THE GATORS ARE STILL AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
The losses to LSU and Georgia are disappointing for sure, but the Gators are still way ahead of schedule in the massive rebuild that Dan Mullen undertook when he came here from Mississippi State. Given what he inherited, Mullen has done a rather incredible job to be 17-5 at this stage. On the way out of the press box in Jacksonville Saturday night, old friend Dennis Dodd, the fine college football writer for CBS Sports, described what Mullen has done thus far as a combination of bubble gum, baling wire, smoke and mirrors. “He's way ahead of schedule,” Dodd told me. “Florida fans just need to be patient because he's the right guy to get them where they want to be.”
While it is a fact that Jim McElwain won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016, it's also undeniable that he did it with the equivalent of an NFL defense he inherited from Will Muschamp. When most of the defensive studs Muschamp recruited moved on to the play for pay ranks, McElwain was exposed and we ended up with the 2017 4-7 debacle. Mullen took the McElwain leftovers and went 10-3 with them last year. A 10-win regular season is likely this year and with a win in the bowl game, Mullen can have 21 wins in his first two seasons. That's more than Steve Spurrier (19 in his first two years, 1990-91) and just one fewer than Urban Meyer (22) had in 2005-06.
There are light years difference from where the Gators are now and where they were when The Big Mac Attack was pink slipped. Mullen has the program on the right track and he's building a football program that will sustain excellence. The loss to Georgia was tough to take but this was not a blowout loss. “Seven points” is what Mullen said when asked the difference between the Gators and Georgia in his post game remarks.
And he's right. This was a seven-point loss and it was a game the Gators could have won if they hadn't made so many mistakes. The gap between the Florida and Georgia programs has closed significantly from where it was when Mullen took over to where it is now. To erase the gap completely is going to take at least one more season of hard work, improved strength and conditioning, better recruiting and improved depth, but it can and will happen.
This is not a time to panic, but a time to be patient and understand that what Mullen has done is just the beginning. He isn't here as a short term fix. He's here for the duration.
Here are a few points to ponder when considering where the Gators are today opposed to where they were when Mullen arrived:
Strength and conditioning: What Nick Savage has done is remarkable, but he needs at least one more year to have the Gators where they need to be. That was evident Saturday when Mullen didn't trust the guys up front to get the push they needed to run the ball successfully. Post game, some in the media kept pounding away at the obvious – Florida didn't have a running game. Mullen knew that and when he said he didn't call many running plays, folks should have caught on to the obvious, which is he knows his team isn't strong enough to go belly-to-belly with a D-line like the one at Georgia and push them around. When you have third and a half yard and can't move the pile, then throw on fourth down because you met a stone wall on third down, it should be painfully obvious that the Gators aren't strong enough. Florida's offensive linemen did a rather good job protecting Kyle Trask. Only one of Georgia's two sacks was on the O-line. The other was on Trask, who should have unloaded the football. The O-line is doing a rather good job in pass protection, which has everything to do with quickness and lateral movement but they aren't strong enough to move people straight ahead in the running game.
The lack of physical strength also showed in missed tackles and the number of times the Gators had a Georgia player wrapped up but couldn't get him on the ground for another yard or two. The play at the goal line when Marco Wilson tried a body block instead of wrapping up the Georgia receiver comes to mind. If Wilson trusted his physical strength he goes for the ankles and wraps up the receiver for a one-yard loss. Instead, a touchdown was scored.
Georgia had an exceptional strength and conditioning program prior to Kirby Smart's arrival and the program has only gotten better in Smart's four years on the job. Florida, on the other hand, is paying the price for the worst strength and conditioning program in the SEC during the Jim McElwain days. Nick Savage has seriously improved things, but it will take another serious offseason to get the Gators close to where they need to be in that department.
Recruiting issues: Do not mistake what I am about to say as a deflection of criticism toward Mullen and his staff by laying all the blame on McElwain, but it is a cold hard fact that the previous staff fractured a lot of relationships with the state high school coaches. Many of those relationships have been repaired but there is still a way to go and far too much time has had to be spent getting back in good graces.
The good news is that Mullen and his staff are accustomed to dealing with players with potential as opposed to ready to play types that make up much of the rosters at Alabama, Georgia and LSU. But, there is no question the Gators have to turn the recruiting tide and start pulling in their fair share of elite talent, particularly in the state of Florida. Far too many of the most talented kids have been leaving the state. Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State have raided the state for players they couldn't have dreamed of recruiting 12 years ago and that has to change.
Three things will go a long, long way toward resolving the recruiting issues: (1) winning, (2) stability and (3) bringing in an elite personnel guy like Mark Pantoni.
Winning cures a lot of recruiting issues because the best kids want to go to the places that win the most games. Just ask Alabama which in many cases can cherry pick the best of the best because those kids know if they spend 3-4 years in Tuscaloosa they'll not only win championships but they'll get noticed by the NFL scouts. From 2005-09, Florida went 57-10 and won two national championships. From 2010-17 Florida was 60-41 with zero SEC or national championships.
While Nick Saban has been comfortably in place at Alabama since 2007 (154-21 record with five national championships), Florida has had to replace its head coach three times since 2010. Stability matters.
Pantoni is as good as it gets when it comes to identifying the players that fit the coaches he works for. He proved that at Florida working for Urban Meyer and he did the heavy lifting for the 2012 class recruited by Will Muschamp that ranked third nationally. When Meyer resurfaced at Ohio State, he brought in Pantoni who has laid the groundwork for success with five classes since 2013 that were ranked fourth or higher. Mullen needs to find a personnel guy like Pantoni.
FINAL TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GEORGIA LOSS First and foremost, it was a seven-point loss. A year ago, Georgia beat the Gators by 19 and owned the fourth quarter. This year, Florida put two touchdowns on the board and was a third down stop away from forcing a punt that would have given the Gators one last shot at tying or winning the game.
The Gators are very capable of beating Georgia or any team on their schedule, but they can't have mistake-filled games like Saturday. Yet, even with all the mistakes they held Georgia to two touchdowns and three field goals. A missed tackle on third down is the difference between the first touchdown and a field goal. The second touchdown was a completely blown coverage. A stop here and a stop there and Florida could have just as easily departed Jacksonville with a win instead of the second loss of the season.
The Gators are not an elite team but they're a lot closer to the elite level than they were a year ago. Georgia has elite talent but isn't necessarily an elite team. Georgia's strength is its ability to minimize mistakes. If there is one glaring lesson to be learned by the Gators it the difference between very good and great teams isn't always the level of talent but the fewest mistakes.
This is not a time to panic just because the Gators lost a football game. Beating Georgia would have been a great measure of the progress made since Mullen took over but by no means would it have meant Florida has arrived. The Gators are close. Very close but they aren't there just yet.
Patience Grasshopper. It will happen.