I understand that the question that I’m about to tackle won’t be answered for years.
A couple of spring games didn’t answer that question. They provided some context, but they didn’t change any future win totals.
As I watched the first spring game of the Dan Mullen era at Florida and then first spring game of the Jimbo Fisher era at Texas A&M, I thought about the bigger picture (as I’m sure fans did, as well). Cover your ears, Nick Saban. It’s a comparison question.
Who’s ready to win big faster: Dan Mullen or Jimbo Fisher?
To be clear, “win big” is NOT what Florida did in the first two years of the Jim McElwain era. It’s more like what Texas A&M did in the beginning of the Kevin Sumlin era, but over a larger period of time.
Being a yearly top-10 team and being a November competitor for a conference/national title is “winning big” for those two programs. Those are the expectations. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t have Texas A&M making fake national title plaques for Fisher, nor would you have Florida fans talking about the return of the Tim Tebow era in Gainesville.
So who’s ready to win big first?
This isn’t a 2018 conversation. I don’t think Fisher or Mullen are ready to compete for a division title this season. They weren’t necessarily brought to their programs to do that.
But I’d be stunned if both programs didn’t take a step up this year. Both programs looked like the stress of their previous coach’s respective hot seat weighed on them. I think that aspect alone will make for improved teams with largely similar rosters.
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks told the SEC Network broadcast crew. “There’s a new air in the building.”
Yeah, there better be. Florida was a 4-win team last year. Every day probably felt like a grind.
The Mullen version of Florida didn’t look like a grind on Saturday. We saw former players catching touchdown passes and, as Mullen said several times, a much better energy. He seems to get it, especially as it relates to welcoming back those Florida legends. After all, he was there for Florida’s glory days a decade ago.
I’d argue that Fisher seems to get it, too. We saw him embrace former players like Johnny Manziel (his halftime ovation after the legends game was a pretty cool moment on Saturday).
I know what you’re thinking. What does that have anything to do with winning big?
I think it’s like pouring lighter fuel on a fire when the program starts winning and those guys are on board. We saw with McElwain what happened when those guys weren’t on board. Even though he won consecutive division titles, he didn’t have the important people in the program on his side. He didn’t sell them. As a result, his leash was shorter and he felt that.
Fisher and Mullen won’t come up short in that department. I don’t think either of them will come up short in recruiting, either. I’d argue that both are in similar situations with recruiting being in big-time hot beds, but with big-time in-state competition (Texas and Florida State).
And in all likelihood, both offensive-minded coaches will face some challenges trying to fit their current personnel with their new offenses.
If those things are equal, what is it that separates Fisher and Mullen in their pursuit of championships?
There’s one thing I keep coming back to based on what they did at their previous stops. This, I’ll admit, was a bit more evident on Saturday than maybe I realized a couple months ago.
When Mullen was asked about what he thought about Florida’s solid spring game crowd on Saturday — he made a pretty public push for that — he told the SEC Network crew that it was great but that the Gators needed to give the fans some points because that’s what they wanted to see. That’s what they’ve been desperate for in the post-Urban Meyer era.
After the slow offensive start — and probably some “hear we go again” moans from Gator fans — Mullen then busted out the play where former Florida safety Lawrence Wright caught a “touchdown” pass. Mullen also told the officials to “let them play,” which allowed for a 60-yard “touchdown” run from Franks and an R.J. Raymond “touchdown” catch (they were both down much earlier). Mullen was going to make sure the Gators put up big points and that the fans were going to breathe a sigh of relief.
He’s done this before. That is, rebuild a program that had some serious deficiencies. He had to build Mississippi State from the ground up. The Bulldogs had just 5 seasons of 9-plus wins before Mullen arrived, and he led them to 4 such seasons (including 2017). He figured out the path of how to maximize the potential of that job.
No, Mullen didn’t get MSU to a national title like Jimbo Fisher did at Florida State. But let’s not pretend like Fisher had to build FSU from the ground up. He inherited a program that was already playing his offense where he was already recruiting at an elite level. In other words, the transition wasn’t a massive one.
If there’s one thing I question about Fisher’s ability to “win big,” it’s his understanding of a completely new place and what it takes to take it to new heights.
So far, he passed that test. He recruited exceptionally well (both in 2018 and in 2019) and the aforementioned welcoming of former A&M stars was a good sign. If I’m an Aggie fan, I’m extremely encouraged by everything I’ve seen from Fisher so far. That includes Saturday’s spring game, which yielded some good things from Nick Starkel and the Aggie offense (and some bad).
Still, I’m skeptical. Maybe me and the guy who says that Fisher can only win with Jameis Winston will get silenced when Fisher is hoisting an SEC Championship trophy in Year 2 (I’m not that guy because Fisher had 3 top-15 seasons at FSU without Winston). And yeah, guy who reminds me that Fisher is 1 of 4 active coaches with a national title, I hear you loud and clear.
For now, though, give me Mullen to win big quicker than Fisher. Maybe we see it happen as soon as Year 2 or Year 3. It’ll take time in both Gainesville and College Station.
But Mullen might have a bit more lighter fuel to get Florida’s fire burning in a hurry.