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Florida’s 2021 warning signs were flashing in Gators’ Cotton Bowl blowout

Dan Mullen said the Cotton Bowl debacle was a kickstart for ‘21, not the 2020 finale. He was, unfortunately, correct.
Florida's Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma (which included Tre Norwood's pick-six) was a bad sign for the Gators' 2021 football team.
Florida's Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma (which included Tre Norwood's pick-six) was a bad sign for the Gators' 2021 football team. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP (2020) ]
Published Nov. 11, 2021
Updated Nov. 11, 2021

To some Florida fans, Gators coach Dan Mullen’s comments after the Cotton Bowl blowout sounded like an excuse.

The team that Oklahoma trounced 55-20 “wasn’t the 2020 football team,” he said, because of UF’s large number of high-profile opt-outs. “That was kind of like a kickstart for us for the future.”

Ten and a half months later, Mullen’s words sound prescient. The Cotton Bowl blowout was a 60-minute warning sign for 2021, because the problems plaguing the current Gators are the same ones that were on display at AT&T Stadium.

Related: If Cotton Bowl loss was ‘kick-start’ for future, what does that say about ’21 Gators?

The biggest issue, then and now, was the defense. Oklahoma opened running lanes and took advantage of awful tackling to pound the Gators for 435 rushing yards — the worst performance of the Mullen era.

No. 2? The loss at LSU (321 rushing yards allowed) that kickstarted this three-game losing streak.

No. 4? The loss at South Carolina (284) that pushed Mullen’s long-term future into serious jeopardy.

Florida defenders missed many tackles on Rhamondre Stevenson in the Gators' Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Florida defenders missed many tackles on Rhamondre Stevenson in the Gators' Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma. [ RON JENKINS | AP (2020) ]

The similarities go beyond the grisly stats. The Tigers and Gamecocks both repeatedly gashed UF on counter runs — a common play where the back steps one direction before running the ball the other way as linemen pull from one side to the other.

Oklahoma ran it early, with Rhamondre Stevenson using a big hole from his linemen and a stiff-arm to rip off a 22-yard rush. Two quarters later, Stevenson broke five tackles on his way into the end zone on another counter. Oklahoma would have scored another time on that play, too, but the touchdown was negated by penalty.

Same offensive concept. Same defensive results.

Related: How can Dan Mullen save his Florida tenure?

The Cotton Bowl was the low point of a three-game stretch where the Gators allowed 144 points — their worst total in the last century. Their second-worst stretch, according to ESPN, is the current losing streak (123 points allowed).

The offense had a role in the Cotton Bowl flop with another familiar issue: disastrous turnovers.

The Gators threw three interceptions that night. One was returned for a touchdown, and another resulted in a Sooner field goal.

In this year’s five losses, UF has a minus-7 turnover differential. The Gators have allowed a defensive score in each of their last three games (pick-sixes by LSU and Georgia, plus a fumble-return touchdown by South Carolina). Six other turnovers have led directly to opposing touchdowns.

Woodi Washington had one of the Sooners' three interceptions in the Cotton Bowl.
Woodi Washington had one of the Sooners' three interceptions in the Cotton Bowl. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP (2020) ]

One of the most troubling hangovers from the Cotton Bowl is how quickly the Gators let games spiral out of control. In less than four minutes at the end of the half, UF let Oklahoma’s lead swell from 17-13 to 31-13. UF never challenged again.

The same thing happened in Jacksonville, where Georgia’s lead exploded from 3-0 to 24-0 in the final 2:16 of the half. And at South Carolina, where the deficit doubled from 10 to 20 just in two minutes

Mullen, to his credit, addressed some of the problems that showed up in his first glimpse at the 2021 team. He tried to fix the run defense by bringing in three transfer interior linemen. He built his offense around the run game’s flashes of success. He gave more chances to blue-chip quarterback Anthony Richardson, who had the Gators’ only touchdown pass.

Florida coach Dan Mullen searched for answers during and after the Gators' Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Florida coach Dan Mullen searched for answers during and after the Gators' Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP (2020) ]

It wasn’t enough. Replacing two assistants in the secondary didn’t repair a broken defense. Mullen effectively admitted that Sunday when he fired coordinator Todd Grantham.

Related: Why Florida coach Dan Mullen fired Todd Grantham and John Hevesy

The Gators’ 15 interceptions are the second-most in the country and already tied for their worst total since 2002. Mistakes on offense, defense or special teams still snowball into disastrous stretches.

All those warning signs were flashing at the Cotton Bowl during what Mullen said was a kickstart to 2021. Instead of fearing long-term problems, he praised the young players who got big-game experience. Instead of expressing concern over an embarrassing three-game losing streak, he saw promise in a third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearance.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction …” Mullen said that night. “I know all the Gator fans are going to be fired up for the future of this program.”

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