You want a signature win, Dan Mullen? It's there for the taking
Exactly 2 years to the day that I’m writing this, Jim McElwain walked off the field as Florida’s head coach for the last time. It was a 42-7 beatdown at the hands of Georgia that dropped the Gators to 2-4 following a week of fake death threats. Georgia was en route to its first National Championship Game appearance since the Herschel Walker era, and Florida was en route to the coaching carousel.
Two years later, Dan Mullen has a realistic chance to make that feel like a lifetime ago.
He has a battle-tested, top 10 team playing against an underperforming top 10 Georgia team on a neutral site — depending on whom you ask — with a division title at stake.
What more could Mullen want?
Saturday is the type of game that could turn the dwindling crowd of Mullen skeptics into believers. Ask the skeptics about why they aren’t all in on Mullen and they’ll rattle off one of the following stats.
“He’s got as many division titles as I have.”
(I’m assuming Kirby Smart or Nick Saban isn’t saying that and it’s instead some armchair quarterback who could have gotten Power 5 offers if his coach sent out his tapes.)
That’s true. Mullen has yet to win a division title, just like the many SEC West coaches who had an annual matchup with the most dominant decade of college football in the modern era. You know what would become an extremely likely possibility with a win on Saturday? A division title. Georgia would have 2 SEC losses to Florida’s 1, but the latter would obviously have the tiebreaker with just 2 more conference games remaining for the Gators.
And while Mizzou is technically still alive, I’m not picking the team that turns into a JV squad the second it steps outside of Columbia to win the East.
So there’s that. What else do the Mullen skeptics say?
“He’s been awful against elite teams.”
There are some not-so-favorable Mullen stats dating back to when he started at Mississippi State in 2009. For example, he’s 1-15 vs. top 15 teams in regular season games with an average of 15.6 points in those contests (via ESPN). The Mullen supporters would argue that’s not a fair thing to measure him by considering what he inherited at MSU, and the fact that 10 of those games were against Alabama, Georgia or LSU.
But wait, there’s more!
When Mullen’s team was in a ranked vs. ranked matchup in the regular season, it went 4-17 with an average of 19.7 points (via my own research). The Mullen supporters would argue that Mullen only lost as the higher-ranked team in 3 of those games. And since he’s been at Florida? Mullen is actually 2-2 in ranked vs. ranked matchups. The losses were the LSU game a couple weeks ago — the Tigers are ranked No. 1 — and the Georgia game last year, when the Bulldogs were ranked 2 spots ahead.
However you feel about Mullen, there’s one thing I think we can agree on. Beating a top-10 team away from home is impressive. It’s what elite coaches do. Even someone like Will Muschamp, who everyone in the world thought they had pegged, completely changed his national outlook by going into Georgia and winning that game.
Mullen doesn’t have to go into a hostile visiting environment to get a signature win. As many Georgia fans would remind you, he doesn’t have to leave his state. Whether that’s fair to everyone or not, it’s what’s at stake.
If you’re under the impression that it’s the same stakes that were on the line in 2015 and 2016 when McElwain led the Gators to consecutive wins vs. Georgia en route to a pair of division titles, well, you’re wrong. Georgia wasn’t a preseason national title contender in either year. It was the final year of Mark Richt and the first year of Kirby Smart. Those Dawgs teams weren’t ranked, either.
Even though last year was also a battle of top 10 teams, I’d argue this has a different feel than last year, too. There was still a perceived gap between the programs. There were still plenty of people who thought it was premature that Mullen called out Georgia and said that “every blind squirrel finds a nut” at a Florida signing day event. Just in case you forgot that comment from February 2018, here was the exact quote from 247sports:
How will Florida keep up with Georgia, which posted a historic No. 1 recruiting class just weeks after playing for the national championship?
“Listen, winning one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” Mullen said with a laugh. “In two of the last three years, we’ve been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
Mullen skeptics would say it wasn’t smart to then fire another bow across the border in April by trolling Georgia with the spring game attendance by using the number of years and games played since it had been since the program’s last national title. Allegedly. And then to deny that he trolled Georgia, Mullen trolled Georgia.
“I had no idea. I don’t even know how they came up with that number, the most random thing ever,” Mullen said. “But everybody started freaking out about it, I guess, until three days later somebody put enough math together to go figure that out.
“Maybe Georgia fans were really so uptight they haven’t won in 39 years they got all uptight and tried to figure it out. But it was pretty random actually, it was pretty funny.”
Whether he admits it or not, Mullen was hired to make sure that Georgia didn’t become the next Alabama. He had his eyes set on the Dawgs from the moment he took the job. Given what it looked like he inherited, that seemed like a lofty target. It no longer does.
Mullen has a chance to flex his muscles by guiding backup Kyle Trask to a victory against Smart’s top 5 defense. Picture what kind of message that would send to the college football world, especially as we enter the home stretch before the Early Signing Period. Mullen couldn’t have drawn up a much more ideal opportunity than the one he has waiting in Jacksonville.
If he walks off the field with a victory on Saturday, there shouldn’t be many skeptics left to convert.