LSU is the third biggest game of the Dan Mullen Era at Florida

Dan Mullen
Photo by John Raoux, Associated Press

The reason there was no “Five Takeaways” postgame article from Florida’s 42-0 shelling of Vanderbilt last weekend is because there was nothing to take away from the game. The Commodores are one of the four or five worst teams in all of Division I FBS, and other than some short-form rage from Dan Mullen at halftime, we didn’t see anything happen that we didn’t expect. Florida did what it was supposed to do against an inferior opponent.

Now, tomorrow against LSU, we’ll find out exactly what this team is made of- and we’ll get answers to all the questions that formulated after the Gators’ gruesome loss to Kentucky.

Realistically speaking, Florida’s preseason goals are as dead as a doornail. Kentucky is running out of SEC games to lose with only four left, and they’d have to lose at least two of them to force a three-way cluster-eff atop the East standings. And then there’s the matter of Georgia, a team that Florida has to beat and then have lose exactly once more… and not twice more, because then a two-loss Kentucky gets the head to head tiebreaker over Florida and claims the division.

Then there’s the CFP picture. Believe it or not, Florida has a clearer path to the CFP than to the SEC Championship Game- and make no mistake, that’s a very murky path. The clearest way to put it is that not only does Florida have to win out, but 21 of the other 24 teams that currently comprise the top 25 all have to lose at least once, and in some cases twice (the higher-ranked ones). It’s not impossible, in no small part due to the craziness this sport has seen this year already, but it’s not exactly something you should rush to bet on.

But while a fourth straight year without an SEC Title or a CFP berth undoubtedly increases the pressure for Year Five of the Dan Mullen era, we can put that to the side for now. Year Four of the Dan Mullen era still presents plenty of opportunities, and the first of these is tomorrow.

Florida seemingly stood on the CFP’s doorstep a year ago when LSU came to town. The Tigers were reeling, Ed Orgeron was in big trouble, and Florida was a huge favorite that was expected to roll. Instead, Florida didn’t take LSU seriously, didn’t practice right, and lost- a fate that was sealed when Marco Wilson committed the single stupidest penalty I’ve ever seen in organized sports, but also a fate that had been brewing all night long as Florida let a depleted LSU team hang around far longer than it should have.

As crazy as it may sound, LSU may be in even worse shape to play Florida this time around. About the only notable returning players from last year’s upset in The Swamp are quarterback Max Johnson and running back Tyrion Davis-Price. Now, even the backups that had to step in and shine against Florida last year are missing.

Kayshon Boutte, the receiver who torched the Gators on a busted coverage for a touchdown? Out. Eli Ricks, the cornerback who pick-sixed Kyle Trask and paused to showboat on his way into the end zone? Out. Derek Stingley Jr., perhaps the most talented cornerback in America? Out. Star running back John Emery? Out. Key defensive contributors Andre Anthony, Todd Harris Jr., and Ali Gaye? Out, out, and out. 

Virtually the only difference between the buildup to this year’s game and last year’s game- other than the fact that Florida and LSU both look completely different on offense- is the venue. Instead of a capacity-limited Swamp at night, tomorrow’s contest will take place in front of a capacity-limited Death Valley at 11:00am local time. The questions swirling around Ed Orgeron are even louder this time, which, if you take message boards and social media even the slightest bit seriously, is garroting the fan support among the LSU faithful.

Actually, I stand corrected. There should be one more difference between this year’s game and last year’s game- Florida’s mentality.

The Gators did not take LSU seriously ten months ago. Practices weren’t sharp. Attention to detail in meetings was weak and downright nonexistant at times. And Florida- then ranked #6 in the country- got complacent.¬†That shouldn’t be a problem this time.

But “shouldn’t” doesn’t necessarily mean “won’t.” It seems apparent to me that Florida is taking LSU much more seriously this time- at least from what I’m hearing- but that won’t be known for certain until about 3:30pm ET tomorrow.

