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On Florida’s problems, and scouting the coaches who can fix them

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Discipline and desire are key to driving winning — and Florida might have let both slip at a crucial moment.

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

As Florida began its downhill skid this season, it almost became a meme to say that the trouble all started with a little shoe throw. We kept seeing what Florida’s record was since, and how that cleat toss killed the program.

I don’t think that is totally accurate — but that 2020 LSU game did include a few small tremors that eventually led to the avalanche of problems that buried Florida in 2021.

Let’s start with the shoe throw itself. It was a big penalty at a critical juncture of the game. It was also a moment of exuberance from Marco Wilson, who had not been playing up to his own standard during the season and finally made a play. His, uh, surplus excitement caused him to make a grave error and that penalty extended what ended up being the game-winning drive for LSU.

And, to some consternation at the time, Dan Mullen downplayed the penalty in his postgame press conference, saying that he didn’t see it and that “I guess that’s a penalty.” Mullen later said he’d addressed the penalty with Wilson internally. I believe him on the latter part — I’m sure the penalty was addressed in more aggressive terms in-house — but from the outside, there was no apparent discipline for the shoe-shooer.

I don’t believe that you need to suspend a player a whole game for one penalty, and they very well may have handled this issue in house. So it is difficult to say that the infraction went unpunished. However, there is an interesting trend to note when looking at penalties up to and including the 2020 LSU game and penalties after that game.

In Jim McElwain’s final year at Florida, the Gators averaged 8.0 penalties a game. In Dan Mullen’s first season at Florida, that number dropped from 8.0 to 7.3. But in 2019 and the period of 2020 prior to the LSU game, Florida averaged 5.2 and 5.0 penalties per game, respectively.

Those numbers in 2019 and the first 10 games of 2020 are in line with Mullen’s career average while at Mississippi State. During his run as coach of the Bulldogs, Mullen’s teams averaged 5.2 penalties per game, a number that would be top 25 in terms of fewest penalties per game in this and most years.

After the shoe toss and up through Mullen’s swan song against Missouri, Florida averaged about 7.5 penalties per game. That rate, while not technically a stat for a single season, would be the worst single-season mark of Mullen’s entire career.

The other issue coming out of the LSU game was some confusion about competitiveness. In 2017, following a downtrodden Florida getting thrashed by Missouri, Mullen famously referenced his will to win at any task including thumb wrestling.

Before the 2020 meeting with LSU, Dan Mullen told the announcers that his Gators could lose the LSU game — and, if they beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, would still make the playoff.

Then the biggest matchup nightmare in college football, Kyle Pitts, warmed up in pre-game — and from what I was told at the time, could have played — but was held out of the game. Florida, which scored 42 red-zone touchdowns and finished 2020 as a top-20 team in red zone scoring percentage, promptly had its worst outing of the season in the red zone, making its most trips of the year (eight) but scoring just four touchdowns and two field goals, marking the first time it had failed to score on multiple red-zone trips in a game all year.

Holding Pitts out may have been the right thing to do. He played great the following week against Alabama and Florida definitely needed him to keep that game close.

But he lobbied to play. The rest of the team likely saw him lobby to play. He didn’t play — and the team lost. The combination sends a confusing signal to a team and fanbase. Fans may see that and then hear Mullen’s comments and question whether he possesses a maniacal will to win; players, though, might interpret them as their leader easing up on the gas, and subsequently have a harder time going hard in their own right.

Those questions weren’t put to ease with Florida’s bowl game performance, either. There were rumors that after the tough COVID-saturated year that Mullen wanted to opt out of the bowl season. The Gators accepted a bid to play in the Cotton Bowl instead of opting out, but their performance in a blowout loss to Oklahoma did nothing to quell those rumors.

And after the game, Mullen was flippant about the team’s terrible performance. It seemed obvious that very little effort was put into the game prep. Mullen’s postgame comments that “the 2020 team last played 11 days ago” and that “our scout team guys played well” obviously sounded different from those uttered by the guy who would try to win in any activity where score is being kept.

Bowl games are exhibitions, yes — but they keep score in bowl games, and it didn’t seem to matter enough to Mullen to try to win with everything in his bag.

Players notice these things. Discipline and that competitive edge are hard to earn and easy to lose. Once lost, they are difficult to get back.

It certainly seems to me that both got frayed by and after that LSU game. The team played well the following week against Alabama; in hindsight, that was the last gasp of the Mullen era. It was all downhill from there — and now Florida is looking for a new coach.

I was joined last Sunday by Collin Sherwin, the College Sports Editor of DraftKings Nation to discuss the Florida head coaching job. Collin, who has also managed SB Nation’s USF site, now The Daily Stampede, provides a good perspective on how the Florida job is viewed outside the Gators bubble and provides some good insight on potential candidates. We went through quite a few of the potential names and singled out one candidate in particular that seemed to fit the job description laid out by Scott Stricklin during his press conference last Sunday.