Georgia Southern, pop the champagne. Your niche in Florida Gators lore as the team to deliver the worst loss in UF history is safe.
Dan Mullen’s future at Florida, on the other hand? Anything but.
It took a career day from Emory Jones (550 all-purpose yards) and the highest point total in Mullen’s tenure (70 points), but the Florida Gators did just barely avoid the most humiliating loss in the 115 years of Gator football, defeating Samford 70-52.
Samford currently sits at 3-4 in the FCS Southern Conference, needing to beat Furman next week to finish the year .500 in the league. Coming into the game, the Bulldogs had surrendered 45 points or more in four of their first ten games, all to FCS opponents. So it was expected that the Gators would put up points- and they did.
But what fans weren’t counting on was Samford’s offense- certainly not a bad one all year, but by no means great against SoCon competition- smashing record after record along the way, embarrassing a Florida Gators program known for its history of elite defenses and generating questions from fans about which players were even trying. Among the records to fall on Saturday:
- Samford put up 42 points in the first half. That’s the most points Florida has ever given up in a half. Ever. In school history The previous record was 38 by FSU in 1992.
- Samford scored 52 points. Not only is that the most points Florida has ever given up to an FCS team in a single game, it’s the most points any SEC school has ever given up to an FCS team. The previous record was Jacksonville State putting up 49 on Mississippi in 2010- and they needed two overtimes to do it. It also ties Washington surrendering 52 to Eastern Washington for the most points any FBS school has given up to an FCS school.
- Samford hung 530 yards on Florida. That easily qualifies as the most yardage Florida has ever given up to an FCS opponent since the FCS became its own separate entity.
Samford also flirted with breaking several more records, but came up just short:
- Samford’s 52 points completes the single worst four-game stretch for a Florida Gators defense in over 100 years- when the game of football was basically a rough-and-tumble combination of soccer and rugby. Florida has now surrendered 175 points in its last four games to Samford, South Carolina, Georgia, and LSU. The last time Florida has been that defensively inept over a four game span? The last three games of the 1917 season and the first (and only) game of 1918, when Florida gave up 189 points to Camp Johnson Football Squad, Kentucky, Clemson, and Auburn.
- Samford’s 530 yards was not just the highest amount of yardage Florida has ever given up to an FCS team, it’s also the 16th largest amount of yardage Florida has surrendered… ever. To any opponent. It barely missed the top ten, too: Mississippi State in 1993 (536), Auburn in 1970 (541), Tennessee in 1970 (543), Tennessee in 1984 (551) and Auburn in 1971 (556) cover the 11-15 slots in those rankings.
- Samford quarterback Liam Welch was responsible for 465 all-purpose yards against Florida. That’s the fifth most any opposing player has ever racked up against Florida; only FSU’s Charlie Ward in 1993 (475), Tennessee’s Peyton Manning in 1996 (475), Alabama’s Blake Sims in 2014 (484) and Michigan’s Chad Henne in the 2008 Capital One Bowl (524) have ever dropped more yardage on the Gators in a single game.
Now think about all the dynamic offenses Florida has faced in its history.
Going back to 1942 Georgia with Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich, to Tom Osborne’s 1995 Nebraska juggernaut with Tommy Frazier, to all four shots Peyton Manning had against Florida in the mid-1990’s, to 2008 Georgia with Matt Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and AJ Green, to a record-setting 2008 Oklahoma offense with Sam Bradford and Jermaine Gresham, to Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M in 2012, to Jameis Winston’s 2013 FSU team, to Joe Burrow’s historically dominant 2019 LSU team, to the 2020 Alabama team that had three players (Mac Jones, Najee Harris, and Devonta Smith, the latter of which won) finish in the top ten of the Heisman Trophy voting, Florida has faced plenty of elite offenses. Some of them, you would think, would hold these various distinctions. But no. This was Samford.
Sure, you’d expect Florida’s defense to look less than elite one week after firing Todd Grantham and installing a 31 year old linebackers coach into the DC role in the interim. But there’s a big, big gap between “OK, that defensive showing wasn’t great, but ultimately understandable because they just fired their DC and were never very good on defense to begin with,” and “being so jaw-droppingly atrocious that they allowed a mediocre team in the FCS to break all types of records and come close to breaking several more.”
No. That doesn’t fly. That “we just fired our DC, what did you expect?” excuse doesn’t work here. Had Florida given up half the offensive totals it wound up allowing, which would have been 265 yards and 26 points, it would have still been considered a relatively subpar defensive showing given the opposition, but one where the “we just fired our DC, what did you expect?” defense would have at least yielded some sympathy. There are levels of struggling, and to surrender a school record for points in a half and an SEC record for points in a game to an FCS team is not a level of incompetence congruent with firing the worst defensive coordinator in the modern era of Gator football. The problem is much more deeply-rooted than that.
