Here comes 2020 -- and Dan Mullen's high expectations. GatorBait Photo
Oh, what the hay. I’ve beaten around this bush more times than a politician looking for a way to tell voters why he was going to raise taxes. So let me just go ahead and say it: Florida is going to win the SEC East in 2020.
I need to get this off my plate today. And yes, if that means beating Georgia to get to Atlanta, then put me down for a victory over the Bulldogs. (More on that later.)
Since spring, when Paul Finebaum tried to provoke a prediction out of me that Dan Mullen was going to finally beat Kirby Smart and win the East, I’ve been hesitant to come clean for fear of becoming that homer we all love to hate. I take professional pride in still having at least a modicum of journalistic objectivity.
Maybe because I was labeled a “sunshine pumper” by some of the Internet keyboard jockeys last year when I came out and said Mullen’s football intelligence, play-calling and acumen for talent development was going to put him in a class by himself. And that they would produce double digit wins in 2019.
The Gators might only be doing NASCAR-like drafting behind Georgia right now, I reasoned, but would soon make their move. Is this that year? If I learned nothing from watching and listening to Greg Sankey if not to watch, wait and consume all the info and data before making a big decision.
Now I see it clearly. Even in the uncertainty of Covid, I think Florida can check all the boxes — gawd, I hate that term, so scratch it — but the Gators have become a legitimate championship contender. Even with all the unknowns. In fact, the decisiveness of Mullen in making sudden adjustments in this high-risk, fast-moving environment gives him a slight advantage. Of course, the medical lottery cannot be won by scheming. So there’s that.
As for numbers and percentages and all that, just mark this down: Nobody except Urban Meyer ever won more games in their first two seasons at Florida, and that covers some national championship, Hall of Fame coaches. So I think Mullen is on track to achieve all of his goals, and in the end establish his resume as comparable to those elite aforementioned.
Can Dan Mullen make the breakthrough? He says he sees several pathways.
"I expect us to go undefeated this year," Mullen said to Pat McAfee on his podcast. “I’m not guaranteeing it, because I'll be honest with you, I have two national championship rings here at Florida and we didn't go undefeated in either of those two seasons. We still won a national championship."
There’s a fine line between swagger, high goals, anticipated success and inflated expectations. Mullen says he’s comfortable with his high expectations and defended his position when I asked about it.
“I’ll be honest, I always set high expectations,” said Mullen. “It would be hard for me not to lead them down the wrong road. I always have extremely high expectations of myself, our team and our football program. Our coaches, our players, I have extremely high expectations of everybody. I always have. That’s just me as a coach, I want us to be the absolute best we can be every single day.
“I want us to compete for championships on a yearly basis. If that causes our fans to think. … we’re better than we are, then it does. You know what, I’m not going to lower my expectation level to make it easier for our fan base to accept where we are. My expectations are probably going to be higher than our fan base’s.”
Masked Man: Will Covid be an adversary? UAA Photo
Ok, he said it, so fans have a right to embrace it and hold him to it. First, though, there’s Ole Miss this week, getting on and off the plane with what is hopefully a full squad, fending off these Fighting Lane Kiffins in that dreaded 11 am CST Mississippi time kickoff and getting win No. 22 under his belt. The schedule looks favorable, except for two of the first three being on the road, including a tough stopover at College Station for an engagement with Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies. If they can get to the open date with just one loss, it sets up favorable for a showdown in Jacksonville.
Beating Georgia is paramount but it’s possible that the Gators can have a better record than the Bulldogs even if they lose in Jacksonville. I see Georgia losing two, maybe three games. I don’t know which ones yet, but Alabama looks like one and maybe Florida and maybe Auburn. When you’re 48 hours from your opening game and you still haven’t announced your starting quarterback, as Georgia hasn’t, you’re not exactly a poster team for confidence.
We still don’t know the impact of Covid-19 or the residual brute force of playing a rugged 10-game SEC schedule, so last-man-standing is going to be a thing. Urban Meyer is on record as saying in his “Best Fridays in Football Podcast” and on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff that the league champion will have two losses. I question that, because I see Alabama maybe losing one game.
Mullen is a realist, pointing out to a national media figure this week that championships are won in different ways. At the same time he's remaining optimistic and hopeful for a solid team that appears to have all the accoutrements needed: 1. Topnotch quarterback 2. Solid defense, 3. Experienced coaching staff 4. Rapidly developing wide receivers, 5. Underrated running game. 6. Improved offensive line.
This for sure, however. Gator fans should be jubilant and hopeful, because they’ve finally got the right man at the helm again and better days are ahead.
That “right man” could be here for a long time, if he so chooses. First off he’s popular – maybe not “one of our own” as was Steve Spurrier, but certainly a cousin. Most media people I know see some of Spurrier and Meyer in Florida’s 27th coach. At age 47 he has already won 90 games and at his current pace could win another 100 or more. With 21 Gator wins to his credit, he could possibly surpass Spurrier’s figure of 122 wins.
Factor in the age of Nick Saban, soon to be 69, and Mullen’s successful career looks pretty sustainable against the likes of peers Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Gus Malzahn, Mark Stoops and Jeremy Pruitt.
And here’s the acid test for Gator fans: Honestly, would you trade Mullen for anybody else on that list?
Gator football is back. How far back and for how long is yet to be determined. The first paragraph of the third chapter will be written Saturday in the hometown of the famous deceased author William Faulkner.
Mullen's 3rd chapter to be written this year. GatorBait Photo