Gene Frenette: Misery Party -- Gators, Dan Mullen feeling same pain as rest of state teams

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
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Florida coach Dan Mullen, seen here looking up during last week's loss to LSU,  is now facing the same predicament as the rest of the state's FBS teams, trying to make the best of a season where major adversity has hit and the highest goals are out of reach.

A month ago, Dan Mullen had it pretty good. Nobody was questioning his coaching acumen, especially after his Florida Gators took then No. 1-ranked Alabama to the wire a second straight year, nearly winning without the services of dynamic backup quarterback Anthony Richardson. 

Two SEC losses later, Mullen’s program has joined the state’s other six FBS teams in a den of misery. 

What the Gators put on display in Saturday’s 49-42 defeat to LSU and now lame-duck coach Ed Orgeron — allowing 321 rushing yards to a team previously averaging 83.3 yards on the ground — was a damning indictment on Mullen, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and the entire program.  

Between that embarrassing loss and Mullen acting as if he doesn’t have a major quarterback issue, Florida couldn’t possibly head into next week’s showdown against No. 1-ranked Georgia at TIAA Bank Field on a bigger downer. More on that later. 

But it’s not like the Gators don’t have plenty of statewide company. Every D-I program in Florida has at least three losses at college football’s halfway point, with a combined record of 16-27. 

All the fan bases are experiencing varying degrees of distress, misfortune and apathy, some of it connected to losing star players. Many are likely asking themselves when their school is ever going to get off a train of mediocrity. 

Big letdown for Big Three

Loyal supporters of the Big Three — Florida, Miami and Florida State — are particularly annoyed because whatever expectation level they had for their team when this season began has been extinguished or, at this point, barely attainable. 

The Miami Hurricanes (2-4) are treading water in head coach Manny Diaz’s third season, having lost six consecutive games to Power 5 opponents. With quarterback D’Eriq King sidelined by season-ending shoulder surgery, and a defense that has missed an alarming 94 tackles, the boss issued a stern warning Monday that a lineup shuffle is coming.  

“It is the fundamental things that get you beat and this year it is the tackling,” said Diaz. “There is no way through it other than we have to start affecting some playing time.” 

Complicating the temperature-rising seat occupied by Diaz is that he named himself the team’s defensive coordinator this past offseason. With only one or two sure wins on UM’s remaining schedule, it’s not inconceivable the ‘Canes could be looking at a bowl-less season for the first time since the Al Golden era a decade ago. 

Football in the Sunshine State is so meh at the moment, the irony is the only team feeling upbeat might be Florida State, which began the season 0-4 and is on a modest two-game winning streak. Mike Norvell’s Seminoles are still in an uphill battle to get to a bowl game, but at least they have a pulse after knocking off North Carolina before a bye week. 

UCF was essentially put into wait-until-next-year mode once quarterback Dillon Gabriel went down with a collarbone injury against Louisville, along with the losses of standout receiver Jaylon Robinson and running back Isaiah Bowser. Gabriel could return, but it’s obvious the Knights (3-3) are a shell of their former selves. 

South Florida’s program has been in darkness since midway through the 2018 season. It looked like the Bulls (1-5) might snap a 12-game losing streak to AAC opponents last week, but they failed to hold a 31-20 fourth quarter lead against Tulsa. 

FAU (3-3) under second-year coach Willie Taggart looks respectable, and much better than fellow Conference-USA member FIU (1-5), but neither are going to be raising trophies any time soon. 

The same could be said of Florida, which finds itself at the low point of Mullen’s four-year tenure with three losses and likely dropping to 4-4 next week unless the Gators spring the year’s biggest upset on Georgia. Right now, the chances of the Bulldogs routing UF like they did in 2017 and ‘18 appear greater than Florida pulling off a stunner. 

A QB crossroad for Gators

Mullen is in a monumental predicament because nobody saw the Gators losing to both Kentucky and LSU. It raises serious questions for the first time on whether he can get the program back to the championship pedigree it had under Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier.  

That’s the standard Mullen has consistently set for Florida, but it’s now fair to wonder if he can take the Gators there. UF has lost six of its last eight games against Power 5 teams. Mullen is now 2-7 against SEC rivals Georgia, LSU and Alabama, putting him right in Will Muschamp (2-8) and Jim McElwain (3-5) territory, and well below Ron Zook (3-3). 

The past three weeks have raised legitimate concerns about the Gators and their ability to get on the same level as SEC East bully Georgia, which has remained consistently elite under six-year coach Kirby Smart (59-14, 37-9 in SEC). 

I’m not suggesting Mullen is suddenly in danger of losing his job, but what the Gators put on tape Saturday against LSU should be a huge red flag to Mullen, as well as for the man who hired him, athletic director Scott Stricklin, his longtime boss when they were at Mississippi State. 

It’s one thing to give up 300-plus passing yards in an era where everybody piles up numbers with spread offenses. It’s quite another to have an opponent pound the ball down your throat, especially a Tigers’ rushing attack that had been so pedestrian. 

Seeing LSU back Tyrion Davis-Price run over the Gators’ defense for 287 yards, using primarily a counter play that Florida never properly adjusted to, brings into question whether Mullen’s loyalty to Grantham is nearing an expiration date. 

Beyond the defense renewing an old narrative of being an eyesore, the other major issue of what Mullen intends to do about his quarterback situation has reached a crossroad. If the coach with a reputation as a QB whisperer continues to stand by Emory Jones as the starter — Mullen remains non-committal on the topic — he will look massively stubborn and borderline egomaniacal. 

"I'm not going to get into strategy," Mullen said during his weekly SEC Conference call on Wednesday. "I haven't set the script [for the Georgia game]. As long as everybody is healthy, we'll play both [quarterbacks]."

Florida has little else to play for now except a mid-level bowl game, though knocking off Georgia could potentially put the Gators back in the New Years Day Six conversation. No matter, in UF’s current state, the focus must shift toward 2022 and which QB has the ideal upside.

Richardson is unquestionably a better athlete than Jones, who had earned Mullen’s trust due to a deeper knowledge of his system. But whatever perceived advantage Jones had over his backup has evaporated. 

The LSU game, despite Richardson having two ghastly interceptions that were major contributors in defeat, also showed how much more explosive UF’s offense can be with the 6-foot-4, 236-pound freshman running the show. Richardson puts the fear of God in a defense on a whole different level than Jones. 

Mullen has to know it won’t look good for him to continue hemming and hawing on promoting Richardson, not with his team out of SEC contention. This is a chance to get a jump on the future, especially with a November schedule that looks like a 4-0 gift no matter who plays quarterback. So why delay the inevitable? 

If the No. 2 quarterback at season’s end decides to enter the transfer portal — which seems like a foregone conclusion — there’s not much doubt which one leaving would pose a bigger problem for Mullen. 

Florida’s football ascent has been put on pause. The coach who was Stricklin’s third choice when the job came open, who has not exactly been PR-savvy in some of his postgame comments, and who was given a contract extension this spring through 2026 that made him the fifth-highest paid coach in the country, is not having any fun right now. 

Looking at the state of college football all over Florida, it’s apparent Mullen is not alone. 

gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540

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