Fall Sports

Full Circle: Looking back on a successful first season under Dan Mullen

Photo via Getty Images

The Florida Gators 2017 season was one of the lowest points in program history. It was a season that brought legal scandals, mass injuries, nude photos taken with a shark, and many embarrassing losses on the field.

As a Gators fan, it was difficult to imagine things getting much worse. Even the most optimistic among Gator Nation were hard pressed to see things improving. But then something magical happened.

Immediately following an abysmal 42-7 loss to Georgia, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, fired Jim McElwain. While this left the Gators and their fans in a state of limbo over the next month and a half, it was this moment where the Gators stopped sinking.

It was late November, when an enthusiastic Dan Mullen emerged from the plane doing the Gator Chomp, that the program began its ascent.

Many were hopeful. Some were skeptical. But very few would have said that Mullen could have turned the program around so quickly.

As his first order of business, Mullen met with his newly acquired team. He promised them that they would be held accountable to the Gators Standard and that they would work harder than they ever thought possible. The assurance was given that if they did things his way, they would also have a lot of fun and a lot of success.

Over the next month, Mullen assembled a staff. The centerpiece being Nick Savage, who would transform a locker room full of kids into men. Early reactions from the players indicated that Mullen had kept his word about working harder than previously thought possible.

It was during this time that Mullen really created a bond with his players, often running through aspects of the strength and conditioning program right beside them. When he wasn’t working out, he was out working.

Mullen managed to pull in a transitional class that ranked 14th nationally. This class included QB Emory Jones, whom he lured away from Urban Meyer and Ohio State. If transfer players and JUCO players counted towards recruitment rankings, Mullen would have easily wrapped up a top 10 class in his first 2 months at Florida.

As if that didn’t keep him busy enough, Florida’s new head coach embarked on an aggressive tour of speaking engagements. He was actively reaching out to student groups and Gators alumni clubs throughout the southeast, spreading his message of relentless effort and stressing the importance of fan involvement.

Mullen and his staff worked feverishly to instill Gators culture back into the program and into its fan base. It seems odd that a coach would have to teach his team and their fans about their own history and tradition, but that’s how far the mighty Gators had fallen.

Part of restoring that history was making former Gators feel welcomed in The Swamp again. Mullen brought several Gators greats in to speak to the team, watch them practice, and to even score a few touchdown’s in the annual Orange & Blue Game.

All of these things were a direct symptom of Dan Mullen’s passion for the Florida Gators, a team he has wanted to coach since childhood. With everything Mullen has done since he was hired, it has become increasingly apparent just how vital he was to the program’s success during Urban Meyer’s tenure.

Near the end of fall camp, Mullen named Feleipe Franks the starting quarterback. This was a decision that drew the ire of many Gators fans and armchair coaches.

And who could blame them? Many were still dealing with the harsh hangover of Franks’ freshman campaign. Some still are.

But oh, what a difference a year and a great coach can make. Mullen never wavered in his support of his young quarterback. He promised Franks that he wouldn’t bench him for making a mistake and that as long as he maintained a good attitude and remained open to coaching, that he would remain the starting quarterback.

The result of that promise? That coaching? That standard being set so high? A new and improved Feleipe Franks. A new and improved Florida Gators offense.

For his part, Franks is still learning and developing. But for a young quarterback who was so maligned by the media and even his own fans, that he felt the need to “Shush” them twice during a gutsy performance versus South Carolina, he has posted the best numbers of any Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow in 2008.

The offense, as a whole saw remarkable improvement. This unit hovered at or below No. 100 for much of the last decade. However, Dan Mullen’s offense finished at No. 45, this year. As he gets more of his players and more experience in the new system, expect more offensive improvement to come.

As the season went on, that knot that formed in the pit of every Gators fan’s stomach when their offense took the field, began to dissipate. As that dread disappeared, confidence began to take its place.

Florida rallied from behind in two different games this season. They overcame 17-point deficits at Vanderbilt and at home versus South Carolina. They had to come back twice against the Gamecocks.

That is something that previous iterations of the Gators just weren’t capable of. There was no confidence. There was no fight. But under Mullen’s guidance, this team won’t back down.

One of the knocks against Dan Mullen before this season, was his record against top 25 opponents. While I never thought this was fair –because he was coaching Miss State and playing teams like Alabama and LSU– it was a question that demanded an answer.

Florida finished the season having faced six top 25 opponents. While they lost to Kentucky, Georgia, and Mizzou, they still had the chance to defeat Kentucky on the final possession (despite a dreadful performance), they were every bit in the Georgia game until late, and they were hungover from the loss to Georgia versus Mizzou.

Of course, these are still losses and there are no moral victories. It is important however, to remember the context.

On the other side of that coin, Florida defeated a top-15 ranked Miss St. in Starkville and a pair of top ten teams, in LSU and Michigan. Beyond that, Mullen recorded wins against Tennessee –also scoring the most points the Gators have ever scored in Knoxville– and Florida State.

Both were blowout victories. Both were on the road. The game in Tallahassee had the added benefits of ending a 36-year bowl streak for the Seminoles and a five year losing streak for the Gators.

The culmination of year one was the Peach Bowl victory over the Michigan Wolverines. Florida guaranteed a top-10 finish with the 41-15 victory over the No. 7 team in the country. It is likely that they earned a spot in the preseason top-10 as well.

With the bowl win, Mullen claims Florida’s first win over Michigan and became the first Gators coach to win 10 games and a bowl game in their first year. Such a decisive victory also gives the Gators another momentum boost on the recruiting trail.

This is one of the nation’s hottest programs right now and recruits are taking notice, as evidenced by the early signing period. Florida is still in prime position to land a few more high value targets and wrap up a top ten class in February.

It has been a fantastic season for Gator Nation. Thanks to Dan Mullen, his staff, and the relentless effort of the players, we can look forward to next season with great optimism. Thanks to them, it’s great to be a Florida Gator, once again.

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Categories: Fall Sports, Football

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