BATON ROUGE, La. — Five minutes after 8 p.m. Eastern Saturday, LSU coach Ed Orgeron leapt and pumped his fist at a sold-out crowd as his top-10, undefeated Tigers took the field.
One minute later, Florida coach Dan Mullen led his top-10, undefeated Gators out of the tunnel and into the biggest game of the weekend —again.
As two of the game’s top coaches faced off in an electric environment in a game that was not over at press time, it’s easy to forget this:
Both Mullen and Orgeron were backup plans. Neither one was supposed to be coaching these blue-blood programs.
Mullen wasn’t the hottest name in the 2017 coaching carousel. Chip Kelly was, but the former Oregon trendsetter turned down a pursuit from the Gators to head to UCLA.
Kelly is 4-14 with the Bruins and 1-5 this season heading into Thursday’s game at Stanford.
UF considered poaching Scott Frost away from UCF, but the interest wasn’t mutual; the former Buc returned to his alma mater (Nebraska).
Frost entered Saturday 8-10 with the Huskers, including a 4-2 start to Year 2. Although Frost should lead Nebraska to a bowl game this year, his Huskers aren’t ready to challenge Big Ten powers like Ohio State or Wisconsin.
Then there’s Mullen.
Given his experience at UF as an assistant under Urban Meyer and as an SEC head coach at Mississippi State, he had the highest floor and lowest ceiling. Mullen never coached for a national title, as Kelly did at Oregon, nor was he ever in position to award one to himself after a perfect season, as UCF did for Frost. Mullen’s next division title will be his first. But he never seemed likely to flop, either.
“I strongly believe Dan is the most prepared candidate to have immediate and long-term success at the University of Florida,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said when UF announced the hire.
The last 22-plus months have proven Stricklin right. Mullen is the only one of the three to enter the top 20, let alone the top 10. No matter what happened Saturday night at Tiger Stadium, Mullen’s Gators have a clear path to the SEC championship (beat a suddenly shaky Georgia in three weeks) and the College Football Playoff.
The same holds true for Orgeron’s Tigers.
Like Mullen, Orgeron was a fallback option. LSU looked into Jimbo Fisher (who instead overstayed his welcome at Florida State) in the 2016 cycle and targeted Houston’s Tom Herman. But Texas wanted Herman, too, to replace Charlie Strong. Herman chose the Longhorns, and LSU settled on Orgeron.
The Tigers aren’t regretting it. Entering Saturday, Orgeron’s record as LSU’s full-time head coach was 24-7, including a 45-38 win over Herman’s Longhorns in Austin last month.
The unpredictability of coaching moves is obvious elsewhere, too. Strong looked like a home-run hire for USF but is still in hot water, even after Saturday’s 27-23 win over BYU.
As a native Floridian, lifelong Seminoles fan and well-regarded recruiter, Willie Taggart made sense for Florida State and did everything right — until he had to start coaching games. Saturday’s 45-14 loss at No. 2 Clemson was just the latest sign of a program in trouble.
We don’t know how the tenures of Mullen or Orgeron will end, so it’s too early to call either a resounding success. Jim McElwain, remember, looked like a great hire a season and a half into his UF tenure; a year later, he was gone. Although Mullen and Orgeron have won New Year’s Six bowl games, neither has accomplished their programs’ ultimate goal: a championship.
But midway through this season, Mullen and Orgeron both had their programs undefeated, in the national conversation and at the center of the biggest game of a big college football weekend.
Not bad for a couple of backup plans.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.