
Given that Florida lost Heisman finalist Kyle Trask, All-American Kyle Pitts and a 1st-round draft pick in Kadarius Toney, there is plenty to appreciate, at least statistically, about its 2021 offense.
The Gators finished the regular season ranked 17th nationally in yards per play, behind only Georgia and Alabama in the SEC. They finished 10th in the country in yards per rush attempt, behind only Kentucky in the SEC. Florida scored 70 in 1 game and broke 30 in 6. It scored 29 points against then-No. 1 Alabama and lit up LSU for 42 in Baton Rouge — and lost both games anyway.
The real issue? Taking care of the football. No team in the SEC threw more interceptions than the Gators, who finished the regular season with 18 (13 by Emory Jones, who started all but 1 game, and 5 by Anthony Richardson). The Gators entered the FSU game ranked 117th in the country in turnover margin (13th in the SEC) and didn’t win the battle in that game (it ended in a 3-3 draw). Florida’s inability to protect the football limited its ceiling offensively.
That said, the running game was a strong point, and while bizarre coaching (more later) limited his numbers, running back Dameon Pierce was a revelation. The senior running back churned out 517 yards on just 87 carries on the season, averaging more than 6 yards a carry and grading out as the top running back in college football, per Pro Football Focus. Imagine if Mullen had fed him the football. Instead, Pierce did not have a 10-carry game until FSU, after Mullen had been fired.
Was the Florida defense better in 2021 than it was in 2020? Absolutely. Is that an incredibly low bar? Yes.
The Gators did rank 39th in the country in yards allowed per play, a nearly 50-spot improvement over last season’s 88th-place finish. Florida also proved adept at getting to the quarterback, posting a top-25 finish in team sacks.
What it didn’t do well was take away the football (see turnover margin, above) or play with any consistency.
Sometimes, Florida couldn’t put a whole game together, as in the Alabama game, where it dominated for 3 quarters after spotting Bryce Young and the Crimson Tide a 21-point lead in the 1st. Other times, it no-showed altogether, as in the 49-42 loss at Baton Rouge, when it couldn’t stop a simple counter play and let an LSU team that entered the game ranked 127th in the country in rushing offense run for 300-plus yards.
Other times, the Gators were good and snakebit by a terrible offense. They were terrific in Jacksonville against a good Georgia offense, only to be undone by mistakes made by a freshman quarterback. Ditto the Missouri game, where Florida got stops over and over but couldn’t move the football.
The defense will remain, per the 247 talent composite, easily Florida’s most talented group next season. Will a new defensive coordinator — and a likely change from Todd Grantham’s archaic scheme — make the difference? Time will tell.
Special teams: D-
Florida was miserable in the return game, getting next to nothing from a group of returners including Xzavier Henderson. The Gators were even worse covering kicks, ranking 13th in the SEC in yards per return against. Florida allowed 1 kickoff to be returned for a touchdown (against Samford), and multiple teams nearly broke 6-point returns, including Missouri and LSU. Special teams were a shining star early in the Mullen era, with 2 of Mullen’s first 3 special teams units ranking in the top 5 in the country in S&P+ efficiency. This group ranked a shocking 114th entering the Florida State game.
Florida punter Jeremy Crawshaw was shank-prone, but if he can stop firing off a dud once every 3 games or so, he’ll become a weapon. He averaged 44 yards a punt, just outside the top 50 nationally — but he would have easily been in the top 30 without the shanked efforts that plagued him at times in SEC play.
As for the kickers, Jace Christmann and Chris Howard were never going to replace Evan McPherson, who left early and is now the kicker for the Bengals. But Howard didn’t miss a field goal all season after winning the job from the erratic Christmann late in the year, which at least helped Florida steady a ship that cost it a chance to upset Alabama with a missed extra point early and saw a low line drive of a field-goal attempt blocked and run back for a touchdown in a loss at Kentucky.
If you get fired, you get an F.
Florida’s head coach was dismissed after the Missouri game, a victim of his own stubborn ego and “smartest guy in the room” syndrome, especially as it related to playing his quarterback rotation and standing by Grantham after a terrible defense in 2020. Grantham was ignominiously dismissed after Florida surrendered nearly 300 yards rushing on the road in a loss to South Carolina. Mullen would be gone 2 weeks later.
In the end, the Mullen staff could scheme, especially on offense. But it didn’t recruit, and Mullen, the head of the snake, too often declined to play the role of program CEO. He didn’t want to make hard choices, whether it meant parting with a coordinator or shaking up the staff to help the Gators recruit better.
As a result, he’s gone, and Florida will have a new coach in 2022.
High point moment
Florida doesn’t do moral victories, so instead of a 2-point loss in a classic against No. 1 Alabama, SDS chooses an ugly, don’t-tell-your-grandchildren-about-it 24-21 victory on Senior Day over rival FSU. Florida’s 4-year seniors went undefeated against the Seminoles in their Gators careers and will finish with 4 consecutive bowl games.
Low point moment
Easily, Florida’s 40-17 egg on the road at South Carolina. Grantham was fired the following morning, and from that point forward, it was just a matter of time until the Sword of Damocles fell on Mullen as well.
I’m looking forward to … :
Seeing what Richardson can do in a full season as a starting quarterback. He needs to get tougher, build his strength and, hopefully, be less injury prone. But there’s no question the Gators offense has more “juice” when he’s out there. Plus, after making his 1st career start against mighty Georgia, he has already seen the greatest defense he will ever face in college football. Everything else will seem slow now, so long as he’s healthy.