Dan Mullen was hired to do a simple job in Gainesville — get Florida back to being a force in the SEC and make it one of the premier programs nationally.
All Mullen has to do is take a 4-win team and dethrone the emerging beast that is Georgia. And if he really wants to bring Florida “back,” he might as well knock off Alabama in an SEC Championship or two.
Easy enough, right?
If that happens in Mullen’s first year, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin will just give Mullen a blank check at season’s end to sign his lifetime contract. More realistically, though, the Gators will still be looking up at their division rivals. You don’t erase 42-7 that quickly against the national runners-up.
Their realistic task for 2018 is getting back to respectability. What does respectability look like? It lies somewhere between what Florida and Georgia did last year.
Mullen is capable of getting Florida to respectability. After all, he got Mississippi State to 8 consecutive bowl games. That was after a 5-7 first season in Starkville. So should Florida fans expect the same?
To try and assess a possible win total for Year 1 of the Mullen era, we should probably try to figure out the keys to Florida’s success.
Obviously the first thing that Florida fans want to see turned around is at the quarterback position. That production won’t be measured by passing yards. Ironically enough, Mississippi State actually finished No. 112 in passing offense compared to Florida at No. 101. Expecting Feleipe Franks or Emory Jones to start passing for 250 yards per game would be unrealistic.
What is realistic is getting 25-30 touchdowns out of the quarterback position. Mississippi State got 37 scores from its signal-callers last year, and 40 the year before. That was without Dak Prescott.
Florida got 10 touchdowns from the quarterback position in 2017. Ten.
That’s rock bottom. I’d be surprised if either Franks or Jones had double digit touchdowns as a passer and as a rusher, but I’d be more surprised if Florida’s starting quarterback didn’t account for at least 20 scores.
There’s no reason that Florida can’t improve its No. 108 scoring offense. Even if Mullen’s quarterback doesn’t turn into Tim Tebow overnight — that’s not happening — the Gators still have too many talented offensive weapons (Kadarius Toney, Lamical Perine, Jordan Scarlett and Malik Davis) for Mullen to struggle like Jim McElwain did.
It’s not crazy to suggest that Florida finishes in the middle of the national rankings in terms of scoring. The 16-point showings against Missouri should be a thing of the past.
The offense is going to get all the headlines early on in the Mullen era, but I’m intrigued by what comes of this new 3-4 defense.
Nationally, I didn’t feel like Todd Grantham got enough love for the job he did completely turning around Mississippi State on that side of the ball. He helped maximize the freakish abilities of Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat, both of whom earned first-team All-SEC selections.
Grantham is going to have similar talent to work with in Gainesville. Cece Jefferson probably doesn’t return to school if not for the chance to work with Grantham. Having other veteran playmakers like David Reese and Jabari Zuniga back is only going to help with the transition.
It’s hard to judge Florida’s 2017 defensive numbers because of how horrific the offense was. Even the best units can’t hold strong if they don’t ever get a break. The Gators were a solid unit that finished with mediocre numbers after falling apart down the stretch.
That shouldn’t be the case in 2018. In fact, I expect Grantham’s unit to be Florida’s backbone in the early stages of the Mullen era. That doesn’t mean there should be a drastic imbalance like there was in the McElwain era. Why can’t Florida have a top-25 scoring defense in 2018? Mississippi State did it in a tougher division in 2017. Surely that’s a perfectly realistic expectation.
So what does that mean for Florida in 2018? If there’s going to be improvement on both sides of the ball, how much will that show up in the win total?
I don’t think you see the Gators play down to their competition like they did for far too often with McElwain. That will go a long way toward easing the stress that Florida fans felt throughout SEC play. There should be actual offensive progression, which will be a new sight in Gainesville.
If I had to set a way-too-early regular season win total, I’d probably put it at 7 or 8. Maybe Florida beats LSU or Mullen rallies the troops in his return to Starkville. They could still be subject to a disappointing loss in the first half of the season as the offense transitions. Still, a trip to the TaxSlayer Bowl doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world considering the mess that was 2017.
Mullen’s task is not easy, but he can make Florida’s rebuild look a lot easier than McElwain did.