Florida is stuck in the mud, and Dan Mullen is doubling down

Florida coach Dan Mullen is facing questions about his commitment to top-level recruiting and his decision-making. Jordan Prather/USA TODAY Sports

It's tempting to view Florida's loss to Georgia on Saturday within the narrow lens of the 2½ minutes that took place before halftime in Jacksonville. That's when James Cook ran 11 yards for a touchdown, Kearis Jackson caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Stetson Bennett and Nakobe Dean nabbed an interception and ran 50 yards to complete a pick-six.

In a dizzying turn of events, a hard-fought 3-0 game turned into a 24-0 blowout and eventually, a humbling 34-7 defeat that seemed to place Gators coach Dan Mullen on the hot seat only five months after he received a three-year contract extension and a raise in his salary to $7.6 million per year, making him the fifth highest-paid coach in college football.

Taken literally, those 2½ minutes aren't the reason Mullen is facing questions about the trajectory of the program. Neither is the loss itself. Georgia is and was ranked No. 1 for a reason and Florida was a 14-point underdog, after all.

But stretch those 2½ minutes into the past 2½ months and the past year, view the loss to Georgia as symbolic rather than literal and it's clear why there's so much angst about the Gators these days.

A year ago, this team was confident after beating Georgia by two touchdowns, in the thick of the College Football Playoff hunt and had a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback. Now, that feels like a mirage. Not only did the Gators fall short of the playoff, they lost their final three games of the season and had to say goodbye to their prized quarterback and first-round picks at receiver and tight end.

They're 4-7 in their past 11 games (4-4 this season), the offense has become average and the defense continues to disappoint. And it can all be traced to Mullen's decisions: choices he's made on the recruiting trail, standing by his longtime backup quarterback too long and not moving on from his struggling defensive coordinator.

"Looking at us right now we're not where we want to be," Mullen acknowledged after the loss on Saturday.

He used a metaphor to describe the season: one long game of tug-of-war. And right now, he said, the rope is slipping.

"Dropping the rope doesn't fix anything," he said. "Grasping the rope does, and holding on tight does, and squeezing as it's burning does. And I will say something about me: I don't drop the rope. I'm not going to let you even rip it out of my hands. You can drag me around by my face, if you want, but I'm going to squeeze it and not let it go. I'm not going to let an inch of that rope go, and I know our players won't either."

Mullen is considered to be among the best offensive minds in college football. His ability to work with and adapt to personnel year to year is what Alabama coach Nick Saban said is "what makes him a great offensive coach." Quarterbacks Alex Smith, Dak Prescott and Kyle Trask each had different strengths and weaknesses, yet Mullen helped develop every one of them into NFL draft picks.

That trio of QBs, who were all lightly recruited prospects coming out of high school, represent another theme of Mullen's career: his ability to do more with less. In 2009, he took over a Mississippi State program that had gone 32-65 in the eight seasons before he arrived and wound up leading the team to eight straight bowl games despite having recruiting classes that routinely ranked among the bottom half of the SEC.

Sure, he would pull in the occasional blue-chip recruit such as Jeffery Simmons or Chris Jones, but Mullen was best at finding overlooked players like two-star linebacker Benardrick McKinney or three-star defensive lineman Preston Smith and turning them into the pros.

That was needed at a traditionally middle-of-the-pack program like Mississippi State, but once he got to a historical powerhouse such as Florida, doing more with less became a sort of backhanded compliment that begged the question: Why bother with lesser talent in the first place?

From 2019 to 2021, Mullen and Florida pulled in three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. But a closer look reveals that each year the Gators finished behind its top competition in the SEC of Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M. In 2020, they trailed Auburn, as well.

This year's signing class was supposed to have been bolstered by the commitments of transfers Arik Gilbert from LSU and Demarkcus Bowman from Clemson. But Gilbert, a standout tight end as a freshman, never made it to campus and wound up signing with Georgia, and Bowman has been buried on the depth chart behind more experienced backs Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis with just 12 carries for 74 yards.

Worse yet, Florida's current 2022 class ranking is 23rd.

Mullen has a seemingly uninspired approach to recruiting, at least publicly, when compared to the recruiting-obsessed Saban and Smart. It was on display after Saturday's game.

When Mullen was asked if he and his staff were recruiting well enough, he said, "I don't know. We just finished the game."

Around the same time, Smart told reporters, "If you don't recruit, then you don't have a chance," as well as, "Always be recruiting because, if you're not, someone else is."

Those three touchdowns at the end of the first half figure in here, too. Cook, Jackson and Dean were all top-five players at their positions coming out of high school. They all had offers from Florida. They all went to Georgia instead.

Mullen is a respectable 33-13 in his time at Florida, but in big games like Saturday's, he's been underwhelming. Against teams ranked in the AP poll, he's 5-8.

In some places, he'd get a pass for having a down season after appearing in the SEC championship game the year before. He did just lose one of the best quarterbacks (Trask) in program history and perhaps the best tight end (Kyle Pitts) to ever play in the SEC. He also lost a first-round talent at receiver in Kadarius Toney.

What's more, Florida has had to play the most difficult schedule in college football, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Two of its losses have come to teams that were ranked No. 1.

But ask Clemson about rebuilding seasons. Or Alabama. Or Georgia. Or Ohio State.

There's no such thing as rebuilding at the highest levels of college football, only reloading. Go 4-4 as Florida has done and the skeptics will circle, reminding everyone that Trask, Pitts and Toney were all holdovers from the previous coaching staff.

Ask Jim McElwain about how quickly the narrative can change. He recruited those three players and led Florida to SEC championship appearances in 2015 and 2016. Then he went 3-4 in 2017 and was fired midseason.

While Mullen is preaching positivity, he's having a hard time escaping questions about the decisions he's made at quarterback and defensive coordinator.

For weeks, he chose to stick by Emory Jones at quarterback, laughing off questions about whether he'd remain the starter, even as the career backup threw nine interceptions and only once passed for more than 250 yards in a game. Then, when he finally made the move to Anthony Richardson, who had looked like a young Cam Newton with eight touchdowns in limited action, the freshman didn't appear to be ready, throwing no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions against Georgia.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's performance lingers over what's left of the season. Grantham, who has been the subject of fans' ire for years, nicknaming him "Third and Grantham" for his failure to come up with stops on third down, is one of the highest-paid assistants in college football, earning more than $1.5 million per year. Yet his defense ranks 24th nationally in points per game since 2018. It is pedestrian when it comes to tackling, ranking seventh in the SEC in tackle percentage during that time, and the Gators struggle to get off the field even on third-and-long, allowing 24% conversions on third-and-8 or more, a figure that ranks 11th in the conference.

After the defense was gashed for 321 rushing yards in a loss at LSU last month, Mullen was asked about potential changes to the coaching staff.

"I'm sure we have a bunch of contracts up at some point and that's something that we look at after the season when it's more appropriate to do those things," he said.

Maybe, at 4-4 and the momentum of the program clearly heading in the wrong direction, the time is now. Florida has an opportunity to hit reset, with games remaining against unranked South Carolina, Samford, Missouri and Florida State.

To borrow Mullen's own metaphor, he's clearly losing the game of tug-of-war.

Maybe, instead of squeezing harder and getting dragged through the mud some more, it's time to find a new grip, salvage what's left of the season and begin setting things up for next year.

But his approach doesn't seem to be changing. At a news conference on Monday, Mullen was once again asked about recruiting.

"We're in the season right now," he said, frustrated by the continued line of questioning. "We'll do recruiting after the season."