Sometimes the best choice is the most obvious one.
After the sudden and bizarre end of the Jim McElwain era at Florida, fans and pundits threw around several big names for potential hires. Chip Kelly, the biggest name on the market, was available. Scott Frost, an up-and-comer who learned from Kelly before he blazed his own trail as a head coach just down the road in Orlando, could be lured away. Dan Mullen, a former Florida assistant tied to the most successful period in program history and also an established head coach, might be willing to leave the Mississippi State program he built if the right job came along.
Reportedly, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin (Mullen’s former boss in Starkville) wrote his wish list in that order: Kelly, then Frost, then Mullen. Once Kelly opted for the familiarity of the West Coast, and Frost appeared destined for a homecoming, Stricklin turned his attention to what was ultimately the best choice. And the most obvious one.
Mullen was Urban Meyer’s right-hand man dating all the way back to their days as assistants (Meyer the receivers coach and Mullen a graduate assistant) at Notre Dame. Together, Meyer and Mullen developed a spread option offense, and implemented it with great success at Bowling Green and Utah before the Gators came calling. Of course, Florida won big with Meyer at the helm and Mullen serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
After the Gators won the 2008 BCS national championship, which was the second national title under Meyer in just his fourth season, Mullen jumped at the opportunity to become head coach at Mississippi State. Mullen methodically built the Bulldogs into a consistent bowl team in the treacherous SEC West. He went 69-42 in nine seasons, coached his team in seven of the eight bowl games they participated in (going 5-2), and was named 2014 SEC Coach of the Year after spending several weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Mullen also recruited well and unearthed several key diamonds in the rough, such as record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott, and developed them into college stars and NFL prospects. And, while serving as his own primary play-caller, Mullen’s offense rewrote the Mississippi State record books. As a result, there was annual interest from more prestigious programs, but Mullen chose to bide his time in Starkville.
Meanwhile, Florida churned through Meyer, Will Muschamp and McElwain (apparently the Gators are contractually obligated to hire head coaches with a certain last initial), occasionally challenging for the conference crown, but never winning it again, and never posing a serious threat in the national title race.
After the weirdness unfolded in 2017, and the Gators posted a losing record for the second time in five seasons, Stricklin eventually found his man. Though there were whispers throughout the process that the relationship the two forged in Starkville was somewhat rocky, Stricklin and Mullen had helped the Bulldogs achieve unprecedented success and stability at Mississippi State.
Florida needs stability. Success should follow.
The Gators enter the 2018 offseason ranked No. 25 in Athlon Sports' Way-Too-Early Top 25, and the reasoning is simple: Mullen is a program builder with a strong offensive track record, and he should elevate the play of a unit that has struggled since Meyer left town. Also, the cupboard is far from empty. In fact, the Gators ranked No. 17 in the nation in overall talent according to the 247Sports 2017 Team Talent Composite, and few teams return as much talent from this past season's rosters.
In fact, according to Bill Connelly of SB Nation, Florida returns 75 percent of its production from last year’s squad, which ranks 21stnationally. The Gators return 77 percent of its offense (35th most in the country), including the entire offensive line, and four of its top five leading rushers, and three of its top four receivers. Quarterback Feliepe Franks, even though he eventually lost the starting job, gained a season of experience, and Mullen added highly touted recruit Emory Jones, who fits the system perfectly and should pose a challenge for the top spot on the depth chart.
Florida also welcomes back 74 percent of its defense (No. 1 overall), including the team’s top four tacklers from last season and seven of its top nine on the leaderboard. The co-leader in interceptions (C.J. Henderson, 4) and leader in pass breakups (Marco Wilson, 10) are back, as is leading tackler David Reese and top pass rusher CeCe Jefferson, who combined for 23.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and 35 run stuffs last season.
Only 12 other FBS teams rank in the top 35 in returning production on both offense and defense. Just six of them play in a Power Five conference, and only one (Mississippi State, as luck would have it) plays in the SEC. Also, there are only two teams that rank higher on both the Talent Composite and returning production chart: Michigan (No. 7 in talent and No. 13 in returning production) and Notre Dame (No. 10 and No. 20, respectively). Florida also got a boost with the reinstatement of four players suspended for the 2017 season, including running back Jordan Scarlett, who led the team in rushing two years ago.
Florida didn’t land the top coach on its initial wish list, and also missed out on option No. 2. But just because a hitter falls behind 0-2 in the count doesn’t mean he can’t hit a home run. And after two former Nick Saban assistants failed to build the Gators into national championship contenders, it makes sense to go back to the familiarity of the Meyer coaching tree — especially for an established head coach who has a proven track record in the SEC.
Mullen was obviously the right man for the job, and with the talent and experience he inherits, the Gators are poised to rebound quickly.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo by Paige Santiago, courtesy of floridagators.com)