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On Florida’s performance and personnel vs. Samford, and Dan Mullen’s point of no return

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The Gators’ offensive numbers against Samford were great. History’s numbers suggest Dan Mullen is in troubled waters.

Samford v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Florida won against Samford on Saturday to push itself one game closer to bowl eligibility. How the Gators won, however, has cast a shadow over the near-term future of both the program and Dan Mullen’s tenure as head coach.

Mullen started off hot in his return to Florida, but the early momentum he generated has screeched to a halt. It feels almost like it’s moving in the opposite direction now — and Mullen may have painted himself into a corner so fully that he now needs an almost unprecedented emergence from that corner to win championships.

Will Mullen be able to pull the nose up on his Florida tenure? I went through a lot of coaching careers and tried to find some parallels to Mullen’s current situation. More on my findings below, but first let’s take a quick look at the offensive personnel tracking numbers.

Personnel + Performance

Florida vs. Samford: Personnel + Performance

Personnel Plays Yards YPP Rushes Rush % Yards YPR Passes Pass % Yards YPA
Personnel Plays Yards YPP Rushes Rush % Yards YPR Passes Pass % Yards YPA
11 60 641 10.68 31 51.67% 239 7.71 29 48.33% 402 13.86
12 2 21 10.50 0 0.00% 0 0.00 2 100.00% 21 10.50
20 4 44 11.00 1 25.00% 5 5.00 3 75.00% 39 13.00
Jones Total 66 706 10.70 32 48.48% 244 7.63 34 51.52% 462 13.59
11 - Richardson 3 10 3.33 3 100.00% 10 3.33 0 0.00% 0 0.00
Total 69 716 10.38 35 50.72% 254 7.26 34 49.28% 462 13.59

11 personnel is still king, but we got to see some more 20 this week. Again, that’s a grouping that I feel should get some more looks. There were also some tendency breaking done by the Gators in 12 personnel: That group had been very run-heavy, but Florida only threw the ball with that group against Samford.

Florida Personnel + Performance: Year to Date Through Samford

Personnel Total Plays Yards YPP Total Rushes Rush % Rushing Yards YPR Total Passes Pass % Passing Yards YPP
Personnel Total Plays Yards YPP Total Rushes Rush % Rushing Yards YPR Total Passes Pass % Passing Yards YPP
11 493 3524 7.15 258 52% 1545 5.99 235 48% 1979 8.42
12 33 167 5.06 22 67% 75 3.41 11 33% 92 8.36
13 1 0 0.00 0 0% 0 0.00 1 100% 0 0.00
20 15 84 5.60 8 53% 18 2.25 7 47% 66 9.43
21 4 30 7.50 2 50% 9 4.50 2 50% 21 10.50
Emory Total 546 3805 6.97 290 53% 1647 5.68 256 47% 2158 8.43
11 118 880 7.46 74 63% 571 7.72 44 37% 310 7.05
12 13 140 10.77 5 38% 26 5.20 8 62% 114 14.25
13 2 2 1.00 2 100% 2 1.00 0 0% 0 0.00
20 8 20 2.50 6 75% 15 2.50 2 25% 5 2.50
21 6 48 8.00 2 33% 3 1.50 4 67% 45 11.25
Richardson Total 147 1090 7.41 89 61% 617 6.93 58 39% 474 8.17
Total 693 4895 7.06 379 54.69% 2264 5.97 314 45.31% 2632 8.38

The two-back sets are rising in popularity. Florida has now used two-back on almost 5% of its snaps. That figure was near zero before the LSU game.

I think the Gators still have a few more wrinkles to show with that grouping.


Looking to History for Points of No Return

Dan Mullen has said many times that the goal at the University of Florida is to win championships. About 12 months ago, many thought that Mullen was the guy who was going to lead the Gators to accomplish those goals. Now, it’s starting to seem less likely with each passing week.

The best-case scenario for this season is that the Gators win out and finish 8-5. The opposite end of the spectrum is that Florida loses the next two games — at which point I don’t think Florida fans will need to worry much longer about Mullen’s future.

However, let’s assume Florida wins its next two games. I don’t think the bowl game result would change much, but let’s assume a win there. On this path, Florida finishes out the season with a four-game winning streak and an 8-5 overall record.

An 8-5 record can be quite an achievement in many places. But Florida is not one of those places — and if the “Gator Standard” is competing for championships, 8-5 prompts the question: Can Mullen live up to that standard?

We can look at how other programs have answered that question at various levels of winning. First, let’s look at national champions since 1990 — or, y’know, when modern football was inaugurated by Steve Spurrier first coaching at Florida.

