Gators notebook: Mullen argues league isn’t getting credit for all-SEC schedule

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Tennessee running back Ty Chandler tries to get away from the Florida defense Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Following Florida’s division-clinching victory over Tennessee last Saturday, third-year coach Dan Mullen congratulated his team for winning the SEC East during “the hardest year in the history of this league.”

He also demanded some respect, both for the Gators (8-1) and the conference. 

“I think one thing that the league’s not getting credit for is playing these games,” Mullen said. “When you're going to play 10 regular-season conference games, to win our division is pretty special.” 

That did nothing to sway FBS coaches, who dropped UF a spot to No. 6 in the latest Coaches’ Poll. That’s also where the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Florida on Tuesday for the third straight week. 

The top four teams remain Alabama (9-0), Notre Dame (10-0), Clemson (9-1) and Ohio State (5-0). The Gators will face the top-ranked Tide in the SEC title game Dec. 19, and a win would likely allow them to jump No. 5 Texas A&M (7-1) despite the head-to-head matchup. 

The ACC canceled the makeup games for Clemson-Florida State and Notre Dame-Wake Forest on Dec. 12, giving the Irish and Tigers a bye “to preserve the integrity of the ACC Football Championship Game” the following week. 

Mullen, whose team will host LSU on Saturday in a game postponed from Oct. 17, was asked if he would have been in favor of the SEC doing the same. Alabama, like Florida, has already clinched the Western division. 

“We’re competitors. We want to go play,” Mullen said. “What the College Football Playoff committee does will determine the future of college football this year. Do you schedule a tough schedule, or do you try to play as many easy games as you can to make sure you don’t lose? You know? Or do you go out and play the hardest schedule and get rewarded for it? We’ll see. I think that will determine the future of college football. 

“I’m a big believer in, go out there and go compete. Go play the toughest schedule you can, and hopefully college football rewards you for doing that. The benefit for us, I truly believe our destiny’s in our own hands. We’ve got the opportunity to go undefeated at home next week. We have the opportunity to be SEC champions. You do that, I imagine, we’re going to have an opportunity of going on and playing even bigger games.”

Mullen took his argument a step further Wednesday on the SEC coaches teleconference, seemingly taking a jab at Ohio State. 

The Buckeyes had three games canceled this season, including Saturday’s rivalry matchup against Michigan, which forced the Big Ten on Wednesday to eliminate its requirement that teams must play six games to be eligible for the conference championship. 

Ohio State can now face Northwestern (5-1) on Dec. 19. That gives OSU six league games, while the Gators will play almost twice as many.

Mullen was asked if this year’s all-SEC schedule should qualify teams such as Alabama, A&M and Florida uniquely for the CFB Playoff.

“The playoff committee,” Mullen said, “they’ve put emphasis on playing a strong schedule, they’ve put emphasis on conference championships, they’ve put emphasis on those things. I know that’s just how it’s been played out. I do think it’s been pretty unique this year that within the league — not just us, everybody — we’re playing a 10-game SEC schedule. For us, we’re going to have an 11th conference game with the SEC Championship Game. Playing 11 SEC teams. 

“That’s never been done before, and obviously, this is the toughest conference and the best conference in all of college football. And so, it’d be interesting to see how they perceive what teams are doing in this league and having to play the games and, you know, actually playing the games. At the end, we’ll see if you get rewarded for playing such a tough schedule and taking on that challenge that’s never been done before in this league.”

Defense making strides

After giving up 100 points through the first three games, the Gators have buckled down defensively. 

They’ve allowed less than 20 points in the last three games, and the Vols only had a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter last Saturday until a pair of late scores. 

“Since Missouri, we’ve really played really well, pretty consistent,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of his unit, which also gave up less than 20 points (17) against the Tigers. “We’ve seen progression from guys. I just think the biggest thing is that guys have bought into the system, bought into what they need to do, and have done a good job of taking a critical analysis of how we as a unit need to get better. And in turn, it’s turned into production on the field and that's good to see.

“I thought we took a really good step in the Tennessee game. … but you always have to look and say, 'What do I have to do to be better moving forward?' And I think that's what our players have done a good job of is continue to work and develop. We'd just like to see that come together Saturday night to where we play a consistent game.”

Getting set before the snap is one area this defense can improve on. Florida has struggled at times against up-tempo offenses, with players failing to line up in time and/or looking confused about their assignment. 

“I think that you're never going to have a perfect game,” Grantham said when asked about it. “There's always going to be an issue here or there, but I really don't think there’s been an issue with that.

“As we go through situations, we talk to guys about that and they’ve got to understand where to fit. But that's a situation they'll learn from and be able to make it when it counts. If we continue to play the way we have, we're moving in the right direction.”