GAINESVILLE — Dan Mullen has never shied away from the expectations that come with coaching Florida. He knows that titles (plural) are a requirement for long-term job security at one of the best programs in the nation.
He didn’t hide from them Saturday night, either, when he could have been basking over his No. 8 Gators’ 40-17 blowout of rival Florida State that gave him 20 wins through two seasons, with a bowl game still to go.
“Honestly I’d love to have been 29-0,” said Mullen, who’s only 20-5 so far.
Eventually, he’ll have to start living up to the Gators standard of championships and perfect seasons. Until then, he can relish nights like Saturday, when the music thumps from a jubilant locker room throughout the bowels of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
It didn’t claim a national title, or a conference one, or even a division one. But the drubbing did give UF a claim to a state championship that not even UCF will dispute. And for Year 2 of the Mullen era, that’s something to enjoy.
In a sport defined by rivalry games —just ask Jim Harbaugh —Mullen’s 10-2 Gators just beat FSU and Miami in the same season for the first time since 2008. Granted, the 6-6 Seminoles and Hurricanes are shells of what they’re supposed to be. The Gasparilla Bowl might be too good for either of them.
But bookending the season with wins over the other two members of the state’s Big Three shows the progress Mullen’s Gators are making.
UF’s 24-20 win over Miami in Week 0 was borderline unwatchable. The Gators turned the ball over four times and mustered just 304 yards of offense. Only a 10-sack performance from the defense and offensive ineptitude from the ’Canes saved UF.
That team looked little like the one that dominated Game 12 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Quarterback Kyle Trask became the first UF player since Tim Tebow to record a trio of 300-yard games in the same season.
Change-of-pace quarterback Emory Jones was strong, too. Early in the second half, he faked a run up the middle, rocked back, looked left and then threw right for a 6-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson. It was a spectacular version of the unspectacular play Mullen wants the redshirt freshman to make more often.
The defense remained strong. The Gators forced three consecutive three-and-outs in the first half to help the game get out of reach. Their eight sacks gave them 46 on the season, their most since 1997.
Even special teams contributed, with kicker Evan McPherson nailing a 50-yard field goal and Tyrie Cleveland ripping off a 40-yard kickoff return.
The Gators did what good teams are supposed to do to mediocre ones: dominate. The fact that the mediocre team was an in-state rival made the victory even sweeter.
Mullen and his Gators had other reasons to celebrate into Sunday night, too. Mullen became the first coach in UF history to win at least 10 games in each of his first two seasons. That back-to-back streak of double-digit victories is the Gators’ first since 2008-09.
While it’s hard to predict what the College Football Playoff selection committee is thinking, a rout of a rival was an exclamation mark on UF’s chances of making a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game. No. 16 Auburn’s 48-45 win over No. 5 Alabama probably helped, too, by making the Gators’ October win over the Tigers look even better and potentially dropping the Crimson Tide beneath UF in Tuesday’s rankings.
Mullen lobbied for his team’s inclusion in one of those big bowls late Saturday night because of the growth he has seen from his program through 24 months and four days.
“I thought we were better this year than we were last year,” Mullen said. “Am I pleased with that? Absolutely. That means we’re headed in the right direction. We’re heading where we want to go.”
Eventually, it won’t be enough to head in the right direction. Eventually Mullen will have to arrive there —and we’re not talking about the Cotton Bowl. Top-10 finishes are nice but will get old eventually to a spoiled fan base. Ten-win seasons will mean less if Georgia doesn’t start becoming one of those 10 triumphs.
But those are issues for next season and the one after that. For now, Mullen has something to savor and sell to recruits: His Gators finally rule their state, again.
Matt Baker’s takeaways
It’s piling on at this point, but FSU’s ability to hurt itself is astounding. The Seminoles stuffed a fourth-down rush … that didn’t matter because they were lined up offsides. Then they recovered a muffed punt in the second quarter, only to have that negated because they were lined up illegally (after getting flagged for a delay of game the snap before that).
Gators athlete Kadarius Toney showed his electric athleticism by ripping off a 47-yard catch and run in the first half. If he can ever figure out how to be consistent, he can start living up to the Percy Harvin comparisons.
FSU interim coach Odell Haggins has done a remarkable job (twice) of steadying the Seminoles under rough circumstances. Saturday night’s blowout should eliminate him from consideration for the full-time job, but he deserves a spot on the next staff, as long as he wants it.