Dan Mullen did his best to be diplomatic about Florida’s 44-28 win over then 5th-ranked Georgia Saturday in Jacksonville, tough to do since he had more or less tipped his hand when he leapt into the stands to celebrate what can only be described as a signature accomplishment after the clock struck zero. You could tell by the way he answered questions with the media post game that he was still feeling giddy about the Gators assuming control of their own destiny in the SEC East Division.
Asked if beating Georgia got the Gators over a hump, Mullen replied, “Uh, I don’t know about that. I know I mean, I was … really it was a big win for us. Uh, you know, anytime you have a top ten matchup, you know, I mean, those are … those are big games. So, I don’t know the hump … I mean hopefully we get, if we can, we can find a way to continue to improve we night get more top ten matchups as the year goes on and we’ll see how that goes.”
Excuse Mullen if he was caught up in the moment and was having problems putting his words together. This is the kind of thing that happens when a rather large monkey – in this case it probably felt like an 800-pound gorilla – that has been riding on your back for 2-1/2 years is removed and sent to live among the rhesus macaques who have called Florida home since they were introduced to the jungle around Silver Springs back when Tarzan movies were filmed at the iconic tourist landmark.
This was the most significant win of the Dan Mullen era at the University of Florida because unless the Gators find a way to lose twice in their last five games they will supplant Georgia at the top of the SEC East for the first time since 2017. Georgia won the 2017 SEC title, lost in overtime in the national championship game that year and then lost in the final seconds of the SEC championship game in 2018. The perception has been that Georgia would stay perched at the top of the SEC East and contend for national championships while leaving everyone else in the dust so Florida’s road to the top of the division hasn’t been an easy one.
Florida’s path back began when athletic director Scott Stricklin had to fire Jim McElwain during the 2017 season after McElwain claimed at a press conference that he and his family had received death threats from disgruntled Gator fans. Firing McElwain weighed heavily on Stricklin but he was left with little choice when McElwain refused to substantiate the allegations. But, there was more to it than that. Stricklin knew the program was heading in the wrong direction ever since the bulk of what amounts to an NFL defense left behind by Will Muschamp moved on to play for pay on Sunday leaving McElwain to his own devices. Subtly put, McElwain had the Florida program on a downward spiral.
Fortunately, Stricklin had the antidote for Chief Yellow Teeth and that was Mullen, hired from Mississippi State after the 2017 season came to a crashing halt.
By the time Mullen arrived, Georgia and its head coach Kirby Smart were widening the gap between Florida and everyone else in the SEC East. It has taken Mullen 2-1/2 years to bring that to a screeching halt and get the Gators to eye level with Georgia. Whereas Smart has done it by stockpiling enormous amounts of talent, Mullen’s approach has been far more subtle and puts more of a premium on finding kids who are good fit in the football and academic culture at UF and who respond well to coaching and player development.
The perfect example of the player development approach was in the play of the offensive lines Saturday. Georgia’s collection of 5-star talent helped produce 136 yards in seven plays for two touchdowns on the first two offensive series of the game. In the subsequent 10 series, Georgia managed one offensive touchdown and only 141 yards (67 passing, 84 rushing) on 51 snaps. The math on that adds up to 2.76 per offensive play after the first two series which means the O-line wasn’t getting the job done. Georgia allowed three sacks and seven quarterback pressures as Florida attacked relentlessly.
There isn’t a single 5-star talent on Florida’s offensive line, yet the Gators accumulated 571 yards on 80 snaps (7.14 per play) and allowed only one sack. Florida’s O-line has allowed only five sacks all season and the Gators are averaging 495.4 yards (7.42 per play) and 42.4 points per game. That is more total yards, more yards per play and almost as many points as the 2008 Florida national championship team (averaged 43.6 per game).
Of course, the best example of player development is at quarterback. Georgia’s situation could be best described as whatever is just above disastrous. Smart ran off 5-star talents Jacob Eason (now in the NFL) and Justin Fields (could win the Heisman at Ohio State) and when Jake Fromm graduated he was left without an experienced QB. Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman was supposed to be the savior sent from heaven but he opted out back in August. Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels wasn’t medically cleared to play until a few weeks ago but he’s still waiting to see the field for the first time. Former walk-on Stetson Bennett IV has been starting, backed up by redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis and true freshman Carson Beck. There isn’t much evidence of any player development at the position.
