SEC Media Days: Year 2 under Dan Mullen begins with hope for Florida, but the final jump is the toughest
No matter how much the event changes, it’s hard not to feel hopeful at SEC Media Days.
Aside from the wilting summer down south heat, optimism is the one constant at an event that is otherwise always evolving and growing.
I used to think that holding SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel in downtown Birmingham, a slab of Archibald’s Ribs and Steve Spurrier cracking jokes about “talking season” would last forever. Now Spurrier’s retired, some folks are trying to claim Hattie B’s is better than Archibald’s and the event appears ready to rotate nearly annually, returning to Atlanta and the College Football Hall of Fame venue again in 2020. What is life?
In the age of SEC Network and college football’s booming popularity, we can’t be long from SEC Media Nights, in truth. What generates more revenue? Kelly Bryant, dressed to the nines, talking to a ballroom of hungover reporters at 11 a.m. or Ed Orgeron talking about Joe Burrow, Hummers and the merits of the transfer portal in primetime? In the era of primetime NFL and NBA Drafts, moving college football’s premier conference’s Media Days to accommodate evening television seems inevitable.
Whatever happens, hope will remain a constant at SEC Media Days.
If you were a lousy last year, the hope is you were a player or two and some experience from being better.
If you are Tennessee, bowl eligibility and a return to respectability are just around the corner.
If you are Georgia, the hope is your young head coach learns the 4th quarter of the SEC Championship Game isn’t the best time to run a fake punt against a punt team playing “safe.”
If you are Alabama, the hope is last year’s blowout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship was a motivating aberration, not a dynasty buster.
Everyone arrives with hope.
At Florida, the hope at Media Days was that the program could use last season’s surprising 10-win season as a springboard to rejoining college football’s upper echelon, where SEC championship and College Football Playoff contention is a baseline expectation.
“I think we have a special team,” quarterback Feleipe Franks told the assembled media Monday afternoon. “Last year’s team was special, too. But if you look at a couple games last year, where if I didn’t turn the ball over so much, especially against Georgia, our season maybe ends in the Playoff. So we’re trying to build on that, prepare for those things and have a special season.”
Franks is right.
Last year’s Gators team was special.
To win 10 games a year removed from a 4-win season is special, a rare type of turnaround in big-time college football and a testament to Dan Mullen and the new coaching staff, their ability to flip what was a toxic, fractured Florida football culture and turn it into a unit that played with commitment and belief.
As good as last season was, the Gators were also a bit fortunate.
Florida’s 10 wins were a bit above the S & P+ Football rankings projected second-order win total of 9.7, a statistic that measures in game statistical performance and projects the actual win total. While only a slight indicator last year’s Florida team overperformed, the statistic makes sense given additional context. The Gators were 3-0 in games decided by one possession or less, and won one other game, at Vanderbilt, that they trailed by 18 points. And no one in Gainesville needs to be reminded that the program has lost two consecutive games to Missouri by an average of 25 points or that the program let what was a 1-score game with 10 minutes to play against rival Georgia turn into a comfortable 19-point Bulldogs win.
The hope in Gainesville is that another season under Mullen will be the difference for Franks, who will follow in the footsteps of other Mullen second-year starters like Alex Smith, Dak Prescott and Chris Leak and make a marked jump in Year 2 under Mullen’s tutelage.
Certainly, the weaponry is there for the Gators.
Florida’s wide receiver unit, led by surefire future pros Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes, along with Kadarius Toney, who averaged a first down a touch in 2018, figures to be among the best in the SEC and certainly the most explosive unit Florida has had since the Tebow era.
The running back group, led by the wildly underrated senior captain Lamical Perine, is deep, physical and diverse, with power runners like Dameon Pierce and change-of-pace options like Malik Davis, a former All-SEC freshmen team selection.
Defensively, the Gators figure to improve on a unit that finished 28th nationally in total defense under Todd Grantham last season. The Gators will feature two of the nation’s best starting cover corners in CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, and they closed last season allowing only 4.7 yards per play in their final 3 games, among the top 20 nationally, something they hope is a sign of things to come.
Two years of strong recruiting under Mullen have also improved the roster from a talent standpoint. No team has won a national championship this decade with a blue-chip (4- or 5-star recruits) roster ratio under 50 percent, and when Dan Mullen arrived, Florida was at 38 percent. Despite some issues with qualifications and one high-profile transfer, Florida’s now back above fifty percent for the first time since 2015, and only the second time since 2012.
The team also has a sizable chip on their shoulder.
Twelve transfer portal entries and the qualification issues of two high profile recruits have fostered a narrative that Florida is a program in flux, with a high attrition rate that will limit its ceiling. The reality is that Florida ranks only fifth in the SEC in roster attrition; in fact, the Gators have suffered less transfer and recruiting attrition than rival LSU and 2019 opponent Auburn, as well as divisional opponent South Carolina. That, coupled with the reality that of Florida’s transfers, only 4-star corner Chris Steele and senior linebacker Rayshad Jackson figured to play much football in 2019, and you get an idea of how myth can be manufactured from talking season narrative.
“We’re definitely motivated by what people say, by the fact some people think last season was a fluke or that Florida’s not back,” one Gator starter told me this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of respect for the various transfers. “Those players did what was best for them, and we respect those decisions. But this is about being on the Florida team that brings the Gators back. We’re motivated. We’re ready. You’ll see come August 24.”
What was clear Monday in Hoover was one simple message: The Gators are hopeful for more.
“Expectations are high,” Franks said. “Ten wins isn’t easy to do anywhere, but we’ve worked extremely hard this offseason and have a lot of momentum, so we enter fall camp prepared. We’re ready to go.”
They’ll need to be.
There’s no tougher jump in college football than the tne from ten wins to eleven or twelve. It’s the final, daunting hurdle from very good to great.
For a Gators program and fan base yearning to once again see their program among college football’s elite, that tough jump is the one by which this Florida season, which announced itself on a hot, hopeful July Monday in Hoover, will be remembered.