Is Saturday finally Dan Mullen's time against Nick Saban and Alabama?
A week after winning his 100th game as an SEC football coach, Dan Mullen gets another chance at winning one of the only regular-season games he hasn’t won as a head coach: the Alabama game.
Mullen is 0-10 against Saban and Alabama entering Saturday’s nationally televised tilt in The Swamp. Mullen’s teams have come close, dropping a heartbreaker due to Jalen Hurts heroics and an Alabama comeback in the fourth quarter in 2017 and watching a furious comeback of his own run out of time in last season’s SEC Championship Game. But for a coach who is 100-45 in games against teams that aren’t Alabama, it’s safe to say Mullen takes little solace in moral victories.
He said as much this week speaking to the media, noting that the chance to measure his teams and his coaching acumen against Alabama is exciting, but he isn’t satisfied with just competing.
“It’s always fun,” Mullen said. “You always want to challenge yourself against the best. This is a great opportunity for us to go ahead and challenge the No. 1 team in the country, and see where we’re at right now as a team this year. I love these games and they are fun for me. You get the opportunity to go out there and go play in an unbelievable environment against an unbelievable team, the crowd going crazy. This is what it’s all about. This is why we do this. But no, we don’t need motivation to play in this type of game, and we don’t want to wait until (Saban) is gone to win it. It’s about winning.”
It is about winning. To quote another famous coach, “you play to win the game.” You don’t play to say “Hey, we were the team that came the closest to beating Alabama last season.” They keep score for a reason, and at a place like Florida, fans don’t revel in moral victories.
Of course, it’s hard to understate just how much winning Mullen has already done in Gainesville. He’s 31-9 at Florida, and for all the noise there sometimes is around whether his famed loyalty or stubbornness about making changes is a weakness, the staff he has assembled has become the first staff in the history of college football to advance to three New Year’s 6 (or old BCS) bowl games in their first 3 seasons on a campus. Mullen did that — not Saban at LSU or Alabama, not Mullen’s mentor Urban Meyer at Florida or Ohio State, not Mack Brown’s Texas, not Pete Carroll’s USC, not Kirby Smart at Georgia.
Mullen was the first to do it, and he managed the feat after taking over a program that was a cultural tire fire upon his arrival. Things were bad, and not in the good “Yer so Bad” sense Gainesville icon Tom Petty sang about.
Mullen, as he is prone to do, has won his way.
A self-fashioned maverick who detractors (with some justice) label as goofy, he’s worn Darth Vader suits to postgame press conferences, responded to ill-founded rumors of a war with the UF administration and board of trustees by meeting with the media wearing a “Top 5 public school” tee-shirt given to him by UF’s president, and gone full Tammy Wynette in standing by his man Todd Grantham as Florida’s defensive coordinator.
All the while, he’s cleaned up Florida’s culture off the field, stabilized and brought balance to Florida’s recruiting by increasing the percentage of Florida’s roster consisting of blue-chip players by nearly 25% since his arrival, and championed Florida’s infrastructure improvements off it, from weight room upgrades to a new $85 million football complex set to open in 2022.
Meanwhile, Mullen has won games.
Long criticized for failing to win the big one, Mullen is 5-6 against ranked teams at Florida. That’s not tremendous, but considering UF was 9-26 against ranked teams from 2010-2017, it’s a massive improvement.
He’s 6-2 against Florida’s traditional rivals of Georgia, Tennessee and FSU, flipping the script in the FSU rivalry where the Gators had lost 5 consecutive games entering Mullen’s first campaign. He has delivered at least 1 signature win in each of his 3 seasons, whether it was a big win over a top-5 LSU at home in 2018, a dominant victory over top-5 Auburn in 2019, or last year’s rout of rival Georgia in the Cocktail Party.
Will Alabama be Florida’s signature Mullen moment in 2021?
That’s a tougher task. Alabama has won an almost unthinkable 31 consecutive games against SEC East opponents, a mark that includes a 6-0 SEC Championship Game record. The last SEC East coach to defeat Nick Saban? Steve Spurrier, then at South Carolina, who routed the Tide with Stephen Garcia at quarterback all the way back in 2010. The country has had 3 presidents and the SEC East has had 26 head coaches since the Crimson Tide last lost to a team from the SEC East. Of all of the Saban dynasty’s ridiculous accomplishments, this one is perhaps the least discussed and the most exemplary of the scale of Alabama’s dominance.
Yet if anyone can manage the feat, it’s Mullen at home in an electric Swamp.
Mullen is considered by many to be the SEC’s 2nd-best head coach. He can prove that theory again Saturday at home. I say again because in truth, the claim has merit. No, he doesn’t have the national title Jimbo Fisher has and he hasn’t won the SEC Championship like Kirby Smart has at Georgia. But no coach ever won at the level he did at Mississippi State, leading the Bulldogs to the school’s only No. 1 ranking and a spot atop the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings, as well as big time bowls like the Orange Bowl. At Florida, he’s flipped a program from inconsequential has-been to contender in less than 4 years, and done so despite signing “only” top-10 recruiting classes and starting quarterbacks fans consistently suggested were flawed (Feleipe Franks) or talent-starved and limited (the Kyle Trask criticism before he became a Heisman finalist).
Does it matter who he plays at quarterback Saturday? Probably. Kirby Smart learned the hard way that it’s tough to beat Alabama with the wrong guy under center. And most of Alabama’s losses over the past decade have come to teams with a magnificent, All-American caliber talent at quarterback, whether it was Trevor Lawrence or Johnny Manziel or Joe Burrow.
Perhaps sticking with Emory Jones, as opposed to Anthony Richardson, a freakish athlete who has the “it” factor and look of a future Heisman winner, will be an error, a data point for Mullen’s detractors who continue to suggest his stubbornness and loyalty limit his ceiling as a head coach.
That’s all possible. Of course, the last time Mullen hosted an Alabama team in a raucous environment, Nick Fitzgerald was nearly good enough to get the job done. Nearly. And that Alabama team was rescued by a quarterback who was the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Now Mullen — and Todd Grantham, who for all his flaws has a sterling track record harassing young quarterbacks — get Bryce Young in his first road game. If not now for Mullen, when? Perhaps when Anthony Richardson gets older? Perhaps when Saban departs?
Mullen would rather leave those questions for another day. There won’t be any more questions about Mullen’s ability to coach his way to epic wins if Florida pulls the upset Saturday. Perhaps that’s why Mullen says he lives for these moments.