Updated: Nov 27, 2020
“Can his offense score a lot of points?'
“Can he beat Georgia?”
“Can he recruit?”
“What about defense?”
“Can — and will — he win championships?"
When the Football Forensics and Archeologists dig up the 2020 season and begin analyzing the DNA of its national champion, as weird as this year has been, these constants will likely be present despite the weirdness:
1. Gifted Quarterback.
2. Head Coach with creative offensive mind.
3. Solid Defense.
It’s pretty much the same as always, but the order of importance has changed. It is no longer singularly true that “Defense Wins Championships.” Even Nick Saban has come to realize that is true and has adjusted his priorities.
One thing even Mullen’s critics must give him — he keeps overcoming major obstacles, real or perceived. Which brings us to this: Does Florida have 1 and 2 but not 3? Let’s pause here while the message board brawlers duke it out.
When Mullen arrived nigh three years ago, they were like …
1. “Can his offense score a lot of points?'
2. “Can he beat Georgia?”
3. “Can he recruit?”
4. “What about defense?”
5. “Can — and will — he win championships?”
I think he has answered 1, 2 and 3. He’s working on 4 and 5. I added a few for giggles as throw-ins 6. “Does his wife hate Gainesville” (no) 7. “Does her husband have a sense of humor?” (yes) Megan Mullen can help me confirm that Dan does, indeed, have a sense of humor.
Let me go ahead and answer 8. “Can the Gators run the ball?” And I’ll answer it: “Sometimes, when they have to.”
Here’s the skinny: Dan Mullen has put Florida back on the map. And now he’s coming for Alabama, the way he came for Georgia, because he’s out to fulfill The Prophecy. And given the audacity of that statement, some will flinch, but it’s the kind of audacity Mullen’s fan base wants to hear.
For over two years, we have tried to convince readers and listeners that the Gator running game/offensive line was a work in progress, just like the 2020 receiving corps was going to be. I wish I could lay claim to having seen the future brilliance of Kyle Trask, but I wasn’t the only person -- or coach — who missed on him. Clearly, as they say, now it’s all right in front of the quarterback, the head coach AND the defense.
Meanwhile, there’s a rather incredible number bouncing around that’s indicative just how successful Mullen has been in chasing the legendary ghosts at Florida: With a victory over Kentucky Saturday, he can become the UF’s all-time winningest coach through 34 games.
Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer and Mullen were even at 27-6 through their first 33 games. Both Spurrier and Meyer lost their 34th. That’s also why you’ve got to watch statistics. Spurrier had the best record in the SEC his first year but couldn’t claim it due to NCAA probation inflicted on the previous regime. And he won the SEC his second season, 1991. Urban Meyer had his SEC and a national title in year two.
Mullen is sans title so far, but easily passes the litmus test, with the table set for no less than an SEC East trophy. Dan appears on schedule and has the attributes. His former boss, Urban Meyer, was asked the similarities between successful coaches who have landed their first big-time job, such as Mullen at Florida, the younger Ryan Day at Ohio State and Kirby Smart at Georgia. He shot back this text:
1. Care for players
4. Football acumen
As coaches like to say, Mullen “checks all the boxes.” And maybe checks the last one twice.
The acumen of Mullen on play calling and development of players is clearly manifest in Kyle Trask, whose story is compelling, his performance remarkable and his future brilliant. The scary part is that he’s still young in experienced years and, despite his torrid pace with 31 touchdown passes in seven games, he’s capable of better. This is without regard to the absurd comments made by Mike Griffith of Dawg Nation on the Paul Finebaum Show Wednesday when, under duress, he tried to pass off Trask as a mediocre player who ranks “somewhere around fourth or fifth” in the Heisman race – to which Finebaum reacted with semi-outrage. (Paul ranks the Gator quarterback No. 1).
Normally speaking I don’t feel the need to react to attacks on Gator players, coaches, or fans, but Griffith spoke with forked tongue. So I responded with this Tweet, which Finebaum personally read on his show and, at last look. It drew 25, 000 impressions in its first day.
Most experts agree that Trask’s growing knowledge about the finer points of the position indicates he is still learning. He easily could have broken that seven-game touchdown pass record of 31 with one more if Mullen would have wanted to “engineer” the stats. However, Mullen has grilled the “team first” mentality in his players and Trask watched from the sideline as backup Emory Jones threw for one. I asked Dan about balancing “team first” with trying to help win his quarterback a big honor
“Usually you’re seeing players that are winning awards are on really good football teams as well and so it's pretty easy to just keep the focus on the team winning,” Mullen replied. “If we keep winning and we're successful, Kyle's gonna be putting up pretty good numbers. And he'll have the opportunity to get some individual awards. He won't be the only one. Hopefully there's other guys on the team that certainly have the opportunity with individual awards as well. But then, you increase your chances of that as long as the team does good.” So while it appears to be “Show Time” for winning all the bling, it’s also “Show Up Time” for teams.
No. 6 is about right for Florida’s first ranking. Starting with my age-old, cliched theory, let me point out that this time of year, football teams are going North or South, getting better or worse. And it’s usually the small things that matter. And it did in the 38-17 Gator win over the Commodores.
So it may have looked that way, but Mike Griffith is correct about one thing – the win over Vandy didn’t come easy. Trask had dodged a bullet when Commodore DB Allan George got his hands on a pass that he should have intercepted but dropped it. Meanwhile, Florida’s best defender, MLB Ventrell Miller, had been injured for the second time in the game and Todd Grantham’s defense was sleepwalking to line up in response to Vandy’s hurry-up offense.
When the ball went up, only one of three men was going to catch it — the one in white with the name “Grimes” on the back. It wasn’t a lollipop toss, but the timing of the catch between Trevon and his quarterback was precisely at the apex. There was a slight bobble by Trevon coming down — enough to elicit the help of replay and a comment by the ESPN announcer, “that looks like it may have hit the ground” — before it was finally ruled legit. It took a moment of deliberation.
It was not a promising look by a team that had won this matchup 28 times out of the last 29. As he is wont to do, however, Trask came up with the play needed — with major assistance of his receiver — in order to take the lead for the first time, 17-10.
This was just another example of how many times the senior quarterback has needed a clutch play and made it — with a little help from his receiver corps. This speaks volumes about Trask’s clutch play. His small victories are sometimes so razor-thin that they are borderline invisible. But these razor thin edges, these nuances of quarterbacking, are where he lives.
Now about this defense. Smart football people I talk to all agree that the defense will be “just fine,” but others have nightmares seeing Alabama’s Devonte Smith roaming free in the Swiss cheese secondary with a gazillion receptions from Mac Jones. I have a message to you from Todd Grantham: “I just want to find a way to win the game.” That sounds good, but you’ve got to take the slings and arrows when it doesn’t work. Optics are hard to overcome.
Meanwhile, on the final point of this discussion about Mullen. He does, indeed, have a sense of humor, even during a Pandemic. In the opening remark of the Zoom post-game presser after Vanderbilt, he looked at the square of Kassidy Hill from her home, where the GatorBait Chief Correspondent was framed by a string of white lights and blurted out: “Holiday violation on Kassidy. Christmas lights are not allowed until the day after Thanksgiving.” You gotta like a football coach who can put aside his post-game X’s and O’s to call a good holiday violation on a reporter. And by the way, the spunky Kassidy fired back at Mullen "don't tell me how to live my life Dan.” All done in good fun, which proves that it is possible to have.