Florida football: Let's take a minute to appreciate what Dan Mullen is doing at Florida
Florida improved to 8-2 after throttling Vanderbilt 56-0 Saturday in The Swamp.
The feel-good win didn’t erase the heartbreak of Florida’s Cocktail Party loss to Georgia, but it certainly showed the program’s youthful promise and strong foundation for the future.
Florida hasn’t been the prettiest football team this season, but they’ve shown character and toughness. That’s a reflection of coaching, and while Ed Orgeron will rightly win SEC Coach of the Year Honors, I know what coach has by some distance done the second-best coaching job in the league this season. That would be Florida’s Dan Mullen.
Columns like this have headlines, which certainly gives away the lede, but seriously — we aren’t talking enough about the job Mullen is doing in Year 2 in Gainesville.
Think about it for a moment.
Mullen lost his starting quarterback, the MVP of a New Year’s 6 bowl game and a guy who put up better numbers than Joe Burrow in 2018 — in the 3rd quarter of Florida’s first SEC football game. No matter. He turned his backup, who hadn’t started a football game since high school freshman football in Manvel, Texas, into a Florida folk legend and the third-highest rated passer in the SEC, behind only Burrow and Tua, two guys who, you might have seen Saturday, are pretty good at football.
By the way, Mullen has done that with almost zero running game, thanks to a skittish offensive line that last week, started 2 freshmen because the skeletal unit left behind from the Jim McElwain era can’t get any push up front. Lamical Perine, Mullen’s preseason All-SEC running back, has contributed only modestly (504 yards in 10 games) as a result.
Florida’s offensive line issues are further compounded by a lack of depth: the recent departure of erstwhile starter Chris Bleich due to family reasons leaves the Gators with just 6 offensive linemen whom offensive line coach John Hevesy has trusted to play more than 1 game in SEC play (Richard Gouriage, Brett Heggie, Ethan White, Jean Delance, Stone Forsythe and Nick Buchanan). That’s not the number of bodies you want to have in the grind of SEC play, and a big reason Florida’s line hasn’t worn defenses out like it did a season ago.
Without a competent run game, Mullen’s offense has played 7 of their 8 SEC football games, as well as a salty Miami Hurricanes defense, with one hand tied behind their back and yet they still rank 38th in scoring offense (Florida’s 2nd-best mark this decade!) and 36th nationally in yards per play (3rd-best).
Injuries and depth concerns have limited Florida defensively as well.
Florida hasn’t played a full SEC game with both of their All-American candidate defensive ends, Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, on the field for 4 quarters. Zuniga has had a leg injury since the first series against Kentucky, rendering him almost unplayable for much of league play. Greenard suffered a high ankle sprain late in Florida’s win over No. 7 Auburn, and played only 1 play against LSU before returning, albeit not at full strength, to face Georgia. He only began to look like himself again last weekend against Vanderbilt. Zuniga and Greenard’s best backup — Jeremiah Moon — is out until the bowl game, further limiting what early in the season was a dominant Gators pass rush.
Florida’s linebacker corps has likewise been ravaged by injuries: starters James Houston IV and Amari Burney have missed time due to injury and key backup, Ventrell Miller, has as well.
The Gators’ depth on defense is a bit better than what Mullen’s had to work with on offense, but the reality is the Gators 2-deep is just that: only 24 Gators have played more than 4 games on defense — compared to 30 at LSU and 31 at Alabama and Georgia.
One SEC coach told me last week that given the fact schools are allocated 85 scholarships, you hope to have anywhere from 50 to as many as 60 who can contribute in any given season. Florida has played about 45 in more than 4 games, with, as demonstrated above, significant depth issues on both lines of scrimmage and a backup quarterback.
Of course, some of this is expected when you are in the midst of a rebuild. Florida is on its 4th head coach this decade (6th if you count interim head coaches DJ Durkin and Randy Shannon) and it is no secret a huge challenge in Mullen’s rebuild is replenishing the roster with blue-chip talent after a decade wandering the college football wilderness. Jim McElwain’s well-earned reputation as a lightweight recruiter only made the challenge more daunting, as has Kirby Smart’s recruiting machine at Georgia.
Mullen’s had some foul-ups along the way with his recruiting operation as well, some of which may have impacted the Gators this season. The Gators didn’t enroll enough members of this past season’s top 10 recruiting class, and Mullen’s decision to overhaul recruiting support staff, while necessary, came almost a year after his arrival in Gainesville, a bit too late for some program insiders.
But none of that detracts from what’s happening on the field — and in fact, the roster limitations only speak to the impressive coaching job Mullen and his staff have done.
The Gators have a quality win over a top 10 Auburn team, 5 SEC victories and a win over in-state rival Miami. The Gators stood toe-to-toe with No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge last month for most of 4 quarters and were a play or two away from upending No. 5 Georgia as well. Two losses by a combined 21 points and in truth, about 4 or 5 plays. That’s all that separates Florida from being a 10-0 team instead of the 8-2 unit that will close SEC play at Missouri this coming Saturday.
Mullen appears poised to take this tough, ragamuffin group to a second consecutive New Year’s 6 bowl, and, barring a fiasco, will finish the season with an unbeaten record in The Swamp and another victory over Florida State. With Manny Diaz’s Miami rebuild only just beginning and FSU a shell of its past glories, the window is open for Mullen to seize control of the Sunshine State for years to come.
The truth is, a 1o or 11 win season — with the only 2 losses to Playoff contenders — would be quite impressive, especially given the adversity Florida has faced this season.
In most years, we’d be talking about that more, about how Mullen walked into a 4-win, toxic hellscape of a culture at Florida and won 20 games his first 2 seasons anyway, despite devastating injuries and a dearth of high-end talent.
Put that way, maybe we should be talking about it more than we are. Maybe it’s only the beginning for Dan Mullen at Florida.