Florida, meanwhile, has Kyle Trask, who wouldn’t have gotten even a sniff from Georgia’s recruiters. Florida was Trask’s only Division I offer. He was a fourth-year junior who had seen the field only four times when Feleipe Franks was lost to a season-ending injury in 2019. When Trask took over as the starting QB it was the first time he had started a football game since he was a high school freshman. He is now 12-3 as a starter and a legitimate Heisman candidate.
Against Georgia, Trask passed for 474 yards and set an SEC record by throwing for four (or more) touchdown passes in five consecutive games. For the season, Trask has thrown for 1,815 yards and 22 touchdowns. In just 21 career games Trask his totals are 4.918 passing yards and 48 touchdowns, which is more yards and TDPs than Steve Spurrier threw in 30 games of his Florida career.
Judging by what we saw of Trask Saturday and what we have seen throughout this season, it could also be argued that Florida’s two backup QBs – Emory Jones and freshman Anthony Richardson – are vastly superior to anything on the Georgia roster.
Beating Georgia is a big deal, even more so because it’s proof that Mullen’s approach is working. There is nothing wrong with landing the best talent available, but all the 5-stars in the world don’t necessarily win national championships. In the last four years, Georgia has won the recruiting championship twice and finished top three the other two years yet Kirby Smart doesn’t have a single national championship to show for it. Mullen keeps chipping away, adding recruits who fit his system and who don’t mind being developed. He is supremely confident that he has Florida on the right path and that he has the right coaching staff to get the Gators to a perennial championship level.
Of course, nothing helps recruiting more than winning. Mullen is 25-6 since arriving at Florida in 2018. Over that same span, Kirby Smart and Georgia are 27-7. The gap has narrowed considerably and Florida should begin eliminating Georgia’s advantages on the recruiting trail on a more regular basis.
It just also be noted that through the first 31 games of his tenure at Florida, Mullen’s record is the same as Steve Spurrier’s (1990-92). Only Urban Meyer (26-5) had a better record through 31 games than Mullen.
Spurrier had the best record in the SEC in 1990 (couldn’t win the league title due to NCAA sanctions from the Galen Hall era), won the SEC in 1991 and played for the SEC title in 1992 when the league first broke into divisions. Meyer won the SEC and national championships in 2006.
It doesn’t take much convincing to see that the program Mullen took over was in far worse shape largely due to recruiting deficiencies than the ones Spurrier and Meyer inherited. While Hall did leave behind an abysmal offense that was totally reliant on Emmitt Smith, he left Spurrier with the makings of a world class defense plus a future two-time All-SEC Player of the Year in quarterback Shane Matthews. It must be noted that Matthews was buried on the depth chart (sixth string) when Spurrier arrived. Of the 22 starters on Meyer’s 2006 national championship team, 21 were recruited by Ron Zook and there were very few holes that had to be filled on the two-deep.
Beating Georgia was an important step in taking Florida to the dominant levels experienced under Spurrier and Meyer but it is only the first step. The Gators still have to finish strong to take the SEC East title which will take them to Atlanta where it is expected they will square off with #1 Alabama, which has dominant wins over Texas A&M and Georgia. Prior to the Gators’ 44-28 win over Georgia, most experts would have predicted a blowout win by Alabama in the event the two met in Atlanta.
From what we saw of Florida Saturday, the Gators are quite capable of hanging with Alabama. Alabama racked up 564 yards and beat Georgia by 17. Florida rang up Georgia for 571 yards and won by 16 so maybe instead of talking about how the Gators have bridged the gap with Georgia perhaps we should be talking about how UF has overtaken Georgia and has narrowed the gap considerably with Alabama.
When you’ve accomplished something of that significance, you deserve to leap into the stands with the fans to celebrate and then act a bit giddy at your press conference.