Florida football notebook: Dan Mullen’s job status, candidate problems, Emory Jones, Anthony Richardson

By Adam Silverstein
November 16, 2021
Florida football notebook: Dan Mullen’s job status, candidate problems, Emory Jones, Anthony Richardson
Football

Image Credit: @UFGatorBand / Twitter

With just two weeks left in the regular season, the Florida Gators are one of the hottest topics of the college football world. Unfortunately, it’s for all the wrong reasons. It appeared as if the Gators hit rock bottom two weeks ago in a road loss to South Carolina only for Florida to sink even lower allowing 52 points to FCS Samford in what was ultimately a double-digit win on Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Head coach Dan Mullen’s seat has quickly gone from safe-to-touch to hot, skipping some warming stages in between, but he’s not gone yet. Meanwhile, the Gators still have two more games they must try to win starting with an SEC East foe that has provided problems as of late and ending with an in-state rival that just picked up its biggest win of the season on Saturday.

Let’s take a look at the hottest topics surrounding Florida football ahead of a couple make-or-break weeks to conclude the season.

1. Mullen’s job status in question: National media types have been quick to jump all over Mullen’s downfall, particularly as the results have gotten increasingly worse with each week. Many have referred to his departure from the Gators as “inevitable” or close to it, even going so far as to speculate he could be fired prior to the end of the season. With an already perturbed fan base moving from impatient to aggravated to infuriated at Florida’s on-field play and Mullen’s answers in press conferences, one would think those national reports are accurate. They’re just not.

Mullen’s fate with the Gators has not yet been decided, and his firing is certainly not “inevitable”, a program source told OnlyGators.com on Monday. Florida has decided to use the final two games of the 2021 season as an evaluation period to determine whether overhauling the program under Mullen — a method that has proven successful under Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, as discussed in this space weeks ago — is a feasible alternative to an immediate dismissal.

Though Mullen’s hot seat is not completely emblazoned, the internal temperature is significantly hotter than it was two weeks ago after losses to LSU and Georgia were initially considered more hiccups than proof that change was needed. The South Carolina defeat opened eyes and pushed forward internal discussions about potential options. The Samford game did nothing to calm those fires.

Unlike some of the aforementioned national media assumptions, Saturday Down South’s Neil Blackmon first accurately reported Mullen’s current status at UF. Simply put, it is highly unlikely that any change will come until the end of the season, and whether it does at all remains to be seen.

Administration and boosters are not enamored with Mullen, the person, the way they were with Will Muschamp; however, they do recognize that he has succeeded in completely turning around the Gators offensively. That has bought him some equity given the problems are on the other side of the ball and Mullen has already fired defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Though the early signing period begins just a couple weeks after the Florida State game, it is seen as more prudent for UF to wait rather than immediately jump into what is already an exceedingly unique — and for Florida, unfortunate — hiring cycle. Recruiting has already been an issue, so even if a move happens in a couple weeks, it’s unlikely to get much worse.

2. What if a change is needed? If the Gators do decide to fire Mullen and pay his $12 million buyout, they will be faced with a difficult hiring situation. Not only will Florida be entering the coaching cycle late, a calculated risk as mentioned above, it will not be the top job open. LSU and USC are considered better gigs than UF nationally, and both are already deep into their searches. (Florida would be a clear No. 3, far ahead of Washington, Virginia Tech and potential openings at programs like Arizona State and/or Miami.) That puts the Gators in a tough spot where they will not only be fighting with two other top-tier programs for the best candidates but may again fail to get their first option(s).

The simple fact is that Florida as a program has fallen off from Tier 1A of college football jobs in large part due to a pair (potentially a set) of unsuccessful hires. Ron Zook failed after Steve Spurrier, but Urban Meyer was left with a strong roster and program capable of a quick turnaround. The subsequent, consecutive failures of Muschamp and Jim McElwain put UF in a hole of which Mullen was supposed to dig out. It appeared as if he was on his way, leading the Gators to three straight New Year’s Six bowls; instead, the hole may have only gotten deeper.

