Media pick Gators to win SEC East. Know this: Dan Mullen didn't come back to Florida to win preseason titles
The Florida Gators have been picked as the preseason favorites to win the SEC East in 2020. The Gators received 53 of the media’s first-place and a total of 624 points, edging Georgia’s 43 first-place votes and 613 points. As a testament to just how long Florida football was lost in the wilderness prior to the arrival of Dan Mullen in the autumn of 2017, this season marks the first time since 2010 that the media picked the Gators to win the East.
With great expectations comes great pressure, but the pressure to win and win big always exists at Florida. That’s part of the privilege of receiving a scholarship to play football for the Gators.
When Mullen was hired, Scott Stricklin said that he wanted Mullen to “make Florida football fun again,” the way it was when Stricklin watched Steve Spurrier’s great teams from afar. Stricklin also thought Mullen could return Florida to the championship standard it established under Spurrier and continued under Urban Meyer.
Relative to the bulk of the decade that preceded Mullen’s arrival, Florida has certainly been fun the first 2 seasons under Mullen, with their head coach becoming the first head coach in college football history to win consecutive BCS/New Year’s 6 bowl games in his first 2 seasons on a campus.
Florida fans being Florida fans (or basically any other SEC blueblood fan base) naturally want more. Peach Bowls and Orange Bowls are fun. They sure beat Birmingham Bowls and, though there’s no better Jan. 1 bowl media hospitality room in the sport, Outback Bowls.
But championships are the point at a place like Florida.
Being dubbed preseason SEC East favorites for the first time since Meyer’s final season also means that at least in the eyes of the media, Florida is back to being a program not only capable but expected to compete for SEC championships and with that, College Football Playoff appearances.
It also means nothing more than that.
Mullen wasn’t brought to Florida to win preseason championships any more than Georgia’s Kirby Smart — the main antagonist to Mullen’s chance to reign supreme in the SEC East at Florida — was brought to Georgia to win recruiting national championships.
The goal is to go to Atlanta and play for SEC Championships in December. That’s something Smart has done 3 years running, while stockpiling enough talent to build a superpower in Athens. Mullen hasn’t been there yet because he hasn’t beaten Smart and Georgia yet.
Florida’s expectation, inside the program, is to get to Atlanta in 2020. That was going to be the expectation in 2020 regardless of where the media picked Florida. Florida’s expectation, in the fan base, is to get to Atlanta too. If you do that, every other championship goal is possible.
The biggest impediment to that goal? Smart and Georgia.
You get the point? The inability to get over the hump in Jacksonville doesn’t go away with a preseason favorites label and the reality that there’s still a talent gap to close doesn’t disappear either. The Cocktail Party is still what matters, and no result from the media vote this week changes that. Lose that game again, and Florida fails to live up to its own cultural expectations. Those are far more important than any media hype might be.
Let’s be clear.
What Mullen has done in 2 years is nothing short of remarkable. Mullen Gator-chomped off the plane and embraced a return to a program that was a shell of the championship machine he left in January of 2009 after winning a second national championship as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator. He overhauled the toxic, broken culture from the late McElwain era and, despite a humiliating, streak-ending loss to Kentucky in his first SEC home game, rallied a football team and managed to win a New Year’s 6 bowl in dominant fashion in the process. A year later, he won 11 games with his backup quarterback and a running game in the 100s nationally. The “less with more” narrative exists around Mullen because it’s true. We’ve got a decade of head coaching receipts.
Being picked to win an SEC division for the first time as a head coach won’t change Mullen. He’s going to believe in himself, the culture he’s built, his offense and his coaching staff’s ability to get the most out of his kids. He’s not going to care in the slightest that 53 people in the media picked Florida to finally get over the Georgia hump or that 43 people, including this author, need to see it to believe it.
The message Mullen gives to his team is going to be the same. What are you doing every day to get better? How can we become the best version of ourselves as a team?
Nothing will change for Mullen and the Gators.
Nothing will change for Georgia either.
Smart says “pressure is a privilege,” and that includes the pressure of the expectations you place on yourself and a player and as a program. Georgia won’t need any bulletin board material to motivate them. They have a 40-year national championship drought that is plenty motivating.
Talking season is fun. But no one paints “talking season” champs on their stadium walls. Championships are won on Saturdays when talking season is finally over.
Here’s betting Dan Mullen and the Gators are glad that’s only a couple of sleeps away.