Whitley: Mullen's salvage operation needs to kick in fast

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun

Like Spanish explorers of old, Dan Mullen is on a search. He’s not looking for the New World or the cities made of gold.

Mullen’s looking for answers to why the Gators have stopped showing up on Saturdays.

You think Ponce de Leon had problems finding the Fountain of Youth? Try discovering why Florida’s defense can’t stop a simple counter play.

That was one of the mysteries that led to this week’s firings for Todd Grantham and John Hevesy. Jettisoning the defensive coordinator and offensive line coach was a start, but is it the overall remedy to everything ailing the Gators?

Color me, probably you and 48,924 fans at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday skeptical.

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I don’t really think the stands will be that sparsely populated, though you could get a seat for $9 on ticket websites Friday. That’s cheaper than going to a movie playing down the street.

Then again, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” might be more entertaining than UF vs. the Samford Bulldogs.

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In a way, the schedule has smiled on Florida. Samford isn’t merely an FCS team in town for the $525,000 paycheck. It is a mediocre FCS team with losses to UT-Martin, East Tennessee State, Mercer and Chattanooga.

Mullen would be on the first choo-choo out of town if the Bulldogs pull this one off.

After three consecutive losses, the Gators are blessed by playing a team they are physically incapable of losing to. But they could win 222-0 and it wouldn’t lift the malaise that has engulfed Gator Nation.

That’s a long-term project. It has to start somewhere, however, and it better be Saturday. Covering the 31-point spread isn’t nearly as important as how that’s done.

The Gators need to be sharp, focused, enthusiastic, intense and all those pep-talky things they weren’t last week at South Carolina. Dan Mullen does not know why.

“I really don’t. I wish I did,” he said. “I wish I could sit up here and tell you we had a terrible week of practice.”

He always says the Gators had a good-to-great week of practice. Even last week, when 20-30 players missed time with the flu.

“The biggest challenge for us right now is we gotta figure out how the Monday-to-Friday team shows up on Saturday,” Mullen said. “They’re not matched.”

Given that, you’ll excuse fans for not believing what they’ve heard this week. Players say practices were crackling. That interim defensive coordinator Christian Robinson is a budding genius who has them breathing fire.

“The younger guys are coming up to me after practice like, ‘Yeah, we like Rob!’” Mohamoud Diabate said. “So everybody’s buying into what Coach Rob’s doing.”

Are they also still buying into what Coach Dan’s doing?

They say they are. If Scott Stricklin doesn’t want to pay Mullen a $12 million buyout before the holiday shopping season, he’d better hope players are telling the truth.

As bad as things are, they could get worse. Saturday, the Gators can play like they did against South Carolina and still win. That won’t be the case next week, not even against Missouri.

And if they pull a South Carolina against FSU? E-Gads.

So the reality is the Gators can’t get away with just beating Samford. They need to restore some confidence and mojo going into the final two weeks. They need to give fans a glimmer of hope.

It'd also be nice if they'd all stick around for the band's post-game rendition of the alma mater.

That’s just the start of Mullen’s salvage operation. Then comes hiring a more capable staff, breaking the recruiting hex, restoring faith in the program, shipwrecking Nick Saban and Kirby Smart on a deserted island.

Resolving all that might prove as futile as Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth. But it begins with finding out why this team has stopped showing up on Saturdays.

If Mullen can’t resolve that question, Stricklin will have only one answer left.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley