The Florida Gators are set to do battle with archrival Georgia once again, but the script to this year’s Cocktail Party seems eerily familiar. And the onus is on Dan Mullen to deviate from that script.
Remember? Four years ago, speculation was swirling about the job security of Jim McElwain after he’d painted the Florida fan base as blood-starved lunatics by claiming he’d received death threats. As he walked into the stadium that day in Jacksonville to take on a Georgia team that would eventually find itself in the national championship game, he knew he was in the final hours of his tenure. Sure enough, his team quit on him and a playoff-bound Georgia team ripped his Gators apart, 42-7 (and it should have been worse, frankly) to mark the end of his days at Florida.
Of course, the script this year isn’t exactly identical. Head coach Dan Mullen is under no such illusions that his tenure is coming to a close, he’s had Florida reach and win New Year’s Six Bowl games, and, oh yeah- he’s the guy that called the plays for two of Florida’s three national championship teams. So he isn’t going anywhere. Not in the foreseeable future, anyway.
But after defensive coordinator Todd Grantham returned for a fourth year- despite overwhelming annual evidence that this was not a good idea- and the Gator defense once again fell well short of the expectations, combined with the fact that Dan Mullen still seems to not grasp the concept of playing the best players at various positions regardless of their skill and intelligence levels, the conversation about Dan Mullen has shifted. No longer does one get to act like firing Dan Mullen is utter silliness. I don’t believe it’s time to do that. But I also understand that the other side of this argument has become a rational one. And thus, Mullen has left the fans- and his team- in a quandary.
It’s become as obvious as grass is green that Todd Grantham’s players fundamentally do not respect him. Mohamoud Diabate is applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most prestigious off-field adventures a college student can embark on. Typically, one doesn’t apply for a Rhodes Scholarship unless there’s a real possibility of receiving one. Translation: Diabate is smart. He knows exactly what he’s saying. Make no mistake, I have it on very good authority that Diabate is not the only one on this defense who feels that way. And when the trust between a coordinator and his players is broken, typically, it’s only a matter of time before that lack of trust seeps into the head coach-players relationship.
Am I saying that Florida’s defense is going to roll over and play dead on Saturday? Not necessarily. A lot of football teams (though definitely not all) like to define themselves as families, with a sense of brotherhood and togetherness that can’t be explained to anybody who’s never been a part of one. Playing for the guy next to you can be a powerful incentive, and can even lead to upsets. Just look at an LSU team that didn’t respect its head coach beating Florida. Maybe the natural juices that this rivalry can spark up will motivate a team that’s looked very much unmotivated the last month.
But whatever the angle is, Dan Mullen has to have this team ready to play on Saturday. SportsBettingDime shows that the Gators are listed as solid two-touchdown underdogs by several major betting sites, and there’s a good reason for that. Georgia seems to be quantifiably better than Florida this year, with a well-coached Dan Lanning defense that flies around making plays from sideline to sideline and an offense that’s not elite, but certainly adequate and can punish you on the ground behind its stout offensive line. Now that Florida has lost not one but two games to teams it objectively should not have lost to, though, Mullen has to steal a win back in a game he’s expected to lose- or else his program is officially headed in the wrong direction.
An 8-4 season is fine for a COVID-skewed 2020 season where eleven opponents were from the SEC and the twelfth one was the champion of the Big 12. But that record isn’t going to fly this year with FAU, USF, Samford and a Vanderbilt team that’s bad even by Vanderbilt standards comprising one-third of the 2021 schedule. A loss to Georgia on Saturday, though, and 8-4 becomes the best-case scenario for a team that began the year ranked in the top 15- and would leave the Gators staring at being number four in their own division.
So, Dan: I don’t want you to be fired. Between your brilliance as an offensive coordinator from 2005-2008 and the success you had in your first two and a half years as a head coach in Gainesville, I know you can succeed here. I’ve seen you do it. This isn’t a Jim McElwain or Will Muschamp situation where you’re clearly incompetent, because you’ve proven to be competent.
But you also can’t rest on those laurels forever. Previous results may spawn hope for the future, but they have expiration dates. What you did from 2005-08 and even from 2018-2020 was great, but this position requires continued, consistent excellence. And now that you’re 2-6 against Power Five competition in your last eight games- with one of them being a historically atrocious Vanderbilt team that honestly doesn’t even belong in the FBS for football- the shine of those results is wearing off.
So while I’m really not in a position to demand a victory over a heavily favored Georgia team: you’ve got to show me something that proves you’re really here for the long haul, Dan. Even more importantly, you’ve got to show your own players that you’re the leader of this Gator football program that they came to play for.