The 247Sports Composite talent ranking system says the Gators have the seventh most talented team in the nation. Sure, there’s some margin for error in that; if the teams with the ninth, tenth and twelfth highest talent rankings each beat Florida by five touchdowns, it’s easy to think that the system just made a slight mistake, or that the talent wasn’t being coached up right. You can also acknowledge that there are all kinds of shockingly bad personnel decisions Dan Mullen and his staff make, so that the players who earned Florida that ranking don’t play as much as they should.
But for a team that will at best finish .500 in the FCS to walk into Gainesville and break multiple records on offense is not something that happens when the defense of the seventh most talented roster in the country, or even a top 25 most talented roster in the FBS, shows up and comes to play for its coach or its school. That’s simply not a result that’s possible when a defensive unit- and I’m talking about all eleven guys, not just three or four on a given play- exerts every available ounce of energy for the Florida Gators. And as the head coach who oversees this defensive unit, which would now be ten games into the stewardship of a new defensive coordinator if not for Mullen’s tragic flaw of being loyal to a fault, there’s nowhere else for that blame to fall other than on Dan Mullen’s shoulders (more on that shortly).
Thankfully, the offense did come to play. And so despite all that, Mullen lives to see another day at Florida.
Emory Jones being responsible for a school record 550 yards is awesome, because that kid has taken a beating from a fan base that expected him to be the second coming of Lamar Jackson when in reality nobody can fairly be expected to live up to that hype. Kemore Gamble was another bright spot, reeling in six catches for 122 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Justin Shorter also shined, grabbing six passes for 93 yards, including one where he had to turn his body around mid-dive to pick a ball off the turf inside the Samford 10. And all three core running backs- Dameon Pierce, NayQuan Wright and Malik Davis- made the most of their opportunities, each chipping in 98 or more all-purpose yards on the day.
But the prevailing narrative- and well, the fact- is that the Gators needed every bit of that offensive explosion to merely survive against a team that they paid over half a million dollars to come to the Swamp and take a beating. That’s not a result that bodes well for Dan Mullen long-term in Gainesville, not on the heels of a 40-17 blowout loss at the hands of a 5-5 South Carolina team to lowlight the three-game losing streak Florida entered Saturday with.
And let’s face it- this game was a microcosm of the entire Dan Mullen tenure, where the offense does its job, but sheer stupidity cloaked as patience and loyalty yielded a shockingly bad result. At some point, the offense can’t keep bailing the team out. The defense can’t be a heavy piece of cinderblock that the offense lugs as far as it can. It has to pull its own weight, do its own job, and yes, even win a game for the program every now and then.
Todd Grantham was fired before this game, but Mullen’s failure to dismiss him after 2020 put him in a position where any defensive struggles in 2021 fell squarely on his shoulders. Because had Mullen hired a new defensive coordinator at the start of the season, he wouldn’t be in the position of having no choice but to fire him in November and then hand the keys to a 31-year-old linebackers coach. And now, well, here we are. These records being broken aren’t on Grantham, nor are they on Christian Robinson. They’re on Mullen.
The short sighted see the result and say, “A win is a win.” Maybe a loss to Samford would have eliminated their desires to play that hackneyed card, and force them to face reality. The fact that Florida’s offense went off for 70 points and 717 yards against a school that fundamentally does not recruit the same caliber of athlete as Florida- which is what should happen, every single time it faces such an opponent- is something to be acknowledged, but not something to be celebrated. It’s the only reason that a 3-4 team from the FCS’s SoCon breaking all the aforementioned records aren’t convenient taglines to go alongside the most humiliating loss in school history.
Ultimately, it is true. A win is a win, and Florida got one on Saturday. But not all wins are created equal. Had Florida not beaten Samford, Saturday wouldn’t have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Mullen; it would have been a piano dropped from a helicopter onto the poor proverbial camel’s back. So Mullen will get at least one more game, maybe two, to fix the mess he’s got on his hands.
But what Florida put on film these last two games doesn’t lead me to believe he’s capable of doing so. Also not helping Mullen’s case? The fact that the season suddenly has just two games left in it- both against teams that, if Florida looks anything like what it looked like on defense this past month, will unceremoniously smite the Gators- and his team needs to win both to preserve any semblance of hope heading into 2022 that he is indeed the man best suited to fix a program that’s currently in the midst of a downward spiral.
With no fan or booster possessing a crystal ball, that’s exactly what most outlooks of the futures of most programs are based on: hope. Mullen was my co-first choice to replace Jim McElwain as the head coach of the Florida Gators. I believed in him. Because of his history at Florida and his career at Mississippi State, hope was reasonably high.
That hope, though, has been reduced to its final embers, due to a lethal cocktail of on-field incompetence by his defenses, off-field arrogance, an inherent refusal to part ways with personnel that held his program back, and just a general unwillingness to do things any way other than his way. And though I still have fond memories of Mullen as Florida’s offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2008, and will always be thankful for how he put Florida back on the map in 2018 and 2019, he’s running out of time to rebuild that hope… not just with me, but with the fan base as a whole- including the donors and Bull Gators.
All it will take now is one more misstep, either on the field or off it, for that hope to be extinguished completely, and for the Florida Gators being forced to look elsewhere for the next architect to rebuild it.