Why Dan Mullen wanted the Florida Gators-USF football series

'Charlie's doing a great job,' the new Gators coach says of USF's Charlie Strong.
The Florida Gators will be back at Raymond James Stadium in 2023 to play USF. Dan Mullen thinks it'll be a great challenge. [ TIMES FILE ]
The Florida Gators will be back at Raymond James Stadium in 2023 to play USF. Dan Mullen thinks it'll be a great challenge. [ TIMES FILE ]
Published May 30, 2018|Updated May 30, 2018

DESTIN — There are obvious reasons why the recently announced three-game series between Florida and USF makes sense for the Bulls.

USF gets to play a big-name, in-state Power Five opponent that will boost its resume, bring a huge crowd to Raymond James Stadium in 2023 and net $750,000 for trips to Gainesville in 2022 and 2025.

But why did the Gators want to play the Bulls?

"It's a fun game for the state of Florida," Florida coach Dan Mullen said during the SEC's spring meetings at the Hilton Sandestin. "The opportunity to play in an NFL stadium is huge. And a lot of our players are local guys that live within a five-hour radius of us. Their parents are going to get to come to a fun road game."

Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin and executive associate athletic director Laird Veatch had already been kicking around the idea of playing the Bulls when they got a call from USF. From there, it was just a matter of figuring out the details.

UF administrators liked the financial aspect of the series. Payouts for non-conference games are approaching $2 million, which Stricklin calls "out of control." The USF series will cost a fraction of that while adding an attractive road game.

"That's one of the reasons the USF game, series, was so attractive to us, is to allow us to kind of control those costs," Stricklin said.

Playing at Raymond James Stadium could be a recruiting benefit for the Gators. They'll get to show off their brand in a hotbed that produced two of their top 2018 prospects (Cambridge Christian offensive lineman Richard Gouraige and Calvary Christian athlete Amari Burney). Considering how formidable rival Florida State could become in the Tampa Bay area under new coach Willie Taggart, a local game in Tampa doesn't sound like a bad idea for recruiting.

But Mullen said that wasn't really a thought in the scheduling process. It was more about getting the kind of in-state games he wants, plus the chance to play one of the nation's top Group of Five teams.

"That's what it is," Mullen said of Charlie Strong's USF program. "Charlie's doing a great job."

If Mullen builds UF into a College Football Playoff contender, scheduling a Bulls team that consistently ranks among the nation's top 10 Group of Five teams could pay off for the Gators.

Remember what happened to Alabama last year. The Crimson Tide was on the playoff bubble thanks in part to a weaker-than-expected schedule. The marquee non-conference opponent (Florida State) wasn't marquee after all, and the SEC West slipped.

Fortunately for 'Bama, the Tide had two other solid non-conference opponents, both outside the Power Five. Colorado State finished as a top-50 team (according to the S&P+ advanced metrics). Fresno State won 10 games, played in the Mountain West title game and ended up as one of the Tide's top three regular-season wins. If both teams had been weaker, maybe the final playoff spot would have gone to Ohio State, not 'Bama.

There's no guarantee that USF will keep producing top-25 seasons, just as there's no guarantee that UF will become a championship contender. But if the latter happens, the Gators need to schedule non-conference teams that could help their resume.

Like the Bulls.

"I think it'll be a great challenge," Mullen said.

A challenge that makes sense for both sides.