Worst Records of National Championship Coaches Since 1990

Coach Name Worst School Record Pre-Championship Year of Worst Record
Coach Name Worst School Record Pre-Championship Year of Worst Record
Ed Orgeron 9-4 1 (2 with interim)
Dabo Swinney 6-7 2 (3 with interim)
Urban Meyer (Ohio State) 12-2 2
Jimbo Fisher 9-4 2
Gene Chizik 8-5 1
Nick Saban (Alabama) 7-6 1
Urban Meyer (Florida) 9-3 1
Les Miles 11-2 1-2
Mack Brown 9-5 2
Pete Carroll 6-6 1
Nick Saban (LSU) 8-5 3
Jim Tressel 7-5 1
Larry Coker N/A Year 1 Title
Bob Stoops 7-5 1
Bobby Bowden 5-6 1
Phil Fulmer 8-4 2 (3 with interim)
Lloyd Carr 8-4 2
Tom Osborne 9-3-1 3
Steve Spurrier 9-4 3
Gene Stallings 7-5 1

If we look at the last 18 national championship-winning coaches, several of them have had seasons of 8-5 or worse. Unfortunately for Dan Mullen and Florida fans, most of those poor records happened in Year One: If we are not including interim seasons, only two of the coaches had their worst record before winning a championship after Year Two.

Those two coaches are Spurrier and Tom Osborne, who each won nine games in their third seasons. But Spurrier had one of the best recruiting classes in the country before that 1992 season, and Tom Osborne’s third season at Nebraska was in 1976.

These are not exactly apples-to-apples comparisons with Mullen’s situation.

So there is no precedent for a coach having an 8-5 or worse season in his fourth season on the job and winning a national championship.

Well, what about making the College Football Playoff? It’s a slightly lower bar, but you can’t win a championship without making the playoff, right?

Worst Records of Playoff Participant Coaches

Coach Name Worst Record at School Before Playoff Year of Worst Record
Coach Name Worst Record at School Before Playoff Year of Worst Record
Nick Saban 7-6 1
Ed Oregeron 9-4 1 (2 with interim)
Dabo Swinney 6-7 2 (3 with interim)
Ryan Day N/A Year 1 Playoff
Lincoln Riley N/A Year 1 Playoff
Kirby Smart 8-5 1
Brian Kelly 8-5 pre-BCS, 4-8 pre-Playoff 1,7
Jimbo Fisher 9-4 2
Mark Dantonio 6-7 3
Chris Petersen 7-6 2
Mark Helfrich 11-2 1

This doesn’t look much better for Mullen. Brian Kelly is a name that gets thrown around a lot as a potential parallel, not least because plenty of ink was spilled about him overcoming a dip at Notre Dame, but let’s not forget that Kelly made the BCS championship game in his third season. Kelly’s major downturn came in his seventh season, when the Irish went 4-8, but his average record heading into that seventh season was 9-4, and Kelly had already made the national championship game before his terrible season.

The other parallel that jumps out to me is Mark Dantonio, who had a poor year in his third season at Michigan State. And while his Spartans ultimately made the playoffs, Dantonio did not sustain that Playoff-worthy level of play — nor do I think Florida fans would be content with having a team that loses to Alabama 38-0 being the high point of a coach’s tenure.

So there really isn’t much precedent for winning it all or even making the Playoff after having your worst season in Year Four, outside of Brian Kelly. But what about winning the SEC Championship? If you can’t win the national championship, and are unlikely to qualify for the playoff, an SEC title would be a nice consolation prize — albeit one requiring a strange future to unfold in which the SEC champion doesn’t make the playoff.

Importantly, though, Florida has not won the SEC since 2008, and fans would be somewhat satiated with another conference title. How does the Mullen profile stack up to past conference winners?

Worst Records of SEC Champion Coaches Since 1990

Coach Name Worst Record Pre-SEC Title Year of Worst Record
Coach Name Worst Record Pre-SEC Title Year of Worst Record
Kirby Smart 8-5 1
Gus Malzahn N/A Year 1 SEC Title
Gene Chizik 8-5 1
Les Miles 11-2 1-2
Urban Meyer 9-3 1
Tommy Tuberville 5-6 1
Nick Saban 8-4 1
Mark Richt 8-4 1
Mike Debose 4-7 1
Phil Fulmer 8-4 2 (3 with interim)
Steve Spurrier 9-4 3
Gene Stallings 7-5 1

Again, there are some records in the 8-5 or worse range, but most of the worst records happen in year one. Spurrier’s 1992 season is the only one to happen after Year Two, and he had one of the best recruiting classes in the country prior to that season. Mullen obviously does not have that luxury to fall back on after this season.

If the goal at the University of Florida is to win championships, then it will take something almost unprecedented for Mullen to be the head coach of a team that reaches that goal.

Is it possible? Sure. Mullen had Florida pretty close last season. But was that just because he had two first-round picks, both of them matchup nightmares that he could scheme into 1-on-1s that tormented defenses, and also had a quarterback smart and accurate enough to consistently exploit those matchups? Maybe.

Is it also possible that Mullen held onto his defensive coordinator a year too long and, combined with some bad luck, is having an outlier season in 2021? Yeah, I think so. Florida’s turnover issues from its inexperienced quarterbacks have cost the Gators a lot of points this season...

...and yet Florida’s still put together an offense that is eighth in SP+ as of Week 11, with its No. 46 defense dragging it down to No. 22 overall.

Maybe Mullen makes some great hires in the offseason, recruiting picks up, and this is just a mere blip on the radar. History tells us, though, that while Florida may turn around, it will likely never do so enough to live up to the Gator Standard.