Mr. CFB/Tony Barnhart: Is Florida's Mullen starting to close the gap on Georgia?

Kim Klement/USA Today
Tony Barnhart

Having coached at Florida for four seasons (2005-2008) under Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen knew exactly what he was getting into when he became the head coach of the Gators in 2018:

**--Mullen was taking over a program that had won two national championships in the four seasons he was previously in Gainesville. That was the bar. That was the expectation.

**--He was inheriting a program located in one of the prime recruiting bases in the country but had seen recruiting slip over the past few years, particularly when compared to its rival, the Georgia Bulldogs.

**--He was inheriting a program where the fans simply could not understand why the Mighty Gators—as the legendary Steve Spurrier once called his team—had not signed a top flight quarterback or developed one since Tim Tebow walked out the door after the 2009 season.

So when Florida parted ways with Jim McElwain after just three seasons (2015-2017) the powers that be knew exactly what they had to have in the next coach. He had to be a guy who embraced the expectations at Florida, recruited at a high level, and, most importantly, who would finally make the quarterback position an asset and not a liability.

Mullen, whose pupils included Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak (Florida), Tim Tebow (Florida), and Dak Prescott (Mississippi State) checked all the boxes. It was an obvious choice.

“The expectations at Florida are high,” Mullen said. “They should be high.”

So…..One year into the Dan Mullen era at Florida, how’s he doing?

It can be argued that in 2018 Mullen, along with Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, got as much out of his roster as any coach in the SEC. Consider this: The Gators went 10-3 in Mullen’s first season, which was capped off by an impressive 41-15 thrashing of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

And the Gators did it with a roster that had a grand total of one All-SEC first team player (DL Jachai Polite) and two second-team players (OL Martez Ivey, DB CJ Henderson). That’s it.

In his tour of duty at Mississippi State (2009-2017) Mullen got the Bulldogs to No. 1 and made eight straight bowl trips by taking average to good players and coaching them up. That’s what happened last season at Florida.

“Guys bought in to what we’ve been doing,” said Mullen. “You could see that as the season progressed. We were a much better team at the end of the year than at the beginning.”

And a huge part of Florida’s season was the development of quarterback Feleipe Franks. Franks, a redshirt junior, was considered to be a good athlete with very average quarterback skills before Mullen arrived. Last season Franks threw for 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions. More importantly, Franks became the leader that his teammates and Mullen always thought he could be.

“He’s made great strides,” said Mullen of Franks. “He’s learned how to use his skill and talent. He’s learned to worry about what’s important and understand what’s not important. And the opinion people outside of our office have of him is not important.”

This Spring Franks was pushed by redshirt freshman Emory Jones, who played sparingly last season. True freshman Jalon Jones is one of nine freshmen who enrolled early in order to participate in spring drills. Senior Kyle Trask is still in the program. In short, the quarterback room has gotten significantly more talented since Mullen arrived.

“I evaluate it (the position) every day,” Mullen said. “If he (Franks) doesn’t work and somebody beats him out……it keeps a certain edge to you.”

The Gators will be good at wide receiver with players like Van Jefferson and Kadaris Toney. Running back Jordan Scarlett (776 yards) left early for the NFL but Lamical Perine (834 yards) returns. The issue will be replacing four starters on the offensive line.

Three really good juniors on defense—Polite, safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and LB Vosean Joseph—left early. Senior DE CeCe Jefferson will also be missed.

But the good news is that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham decided to remain in Florida after weighing an offer from the Cincinnati Bengals.

So here’s the bottom line: Mullen moved the Florida football program significantly forward in his first season and followed it up with a recruiting class ranked No. 9 by 247Sports.

But Georgia, the school Florida is trying to catch in the SEC East, went 11-3, lost a heart-breaker to Alabama in the SEC championship game, and then signed the No. 2 class in the nation. Kirby Smart’s three recruiting classes at Georgia have been ranked No. 3, No. 1, and No. 2. That makes it hard for Florida to close the gap.

But it’s going to be fun watching Florida try.

Mullen has a bit of an edge to him and has been known to get in a dig at Georgia from time to time. When Steve Spurrier was at Florida he loved throwing jabs at Georgia because he knew that year in and year out, the Bulldogs were going to be the team he had to beat. Mullen knows it too.

And it certainly didn’t help earlier this year when Florida’s Mr. Football, quarterback Carson Beck from Jacksonville, verbally committed to Georgia over Florida.

Mullen and Smart aren’t Woody and Bo. At least not yet.

The two meet again on Nov. 2 in Jacksonville. Stay tuned. This could be fun.


Tony Barnhart