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Florida’s turn on the 2020 coaching carousel is likely mostly over

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Dan Mullen isn’t going to Dallas. And unless Todd Grantham heads to Starkville, Florida should keep its staff mostly intact.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Florida vs Michigan Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After a week of Jason Garrett twisting in the wind as the world’s weirdest surrender flag, the Dallas Cowboys appear to have moved on from their longtime coach by bringing on longtime Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

And that’s the first paragraph of a post on Alligator Army because it means that the Cowboys won’t be hiring Dan Mullen as head coach.

Florida’s head man never seemed to be a lead candidate to reunite with his former Mississippi State signal-caller Dak Prescott in North Texas for a variety of reasons, from Mullen’s seeming happiness with a lucrative job and full control of his program at Florida and total lack of NFL experience to Jerry Jones’s preference for experienced NFL coaches. But Mullen’s name was mentioned by media members speculating on possible candidates, and his repeated assertions that he is happy at Florida but will “never say never” when it comes to possible opportunities mean that his status will always be less than 100 percent cemented, even with ink well dry on contracts.

Obviously, Florida fans know well enough that “never say never” is something that coaches say for valid reasons: Steve Spurrier shocking Gator Nation by decamping Gainesville for Ashburn to work for Dan Snyder, of all things, should be a reminder that nothing is a sure thing in the football industry.

But in Mullen’s case, it seems both honest and fair. Coaching at the NFL level would be a new and grand challenge for a guy who has been a part of national championships at the collegiate level, and he’s got a good enough reputation to hold out for the best possible opening — much as he did at Mississippi State, at least until a return to Florida and one of the best big chairs in all of college football became an available path.

If an NFL team with a young core of talent and a possible MVP-level young quarterback comes calling for Mullen, I suspect he’d listen, but that it would still take a quality offer — in terms of not just salary but in-house control and other amenities — to dislodge him from Gainesville. The Cowboys arguably have those things and might have been in a position to afford Mullen some luxuries, though, and they didn’t come calling — and it’s hard to see any other spots in the NFL as logical ones to link to Mullen, with only Dallas currently starting a former Mullen quarterback. (And it would obviously be folly for Mullen to try to reunite with Alex Smith, whose career remains in jeopardy after a devastating 2018 leg injury.)

So we can be fairly certain that Mullen — who is likely in line for a raise and an extension after two straight New Year’s Six bowl wins — is staying in Gainesville through 2020. And that should mean Florida’s offensive staff, an assemblage of tenured Mullen lieutenants, will also return at least mostly intact.

For the second straight year, though, Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s name has been floated for another job.

This job — Mississippi State head coach — also makes more sense for Grantham than Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator, which he turned down after interviewing for in February 2019. Grantham is still in the running for a return to Starkville, where he coached under Mullen, as of Monday reporting.

And a collegiate head coaching job would seem to make more sense for Grantham than a jump to the pros because of how much of his experience has been at the collegiate level — about two-thirds of his 30 years in coaching, and all of them since leaving the NFL ranks following a stint in Dallas as the Cowboys’ defensive line coach under Wade Phillips. Returning to Starkville would also bring him back to a familiar place, albeit under the new management of athletic director John Cohen, and keep him close to eldest son Corbin, who will enroll to play baseball for the Bulldogs this year.

The parts that make less sense for a Grantham-Mississippi State reunion are subtler. Would Grantham, a career coordinator whose four stints as an associate or assistant head coach have never begat much serious consideration as a head coach, really interview out as the best candidate for the role? Would Grantham, whose coaching life has been itinerant, really want to uproot himself and his family from a comfy spot as Florida defensive coordinator for a job that just chewed up the last guy in two years and seemingly slipped out of Joe Moorhead’s hands between the Egg and Music City Bowls?

Grantham will obviously get the best advice possible on the pros and pitfalls of being Mississippi State’s head coach from his current boss, and can turn to Florida AD Scott Stricklin — an MSU alumnus in addition to being its former AD — to ask even more questions. If he truly does end up being the Bulldogs’ top candidate, he’ll be able to make a highly-informed decision, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he does leave.

I remain a bit skeptical that Grantham — whose name being attached to Mississippi State has felt a bit like a trial balloon to me — will end up as that No. 1 choice, though, and think it may be most likely that he stays at Florida and gets a more modest raise than the rest of the Gators’ staff, given that he received a significant one last year.

And if Grantham were to leave? Florida would be in a bit of a bind at defensive coordinator, despite how much antipathy Grantham’s schemes have earned at times. Veteran coaches Torrian Gray (cornerbacks) and Ron English (safeties) would seem to be decent candidates to promote from within, but Florida might have more struggles finding an external candidate by virtue of having missed the first few spins on the coaches’ carousel this offseason; love Grantham or hate him, he provides a consistent level of performance, and it’s not as if DCs at the Grantham-or-better level grow on trees.

Florida would also possibly need to guard against losing any of its defensive staff should Grantham depart, with linebackers coach and ace recruiter Christian Robinson seen as the closest assistant to Grantham and most likely to follow him to another destination.

Again, though, this future staff calculus is all firmly in the land of the hypothetical — and Florida having gotten through those spins on the carousel without anyone being thrown off is probably the best evidence we have to date that the Gators will keep most — if not all — of Mullen’s coaching staff intact heading into 2020.