When the Florida Gators hired Dan Mullen in November 2017, there was little doubt he could win nine or 10 games a year in Gainesville. He did so at one of the SEC’s worst programs (Mississippi State), so why wouldn’t he at one of the league’s best?
The real question, as then-Tampa Bay Times columnist Martin Fennelly wondered, was whether Mullen could win the 12 to 13 games it takes to earn the SEC title or the 14 to 15 needed to claim the national championship.
“Does he have it in him?” Fennelly wrote the day Mullen was hired. “I’m not sure he does.”
Three and a half seasons and two losses to Kentucky later, there are two possible answers. Neither is a clear yes.
The “glass half full” answer is that we don’t know yet.
At worst, Mullen has been a very good hire. He’s tied with Louisiana’s Billy Napier for the most victories in the 2017-18 coaching cycle (32), with three more than Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher. Mullen’s .744 winning percentage is almost identical to Oregon’s Mario Cristobal (29-10, excluding his oddly timed debut in the bowl game).
His overall record (32-11) isn’t far off from the 34-9 marks Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier posted through their first 43 games at UF.
Mullen’s goal, as he said after the Alabama loss, is to build a “team that can compete for championships on a consistent basis.” His Gators are either at that mark or close to it.
They lost by seven to Georgia in 2019 in a game that decided the SEC East. They had the ball with a chance to beat Alabama late in last year’s SEC championship and dropped a heartbreaker to the Crimson Tide last month that would have kept them in contention this year, too.
Competing for championships is not the same as winning them, of course. And barring division chaos this year, Mullen will spend his first four seasons without a conference title or College Football Playoff appearance.
That doesn’t mean he’ll never win one. If his Gators are perennial contenders, the odds will eventually break their way, and they’ll bring championships back to Gainesville.
Unless they don’t.
And that leads to the “glass half empty” answer floating around message boards and social media: Mullen does not have it in him, and his Gators have hit a ceiling lined with New Year’s Six bowl games.
There’s evidence to support this sky is falling view, too. Recent history tells us that if you aren’t in the national championship hunt by Year 4, you probably never will be.
In the BCS/CFP era, 16 different coach/school combinations have won or shared a national championship. Twelve of them won their first title by the end of Year 4.
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Of the four outliers, only two failed to have at least one top-five finish through four seasons: Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State legend Bobby Bowden. Mullen has never finished higher than sixth.
Lower the standard slightly, and the trend remains. Of the 13 coaches to appear in the College Football Playoff, 11 of them made it there (or a BCS title game) in their first four seasons. The two exceptions: Swinney and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio.
At UF, Meyer won his first national title in Year 2. Spurrier won the SEC twice in his first four seasons. Mullen has one East crown.
Beyond the historical comparisons, some specifics around UF are concerning. Mullen had a historically great offense last year and finished 8-4. He hasn’t signed a recruiting class ranked higher than ninth. His 2022 crop sits at No. 16, despite down years from in-state rivals FSU and Miami.
To win titles, you have to beat great teams. Mullen is 2-8 against teams that finished in the top 12 (or are ranked there now).
His Gators also have lost at least one game they shouldn’t have in three of his four seasons: against Missouri in 2018, against a depleted LSU team last year and at Kentucky last weekend.
The last two defeats are part of a problematic trend. UF has dropped five of its last six games against Power Five opponents. Is that the result of a tough schedule and unlucky bounces? Or the sign of a program starting to slide?
Mullen wasn’t in the mood for big-picture questions Monday during his weekly Zoom news conference. When asked whether UF has plateaued and what it will take to get back to the SEC championship game (and win it), his answer was defensive and short: “We were there last year, so …”
“A lot of different factors go into things from one year to the next,” Mullen said moments later. “There’s a lot of football still to be played this year, so we’ll see how this year plays out.”
And how the rest of Mullen’s tenure plays out, too.
Perhaps the early signing period has pushed back the clock on how long it takes to build a championship-level roster. With how much Mullen stresses player development, the abbreviated 2020 offseason might have put him farther behind some of his peers. Maybe the titles are on their way, as soon as next year.
Or maybe Mullen doesn’t have it. Maybe he’ll never be able to recruit enough high-end talent to beat Georgia and ‘Bama regularly. Maybe he’ll max out at 11 wins and a trip to the Peach Bowl. Maybe he’ll become Florida’s Mark Richt — a very good coach who won at least 10 games most years but never broke through to win a national title.
Mullen has had almost four years to prove he can do what my former colleague wondered he could: Win enough to bring championships back to Gainesville.
His 43 games, 32 wins and two losses to Kentucky aren’t enough to provide a definitive answer. But they’re enough to start raising the question again.
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