Tomorrow is the day that this team has a chance to prove that they’re more than what they showed themselves to be against Kentucky. Tomorrow is the game that Florida can get to show what it’s capable of. And tomorrow is the first opportunity that the Gators really have to make a statement against a nationally respected opponent- even if that opponent is staggering and the plug is about to be pulled on their coach’s tenure.

Oh, and by the way- tomorrow is a chance for payback, to right a wrong that was committed last December in Gainesville. The personnel may be different, but for those players who were a part of the 2020 team that will forever be known as the “shoe throwing team,” this is an opportunity to have the ability to, years down the road, think about a positive memory when the letters “LSU” come up in conversation or on their phone screens.

As for Dan Mullen? Tomorrow is the third biggest game of his coaching career. The only other two that were bigger were against Georgia and Alabama in 2020. Yes, this game means more to him and his legacy at Florida than the 2019 Georgia game did, because that was still just Year Two of his tenure. Tomorrow’s game will go a longer way toward shaping the future of his tenure at Florida than any other game aside from Georgia and Alabama last year.

The three-word tirade with SEC Network reporter Taylor Davis at halftime against Vanderbilt last week was great to see, because Mullen looked more like a Wizard of Oz character against Kentucky than a top-tier football coach with the lack of brains, heart and courage he displayed that night in Lexington. Reason says that the opposite of the ingredients that lead to a bad result will lead to a good result. And the diametrically opposing attitude Dan Mullen seemed to have one week later against Vandy does bode well for his program.

But there’s a line where reason, logic, boding well, good signs and positive momentum ends, and results begin. Against an LSU team that’s got maybe 70% of its preseason active roster available to suit up and a head coach sitting on the hottest seat in college football, there’s no two ways about it. Florida has to win tomorrow. No excuses. No “but the ref missed a holding call.” No “but the wind blew Jace Christmann’s game-winning field goal wide.” There is no possible acceptable result tomorrow other than a Florida victory.

Florida, as a program, is at a crossroads. A loss ruins any hope of resurrection for the 2021 season, and throws the New Year’s Six consolation prize out the window. That also, at least in theory, could be the point where the team decides to mail it in and shut down the season, because that’s when the doubts of, “Man, if we can’t beat this shell of an LSU team…” might start to creep into some individual players’ minds. And a team is only as strong as its weakest link.

But with a win, Florida would prove itself as a consistent top-tier program. Any team can have a flash in the pan and a stray run of success like LSU had with Joe Burrow, but the real top-tier programs churn out double-digit win seasons on a regular basis. For a top-tier program, a bad year is winning nine games. Florida is in a real position to win nine and potentially even ten games this season (including a bowl game), which would not only salvage what seemed like a lost season two weeks ago, but give this program all the momentum it needs heading into 2022- by all accounts a pivotal season for the program under Dan Mullen.

So this is the third biggest game in the Florida career of Dan Mullen, not because it’s for a chance to play for a championship, but because it’s a chance for Dan Mullen to prove that he still does have control of this program. There was no shortage of complaints from fans that Mullen was checked out after last year’s Cotton Bowl disaster, and the Kentucky loss two weeks ago made it seem like he’d already expended all his energy for the year.

Go win it tomorrow, Dan. The glass half empty approach is that you have no excuse not to win. The glass half full approach is that all the stars have perfectly aligned for you to win. And the middle-ground, objective approach is that with all the data we have in front of us, ranging from LSU’s missing personnel to your personal need to get this victory, it’s as clear as can be that you will never face a game of such importance that is simultaneously so perfectly set up for you to win.

So go do that. Go roll Emory Jones out of the pocket and get him warmed up with some nice, easy throws, and then take deep shots. Go wring some real SEC-caliber blocking out of your offensive line. Go drop the guillotine on Ed Orgeron.

Go get yourself a win that starts the process of resurrecting the national perception of this program.