Dan Mullen and Florida kicked off the 2021 edition of SEC Media Days on Monday, and amid all the patent Mullen projections of confidence and discussions about new quarterbacks, embattled defensive coordinators and replacing 8 NFL draft picks, one question simmered steadily under the surface: Is Year 4 an inflection point for Mullen in Gainesville?

It’s been a fascinating offseason for Mullen and the Gators.

Florida limped out of the Cotton Bowl having suffered their second-largest bowl defeat in school history, a 35-point thumping at the hands of Oklahoma. Yes, Florida’s roster was depleted as several Gators, including both of Florida’s first-round NFL Draft picks, opted out of the bowl after the team’s close but no cigar SEC Championship game loss against Alabama. But the loss was still Florida’s third in a row — and the Gators’ fourth loss of the year, a sour way to end what started as a special season and included Florida’s first division title in the Mullen era. 

The Gators didn’t exactly wow anyone in recruiting, either. Florida finished 12th in the 2021 recruiting rankings — respectable enough — but only good enough for 5th in the SEC, behind not only SEC behemoths Alabama and LSU, but divisional rival Georgia and upstart Texas A&M as well. 

As recruiting closed in January and February, Mullen flirted with the NFL, only to come up empty on a big job offer and return to Florida, fresh contract extension in hand. Mullen dodged NFL questions again Monday, but he never really shuts the door. A master game-planner and personnel schemer, the “just football” piece of the NFL intrigues Mullen, who is personable with recruits but doesn’t share the passion for the relentless pursuit that rival coaches like Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Saban. As Mullen’s program enters Year 4, it’s fair to ask if the public flirtation was about more than a contract extension. Perhaps the siren call of the NFL will ultimately prove too intoxicating? 

There was also the matter of that putrid defense — a topic that came up repeatedly in conversation Monday. 

Florida wasn’t just bad on defense in 2021. They were historically inept: The 2020 Gators were the worst statistical unit Florida had fielded since going 0-10-1 in 1979, and given Florida’s prolific offense (4th in the nation in S&P+ efficiency and 1st in passing offense) it’s hard not to wonder what might have been if the Gators had merely been competent on that side of the football. Instead, Florida was a fiasco — and the Gators finished 1-3 against programs that have played in the College Football Playoff as a result. 

Despite the problems, Mullen stood by Todd Grantham.

He explained that decision — and Florida’s woes on defense — this way Monday:

“If you look at different games, we were erratic. There were some games we played really, really well defensively. There were other games where I thought we played well but statistically weren’t great,” Mullen said. “And certainly missing spring practice and the learning curve of speed of the game and time off and not being able to tackle live hurt us. I don’t know if it was one thing. Statistically, we weren’t where we want to be. But I think it is easy to identify the issues. It wasn’t one specific thing.”

It’s one thing to know what went wrong, as Mullen says he and his staff do, reviewing the film. It’s another to trust Grantham to fix it — which Mullen clearly does.

He isolated Florida’s leadership on defense as a reason for optimism.

“The attitude of where our defense is at is something I’m pleased with. I am really excited about the attitude and mindset and the leadership they have within our program,” Mullen said. 

Confidence is a good thing. Trust is a good thing. But a coaching life in the SEC is Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, short. Too much loyalty can be a bad thing, an anchor preventing a program from reaching its ceiling. Time will tell with Mullen’s loyalty to Grantham (and, many Gators fans would tell you, at least two other coaches on Mullen’s staff). But the whole debate raises the larger question bubbling at the brim of any rational discussion about the Gators in 2021: Is Year 4 an inflection point for Dan Mullen’s program?

It feels like it. 

Kyle Trask, Mullen’s Heisman-finalist quarterback is gone, as is Kadarius Toney, a first-round draft pick playmaker. Kyle Pitts, who an NFL executive told me is the best tight end he’s ever seen in college, is also off to the league, and just signed the largest rookie tight end contract in history. Five other Gators were drafted, including kicker Evan McPherson, who was about automatic from inside 50, as well as undrafted free agent receiver Trevon Grimes, a favorite red-zone target. 

The ensuing overhaul of one of Florida’s greatest offenses in program history wouldn’t be so daunting if Mullen knew, with certainty, his defense was going to hold the rope. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case, no matter how much confidence Florida’s Media Day representatives, Ventrell Miller and Zachary Carter, projected Monday morning. 

Instead, the Gators are a team with top 10 talent and probably a top 5 gameday coach (at least a recent Pro Football Focus ranking believed so) but very little in the way of proven commodities. 

Emory Jones? It’s his fourth year on campus. He knows the system. The locker room loves him. He’s the highest-rated recruit Mullen has ever had as a head coach and Mullen is a quarterback whisperer who went to a New Year’s 6 bowl game with Feleipe Franks and won plenty in the SEC West with Nick Fitzgerald. But can he play?

The most talented running back room in the league outside of Tuscaloosa? Sure. But if Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard had lived up to the 5-star hype, would they have left Clemson and The U? 

Yep … there’s big-time talent at wide receiver and tight end too. But how do you replace a legend like Pitts? And when, if not now, will Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter live up to those prodigious recruiting profiles?

There’s the most talented defense at Florida since early in the McElwain era, if you trust the 247talent composite (and you should). But will Florida’s staff put those kids in a position to be successful? And will Florida’s big time defensive tackle transfers, Antonio Valentino and DaQuan Newkirk, give the Gators the depth and leverage they need up front to free up Grantham’s exotic edge blitz schemes? 

The schedule, as usual, does the Gators few favors. 

Florida and LSU drew the short stick at the league office 30 years ago and continue to play every year, and this season, Alabama rolls into The Swamp for the first time in a decade. That’s 1 of Florida’s 3 SEC home games, and the Gators will go over a month without playing in The Swamp between an Oct. 9 date with Vanderbilt and a Nov. 13 date with Samford. 

It’s a demanding set of challenges and would be even for the most focused head coach. That’s why preseason prognostications about the Gators are so varied — with longtime publications like The Sporting News slotting Florida in the top 10 while college football preview gold standard Phil Steele omits the Gators from his Top 25 altogether. (Yes, that seems ridiculous)

But where is Mullen’s head at as Florida enters Year 4? And what happens if Florida loses early to Alabama, slips up against Tennessee or Kentucky and leaves Baton Rouge with 3 losses? And even if the Gators win 9 games — will that satiate the hunger of a fan base that hasn’t tasted a conference championship since 2008?

It has the feeling of an important story, this 2021 Florida Gators football season. 

Play a game at the Cocktail Party for the SEC East and then whatever else follows, and maybe there’s merit to this idea Mullen can simply keep putting top 10 talent on the field and outscheme and outdevelop the more talent-rich programs ahead of him. But go 9-3 with 0 marquee wins and the white noise surrounding the program —  as well as the hushed questions about Dan Mullen’s ceiling as a head coach — all grow louder.

SEC Media Days are fun, but every leader and every program projects confidence. It was no different for Dan Mullen on Monday. But will this mysterious team mark the latest step forward for Mullen’s Florida program? That’s a question that can’t be answered in July. And, as it turns out, it’s the most important question for Florida’s program.