On Florida's mystifying losses under Dan Mullen, and resetting 2021 expectations
Florida’s 20-13 loss at Kentucky on Saturday night was heartbreaking for Gators fans and not just because it was a stunning turn of events for a team that had played so well against Alabama and in the second half against Tennessee. The loss has other stunning implications — both in terms of what it says about Florida’s 2021 season and Dan Mullen’s program. Both concepts are worth visiting.
In the short term, the loss at Kentucky resets Florida’s season expectations after only one weekend in October.
Florida is now 1-2 in the SEC, and the loss at Kentucky likely represents the death knell to the Gators’ SEC Championship Game aspirations thanks to what else is happening within the SEC East. Georgia looks like the most complete team in college football and even if Florida pulls off the upset in Jacksonville, the Gators will still need Georgia to lose again, something that seems decidedly unlikely. Plus, Florida can’t even punch its ticket to Atlanta if both it and Georgia finish 6-2 in the league. Thanks to tiebreakers, the Gators would need Kentucky to lose 3 SEC games. The Wildcats are 3-0 in the SEC after their win over Florida and 2 of their remaining games are against Vanderbilt and Tennessee, both likely wins. That means they’ll need to lose all of the other 3 — a home tilt with LSU this weekend and games at Georgia and Miss State — to not control tiebreakers over the Gators. Kentucky going 0-3 in that stretch is possible but unlikely.
In short, Florida’s season expectations and goals are mostly unreachable after just 5 games. That means over the final two months, Florida needs to set new goals, and Mullen and his staff need to sell their players that every game matters and the new goals are worth pursuing. As Thomas Goldkamp wrote this week, that will be a very hard sell for this staff.
Florida had to do that in 2018 under Mullen after back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri snuffed out any SEC Championship Game dreams. But that happened in November, not at the beginning of October. This challenge will be tougher, and it will be interesting to see how Florida responds this month, beginning with Saturday’s homecoming tilt against Vanderbilt.
Saturday’s loss at Kentucky also represented the 3rd season in Mullen’s tenure where the Gators have dropped a game in which they were a big favorite.
In 2018, the Gators let a late third-quarter lead slip away in the fourth quarter in the Cocktail Party and then came out terribly flat against an average Missouri team at home a week later. The loss prevented Florida from winning 10 regular-season games in Year 1 under Mullen. Florida also lost to Kentucky for the first time in 31 years that season as well, though that particular Kentucky team was a Citrus Bowl winner and one of the best teams in Kentucky history.
In 2019, the Gators won 11 games, their high-water mark to date under Mullen. A big reason they got to 11 wins? They avoided stubbing their toe against inferior opponents, storming back to beat an average Kentucky team in Lexington and holding off a furious rally by an overmatched Virginia squad in the Orange Bowl.
In 2020, Florida had the talent to win every game it played, save perhaps the Cotton Bowl, where the team was overwhelmed by opt-outs. Florida’s loss to Alabama in an epic SEC Championship Game can be swallowed, but Florida’s senior night loss in The Swamp to the worst LSU team in over a decade? That’s brutal.
For those scoring at home, that means the Gators have lost one game they “shouldn’t” in all but one year of Mullen’s tenure. That’s concerning. That’s the kind of trend that makes you pause.
It’s also concerning that with the exception of the Missouri loss in 2018, Mullen has tried to “explain” or “excuse” each of these mind-numbing losses.
Against LSU in 2020, Marco Wilson threw a shoe and a third-down stop became a 15-yard penalty, a first down and a game-winning LSU field goal. Mullen blamed the defeat on execution, not a vanilla game plan, preparedness or his decision to hold out All-American Kyle Pitts, who had been cleared to play.
Against Oklahoma in 2020, it was opt-outs and Mullen’s postgame admission Florida was treating the game like a glorified spring game.
Saturday night Mullen refused to concede he was outcoached, instead suggesting his team won the yardage battle 382-211, which I’m told will get you a good cup of coffee at Dunkin so long as you also have $2 in your pocket.
If you can’t be reflexive and humble after a loss when you are physically dominated on both lines of scrimmage at Kentucky, when can you be reflexive and humble? Where is the Mullen who challenged his team to be fiercely competitive after the Missouri loss in 2018? Where is the guy who said his teams should be as competitive as he is, where they want to win at everything, even thumb wrestling?
Great players & coaches love competition and want to win at everything‼️
Listen in to Dan Mullen on thumb wrestling ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/CGaCmXkO4v
— CoachTube.com (@thecoachtube) November 6, 2018
Florida needs that Dan Mullen. Where did he go?
It’s unequivocally true that Mullen has raised the bar back to a championship expectation at Florida. Mullen has Florida fans expecting to win almost every game they play. It’s one thing to expect to win, and quite another to actually win. At Florida, an important step in the program’s progression back to consistent national relevance is avoiding head-scratching losses. Mullen has not consistently done that, and Saturday’s loss in Lexington continued that troubling trend.
Until Florida gets it fixed, consistency will remain an obstacle to Mullen returning Florida to national prominence.