The good news: Florida beat Tennessee and Mississippi State looked quite vulnerable against Kentucky.
The bad news: Tennessee is horrible and Mississippi State is now mad.
The Bulldogs are determined not to play two bad games in a row, and they’re at home, waiting in Starkville for Dan Mullen to return as the coach of a different team.
Does Florida’s new coach face a tough test against his former school and the quarterback — Nick Fitzgerald — he coached the past few seasons? Yes it does… but the Gators can’t worry about those outside details. They can’t worry about the storylines or distractions.
They need to worry about getting better. They need to worry about their place in the SEC and how to build it up sooner rather than later. No, Florida can’t expect a rapid rise to the very top tier of the league this season — not with Alabama and Georgia ruling the roost with a pronounced look of superiority — but the Gators have adjusted their outlook after blasting the Volunteers into oblivion this past weekend.
Florida should no longer be concerned with its ability to avoid the basement of the SEC. That was the big fear after Kentucky outslugged the Gators in the trenches a few weeks ago. That fear can fade away, and sights can be set higher — not to the top of the conference, at least not in 2018, but to the second tier behind the Tide, the Dawgs, and LSU and/or Auburn.
“The No. 5 team in the SEC!” That’s not what players come to Florida to play for. It’s not what fans expect out of the Gators. It’s not why Mullen left Mississippi State to coach again in Gainesville, where he helped Urban Meyer win multiple national titles and guided Tim Tebow to a Heisman Trophy. Yet, in 2018, that seems to be Florida’s realistic ceiling. It’s a lot better than ninth or tenth place in a 14-team league, but it’s not the sum of Mullen’s ambitions.
This year, however, Mullen is running smack-dab into the limits of a first season and a flawed situation left behind by his predecessor, Jim McElwain. Mullen knows what this is like — not just from his days at Mississippi State, but from his previous go-round at Florida under Urban. Mullen had to endure the 2005 season before he could mold Chris Leak into a good-enough quarterback who got out of the way of the defense in the 2006 national title season at UF. Mullen also knows what it is like to remake a program from his stint with Urban at Utah.
That, like Florida, was a situation in which a first season of adjustments was followed by a second year that exceeded all expectations. Meyer gets due credit for being able to engineer these “two-year fixes” at various programs, but Mullen certainly helped him. That’s what Florida’s coach can realistically aspire to do: Set down the foundation this year and dream big for 2019, aiming to restore Florida where he and its fans expect the program to reside.
In 2018, though, expectations have to be more modest.
This Saturday’s game against his former school is important for Mullen not because of any championship hopes — there are none if we are being honest. It is important for Mullen because it gives Florida a chance to reach the top of the SEC’s second tier below the big boys. It is also important because of the pride a coach takes in being able to beat a former employer.
MSU and Florida are both SEC schools, but they hardly stand on the same plane in terms of national stature, resources, and historic achievements over the past 30 years. Mullen needs the SEC to know that at the school with more of a football pedigree, he can beat the smaller school he took to the Orange Bowl and an in-season No. 1 national ranking four years ago.
If his Mississippi State successor, Joe Moorhead, badly outmaneuvers him in Week 5 on Saturday evening, the grumbling inside the Florida program which was so abruptly silenced during the Tennessee game will come bubbling back to the surface. If Florida plays valiantly and loses a narrow decision to MSU in a well-played game, Florida fans won’t exactly do cartwheels, but they will know that the progress and evolution witnessed in the Tennessee game carried over to the next week. If Florida can play well and win, however, the idea that this program is on the way back to relevance will pick up steam.
That phrase — “pick up steam” — is what Mullen can badly use in the court of public perception, because it is in that realm where Mullen can change the tenor of the conversations he and his staff will have on the recruiting trail, which is where the Florida coach has to drastically improve the outlook for his program in the next cycle. Florida-MSU isn’t just a sweet, honey-soaked nostalgic bath for Mullen, who did a lot of good work at his former employer; this is a game in which Florida can show that, yes, it is more than just the beneficiary of Tennessee’s manifold weaknesses. This is a group of Gators which can stack good SEC performances on top of each other.
This is a program which is beginning to rediscover the right formula Those are the headlines and talking points Mullen wants to carry out of this trip to Starkville. Losing won’t crush his ambitions and prospects, but winning will breathe a lot more oxygen into the Gators’ renewal effort. This isn’t a game which means everything — that would be hyperbolic — but it has the potential to advance Mullen’s Florida restoration project on many levels. It’s more than just a reunion with his former school.
One historical note is warranted when referencing Florida and Mississippi State: Before Steve Spurrier changed everything in the 1990s, Florida — as was well known throughout the college football industry — was the sleeping giant waiting to be awakened by the right coach. In the early 1980s, when UF was still trying to gain traction, Mississippi State had one of the more innovative coaches in college football. Emory Bellard didn’t field a large number of great teams at MSU, but he did put together two exceptionally good seasons for the title-starved Bulldogs in 1980 and 1981. MSU defeated big, bad Alabama in the 1980 season. It played Tom Osborne and Nebraska in the 1980 Sun Bowl. Bellard was a clever coach who pieced together a solid and important career. He was the developer of the wishbone offense who left behind a noticeable legacy in his sport.
The limitation of Bellard’s career, though, is that while he worked under Darrell Royal at Texas in the late 1960s and coached at Texas A&M in the 1970s, he didn’t make the jump to an elite program. Mullen, who was conspicuously creative with Tim Tebow in the final years of his first coaching tenure at Florida, has reached the top-tier job Bellard never received as a head coach. Mullen is not the hammer-and-nails preacher of toughness in the SEC — that’s Nick Saban’s music and Kirby Smart’s song. Mullen is not the charm-your-shoes-off recruiter Ed Orgeron is at LSU. Mullen is the guy whose X-and-O acumen is supposed to give his team — with apologies to Charlie Weis — a “decided schematic advantage.”
The meeting with Mississippi State is significant for reasons already mentioned, but it is also symbolically potent because Joe Moorhead is a coach cut from cloth similar to Mullen’s. Moorhead gave James Franklin the chalkboard wisdom and agility Penn State had been lacking. Trace McSorley went from a barely-known quarterback to a college football star. Saquon Barkley was always known as an exceptionally talented running back, but once Moorhead got hold of the Penn State offense, his gifts were maximized. Barkley dazzled the college football world in both 2016 and 2017. When Moorhead matches wits with Mullen, Penn State will play Ohio State in the Big Ten game of the year… a game made possible in part by Moorhead himself.
Mullen, therefore, is up against another SEC head coach who is in his first year at a program, with the mandate to win games because he is smarter than the other coaches in the room. Mullen will look across the field and see a version of himself. Beating Moorhead won’t merely give Florida hope of being the fifth-best team in the SEC by season’s end. It won’t just improve public perception or sustain momentum in the program. A win on Saturday will mark Mullen as the head coach poised to become the best offensive brain in the conference, the man who can — in due time — match wits with the Smarts and Sabans of the world and win his share of battles. Doing so would eventually mean that Florida will have returned to the mountaintop.
The climb is steep right now, and should Florida lose to MSU on Saturday, please don’t push the panic button unless the game becomes unexpectedly awful… but if Florida wins, Dan Mullen would move up the SEC ladder on so many levels.
This game is about so much more than winning the “Dan Mullen Bowl” against his former school.
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