Adding to the difficulties of this particular coaching cycle is the list of top-tier candidates. USC appears to be after Penn State’s James Franklin or Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. Franklin may be interested in going West, but it’s doubtful he’d make a move out of Happy Valley for Florida, while Fickell has a relationship with Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn, who initially hired him to lead the Bearcats.

LSU is trying to make a splash with an established, big-name coach. As recent national champions and clearly the most dominant team in its state, it has that opportunity. The Tigers also have a pair of former assistants in Dave Aranda (Baylor) and Mel Tucker (Michigan State) who are among 2021 coach of the year candidates. Aranda and Tucker are both in comfortable spots, but as familiar names who had success in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there could be specific interest in a reunion at LSU. Aranda, a native Californian, could also have interest out West.

If they can’t land a big name and/or choose not to go after a former assistant, the Tigers also have a geographical advantage with one other up-and-coming coach who has been biding his time waiting for a major job to call on him. That’s Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who is 30-5 over the last three seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns and has long been considered an option for both LSU and Florida should their respective jobs open at any point. Napier, 42, is an offensive coach, tireless recruiter and program builder. He could also be a top candidate at Virginia Tech, which is already open. Again, the Gators’ delay here is a risk if they are leaning towards dismissal.

Once we get past those names, who else is attractive as a candidate? Certainly not Liberty’s Hugh Freeze or Coastal Carolina’s Jamey Chadwell. Would Lane Kiffin leave Ole Miss for another SEC team in Florida after he already burned another SEC program (Tennessee)?

The options are thin, and though this is not baseball, WAR (wins above replacement) should factor into the decision. If Florida fires Mullen just to make a change without a candidate that it believes will appreciably improve the program, perhaps it’s not worth making the move at all. Maybe it’s better to give a guy you know is capable of more that opportunity.

Consider how Tennessee struggled with Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt. Think about Miami with Randy Shannon, Al Golden and Mark Richt. Look back on Notre Dame with Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. That’s where Florida might be headed, and it’s why the administration — just like the Notre Dame did with Kelly — may be keen to give Mullen a that chance if he can prove he deserves one over the final two games.

It may be better to be the belle of the ball in the 2023 cycle than a third option during a weak cycle without an obvious Meyer-adjacent up-and-comer in 2022, even if it does effect one recruiting class that is likely beyond saving anyway.

3. It’s Emory Jones’ show: The redshirt junior quarterback will start for Florida at Missouri on Saturday with Mullen standing behind the signal caller he’s sided with throughout the season. While Jones did struggle early in the year, there’s no doubt he’s improved as the season has progressed. Against one of the worst defenses in the nation, Jones should not have much of a problem moving the ball.

Mullen also confirmed that redshirt freshman QB Anthony Richardson is 100% healthy after a string of injuries have kept him out of games and limited his availability this season. Though Richardson was healthy last week, Jones was getting whatever he wanted on the field, and given the nature of the game, there was no reason to make a change until garbage time in the fourth quarter. Mullen made it sound as if there may be a package ready for Richardson this week — as there was to start the season — but that obviously remains to be seen.

There has been consternation all season about Richardson’s future with the Gators given Mullen’s decision to provide Jones with as many opportunities as possible despite Richardson showing in flashes that he will be the team’s quarterback of the future. Internally, there’s been no indication that Richardson is dissatisfied with his status on the roster, a source with the program told OnlyGators.com on Tuesday.

Situations can certainly change at the drop of a hat — particularly with new one-time transfer legislation, the removal of intraconference transfer regulations and Mullen’s status being up in the air — but there are no indications at this time that Richardson plans to leave his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, simply because he has not started this season. In fact, despite external pressure to start Richardson and a quarterback controversy over the first half of the season, one source described Mullen’s internal handling of the QB drama as “excellent”.

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