Despite Florida fans’ unease with the Gators’ trajectory, coach Dan Mullen’s job is not on the line Saturday against No. 1 Georgia.
His philosophy, however, should be. If Mullen’s Gators lose to an ultra-talented SEC opponent again, it should serve as the final piece of evidence that his approach isn’t working at the level UF demands.
Mullen has always centered his program on player development, from strength and conditioning to on-field coaching to the $85 million training center scheduled to open next year.
“I want people to look and say … ‘They’re going to develop players better than anybody in America,’” Mullen said in 2018.
The philosophy made sense at Mississippi State. Mullen’s Bulldogs weren’t going beat LSU or Texas A&M on talent, so they had to develop better than the Tigers and Aggies. If he could make three-star recruits play like blue-chip prospects (as Dak Prescott did), he had a chance.
Mullen has developed talent well at Florida, too. He turned Kadarius Toney from a raw, unpredictable athlete into a first-rounder, helped Kyle Trask rise from three-star backup to Heisman Trophy finalist and grew Hillsborough High alumnus Zachary Carter from a reserve defensive lineman into a future pro.
But Mullen’s Gators keep hitting the same New Year’s Six ceiling his Bulldogs did because his program’s liability remains the same. There’s not enough elite talent.
Using 247Sports’ composite talent rankings, Mullen’s Gators are 28-5 when they have a more talented roster than their opponent and 5-7 when they don’t. Over the last two seasons, UF is 1-4 against more talented teams (a win over Georgia and two losses each to Alabama and LSU).
In some ways, those stats are obvious. The team with the best players should win most of the time, right? But it also illustrates the issue. Mississippi State should have a massive talent gap with Alabama and Georgia. The Gators should not.
It’s the simplest explanation for Mullen’s tenure. Mullen is an elite play-caller, and his tactical brilliance is the biggest reason why Florida might have a chance Saturday.
But player development and schemes can only carry a program so far. Eventually, the best players make the big plays.
Like Georgia’s offensive line (four former top-65 recruits) shutting down Florida’s pass rush in 2019. Or Alabama running back Najee Harris (No. 2 prospect in ‘17) scoring five touchdowns in the SEC championship. Or ‘Bama backs Jase McClellan and Brian Robinson (both top-150 recruits) breaking tackles for touchdowns. Or four blue-chip LSU linemen opening holes for Tyrion Davis-Price (No. 139 recruit in ‘19) two weeks ago.
The margins of defeat: seven, six, two and seven. You can either take solace from the fact that Florida is a play or two away from victory, or you can question the glaring reason why UF keeps coming up on the wrong end of those one or two plays.
And that brings us to Saturday. Georgia’s Kirby Smart signed as many top-50 high school recruits in the last recruiting class (four) as Mullen has signed in four seasons at Florida. The talent gap is large.
If Mullen schemes his way to the biggest win of his Gators career, it will be evidence that his approach can still work. Maybe the close losses can be explained away by other, fixable factors. Maybe Mullen’s Gators really are close to cracking through their good-not-great ceiling.
But if Florida falls to a more talented SEC opponent, again, it will be the surest sign yet that what Mullen has done so far isn’t going to take his team to the next level. It won’t matter how well the Gators develop players if the players on the other sideline are simply better.
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