When college football returns, no one will have a bigger opportunity than Dan Mullen and Florida
In these uncertain times, it’s easy to get lost worrying about things that can’t be controlled. There’s just so much we don’t know.
One thing we can say with confidence, however, is that there will be college football again. The sport that brings so many folks joy will return, even if we don’t know precisely when that will be.
On the one hand, you have hope and optimism, the Dabo Swinneys of the world who think we’ll kick it off on schedule in late August.
On the other hand, you have the skeptics who can’t see how they’ll play any ball in 2020.
Somewhere out on the fringes, you have Mike Gundy, who thinks players are healthy enough to fight off the virus, so why not sequester them and let them play immediately because we “need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.”
Look, until the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us — and projections are thankfully rosier now than they were a week ago — no one should be put at unnecessary risk, let alone college kids playing a game for books and tuition.
But Gundy’s remarkable comments touch on one reality: College football is simply too important financially to not get played, at some point, in some way, during the 2020-21 academic year.
“From a financial standpoint, if we’re not playing football games in the fall, it will shake the foundation of college athletics. As everyone knows, football pays for the enterprise to go forward,” Florida athletic director and College Football Playoff Committee member Scott Stricklin told The Orlando Sentinel last week.
Stricklin is right — college football is the bellcow that drives every other piece of collegiate athletics — and pours important money and loads of exposure into the academic missions of colleges and universities as well. It’s simply too important to cancel entirely.
So, yes, college football will return.
That’s great news across the South, but if we’re being candid, it’s especially good news on campus at Stricklin’s University of Florida.
More than any other school in the SEC, Florida — and in particular, Florida head coach Dan Mullen — needs college football in 2020.
Let me explain why this isn’t a run-of-the-mill “you have to be encouraged by the offseason” story or hot take. You’ll get plenty of both when we do Zoom conference SEC Media Days in July.
Instead, I think it’s safe to say playing the 2020 season is more important for Mullen and Florida than other programs for a few concrete reasons.
First, like basically everything else in society, COVID-19 has already had an effect on the college football landscape for next season. Spring practice was all but eliminated and offseason conditioning programs are clouded in so much uncertainty that training with Apple Watches has been a news story sparking controversy.
The tangible impact of the loss of spring football and summer conditioning uncertainty is that whenever football is played in 2020, veteran football teams with established coaching and schematic situations figure to have a structural advantage.
What does that mean for Florida?
In a word: opportunity.
Florida returns 7 starters from a defense that finished in the top 10 nationally and while replacing a quartet of marvelous senior wide receivers will be a more daunting challenge than fans have been willing to admit, you can trust Mullen to figure things out offensively.
Plus, Florida has a 5th-year senior at quarterback in Kyle Trask, the SEC’s leading returning passer, and a future star in Emory Jones waiting in the wings if Trask should falter. The Gators also return 4 starters up front on an offensive line that played its best football in November and the Orange Bowl. Expecting a more balanced attack — which should better open the vertical passing game — is not unrealistic.
The strength of Florida’s returning, veteran personnel matters more in a world without spring football, especially when we bring up the elephant — err, bulldog in the room: Kirby Smart’s Georgia.
Slowed by a plodding, predictable scheme on offense last season, Smart wisely brought in Todd Monken to overhaul everything. What better time than now, especially considering Georgia was set to replace 10 starters on offense? Among the new faces? Graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman, who feasted on lesser competition at Wake Forest but struggled against better opposition. Newman will have the unenviable task of replacing a program legend in Jake Fromm and of trying to make saltier Dawgs fans forget Justin Fields, who was recruited to do that job but is now a Heisman candidate at Ohio State instead.
That’s a lot of turnover and a heady challenge, even in normal times, but given Georgia’s prodigious recruiting — and by at least this writer’s observation — the most talented, even if largely unproven, wide receiver room in the country — there is and was gargantuan room for growth. There still might be — and the Georgia we see at the Cocktail Party, whenever that game happens, will likely look a great deal different than the Georgia we see in Tuscaloosa early in the season.
But by a frustrated Smart’s own admission, the Dawgs really needed spring ball, to install Monken’s system, to get an idea about positional battles, to get Newman comfortable and build chemistry. Now that’s gone, which, in the cutthroat world of college football competitions, means advantage Florida.
