Why I believe Dan Mullen is a top 5 coach in college football right now
Let me ask you a question.
In this scenario, you’re a Power 5 athletic director. Your job depends on nailing your college football head coach hire. Here’s the thing, though. You can hire anyone to take over your program on a 4-year contract. Money isn’t an issue, either. Nick Saban? Yours. Dabo Swinney? You got him.
Those guys are obvious choices, and understandably so. I won’t waste your time explaining why.
But if I’m an athletic director coming up with that list, there aren’t 5 names ahead of Dan Mullen. I believe he’s a top 5 coach in America right now.
Before you tell me why that’s bogus and that because Jimbo Fisher won a national title 6 years ago, he’s better than Mullen at his job right now, look at a stat like this.
Here’s the list of coaches who won New Year’s 6/BCS bowls in each of their first 2 seasons at a new school:
- Dan Mullen
That’s the list.
(Apologies if you saw me tweet this or if you saw it from the SEC Network social accounts, which had that stat roughly an hour after I did for some reason. You know, not that it matters.)
Think about that. That’s essentially 20 years of football and Mullen was the first coach to accomplish that feat.
Not mentioned in a stat like that was the fact that Mullen inherited a 4-7 team. Not mentioned in a stat like that is the fact that Mullen lost his starting quarterback in mid-September and turned to someone who hadn’t started a game of football in 7 years.
And you mean to tell me Mullen is 21-5 with 5 wins over ranked teams so far? Goodness, that’s impressive.
No, he hasn’t beaten Georgia yet. No, he hasn’t played for an SEC Championship yet. No, he hasn’t had a top 5 finish yet.
I get that. But context is important with these things.
Watch Florida and tell me that Mullen’s offense isn’t successful. With a struggling, inexperienced offensive line and a backup quarterback who isn’t a prototypical Mullen dual-threat guy, Florida had the No. 4 scoring offense in the SEC and No. 30 nationally. The Gators were 9-2 vs. Power 5 competition with an average margin of victory of 13.5 points, and those 2 losses came in down-to-the-wire games away from home against current top 5 teams. In 7 games vs. currently unranked Power 5 teams, Florida went 7-0 with an average margin of victory of 21.4 points.
I mention that because my biggest complaint about Florida under Jim McElwain and even in Year 1 of the Mullen era was that it played down to its competition far too much.
What Mullen did with this Florida team to win 11 games shouldn’t be brushed off. It showed exactly why he’s an elite coach right now. I’m not saying his résumé is as good as some of the other elite coaches. But the list of coaches who could have won 11 games amidst Florida’s circumstances is extremely short.
The interesting thing is that outside of the top 2 (Saban and Swinney), it’s pretty wide open now. With no more Urban Meyer or Chris Petersen and Fisher finishing without double-digit wins for the 3rd consecutive season, ranking coaches 3-6 is anybody’s guess. You’d probably have to put Kirby Smart ahead of Mullen for now because of the head-to-head advantage and the overall success of Georgia the past 3 years, and what Ed Orgeron is doing this year absolutely makes him an elite coach, as well.
But let’s play out another little scenario.
You have 1 game to win and you can pick any coach to be on your sideline. Talent is equal. I’m taking Mullen over Smart, Lincoln Riley and Fisher. I’m taking Mullen over any coach in the Big Ten and Pac-12, as well. I trust his ability to scheme receivers open and keep a defense off-balanced.
And look, I get the recruiting criticisms. I’ve made some of them. Mullen still isn’t landing the big-time skill player guys yet. His in-state ties are still a bit of a work in progress, and if Florida is going to win a national title, it feels like it’ll be because Mullen started landing 5-star recruits from the Sunshine State.
Still, the guy did land the No. 9 and No. 8 recruiting classes in his first 2 full cycles. Mullen is going to continue to improve in that area. I’m not a believer that we know his ceiling as a recruiter after just 2 full cycles at a big-time place like Florida. Ask Swinney about that (the 2020 class was Swinney’s first class that ranked in the top 5). Building those connections take time, and surely, winning cures all.
Mullen has now elevated 2 SEC programs, albeit in completely different fashion. He made MSU a steady Top 25 program in the SEC, and now, Florida is a steady New Year’s 6 team. Speaking of that, here’s the list of active coaches with 3 New Year’s 6 Bowl appearances in the Playoff era:
- Nick Saban, Alabama
- Dabo Swinney, Clemson
- Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
- Kirby Smart, Georgia
- Dan Mullen, Florida
- Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma
- Paul Chryst, Wisconsin
- James Franklin, Penn State
The list of active coaches with multiple New Year’s 6 Bowl wins in the Playoff era shrinks to Saban, Swinney, Chryst, Orgeron, Franklin, Smart and Mullen. Top 5 coaches go to and win New Year’s 6 bowls on an annual basis. That’s what Mullen is becoming.
It’s because of what we’ve seen these first 2 years that makes me think that Mullen is elite right now. I realize I might be in the minority with that opinion, and that him winning an SEC title is what will solidify that for those doubting this notion.
But if you put me in that athletic director position with a blank check and a hire to make, there aren’t 5 coaches that I’m taking ahead of the one in Gainesville.