The scale of Florida’s opportunity increases when you compare Florida’s schedule to Georgia’s.
If COVID-19 compresses the 12-game season to a conference-only slate, the Gators stand to benefit. Yes, a date with defending national champion LSU looms large. But that game is in The Swamp and instead of Auburn, Florida draws a rebuilding Ole Miss in Oxford as its crossover opponent. The Gators do go to Knoxville and an improved Tennessee, but surviving that test and managing their SEC slate should be a simpler task than the one that faces archrival Georgia, which, in a strange scheduling quirk, will play Alabama and Auburn before the Cocktail Party.
Finally, there’s the issue of Mullen and Florida’s momentum.
The Gators’ recruiting has improved each cycle under Mullen, who has them positioned for their best class yet in 2021. A smart overhaul of the recruiting staff, coupled with struggles at FSU and Miami and the tangible promise of new facilities and on-field results have given Florida a leg up in the Sunshine State, and Mullen’s staff is finally competing with the likes of Smart’s Georgia and Saban’s Alabama for the best national talent.
The bottom line is that a big 2020 is essential to prove that Mullen’s fast start at Florida is the start of something, an ascendancy rather than good coaching that reaches an early ceiling. Is Mullen an SEC version of Jim Harbaugh, who maxes out talent but falls just short nationally, or is he truly on the championship path of the likes of Smart and his mentor, Urban Meyer?
College football is fickle and momentum is fleeting.
When Harbaugh’s Michigan fell a yard short against Meyer’s Ohio State early in Harbaugh’s tenure, the assumption was that Michigan would be back and that better Saturdays were ahead. Now the gap between Harbaugh and the Buckeyes seems as wide as ever.
If Mullen can’t flip the script in the Cocktail Party, is that also his fate?
Before you write off this assessment as unfair, think of it this way.
If Florida can’t turn the tables on Georgia this season, when will it? It isn’t like Smart’s recruiting juggernaut is going anywhere. It isn’t like Smart is continuously adapting and relentlessly improving his operation. Bringing in Monken was the latest sign Smart will do anything — including swallowing his pride and offensive philosophy — to chase the golden ring that’s eluded his alma mater since 1980. At some point, Mullen has to claim the upper hand — or at least show it’s going to be a dogfight.
None of this is to say Mullen would be in any sort of job trouble if he doesn’t capitalize on a fortuitous situation and cash in with a veteran football team in 2020.
Mullen is already the first coach in the BCS or College Football Playoff era to qualify for and win a traditional New Year’s 6 bowl game in his first 2 years at a program. In a world where Ed Orgeron didn’t find Joe Burrow, we’d probably all (rightly) be talking more about the outstanding job Mullen has done at Florida.
Mullen has never eschewed expectations at Florida. He arrived at a 4-win program Gator chomping his way off the plane and talked about competing for College Football Playoff appearances from Day 1. His embrace of Florida’s demanding culture is part of the reason — maybe even more than his connection to the halcyon days of Meyer, Tebow, Spikes and Harvin — that he’s been so embraced by the fan base.
But Florida fans are notoriously impatient. Florida isn’t, as one national writer told me at the Orange Bowl, just like other demanding fan bases.
The heat, humidity and mosquitoes combine to make the pressure in Gainesville just hit different.
Meyer wilted under the pressure in 5 seasons and was practically a zombie on the sideline in Year 6. Ron Zook handled the cooker so well he got into a fight with a fraternity. A Plaza of the Americas petition to remove Billy Donovan was passed around in March 2004, shortly after the Gators were blown away in the first round by tiny Manhattan.
Heck, Gators fans even put favorite son Steve Spurrier under the microscope late in his tenure, wondering why he could win the SEC but not get back to the National Championship Game. The constant buzzing was a factor in his departure for the Redskins. In short, Florida fans are ruthless in their pursuit of excellence.
Mullen knows this. He’s experienced it, with his offense bashed as a “finesse brand of football that won’t work in the SEC” when he was a young offensive coordinator new to Gainesville in 2005. To his credit, he’s taken it head-on.
“I think inside our program, expectations were always high. We haven’t shied away from saying Atlanta, the College Football Playoff is the expectation,” Mullen said at the Orange Bowl last December. “The external piece is just catching up to the internal one.”
Mullen gets it, which is part of the battle.
The harder part is seizing the moment.