Dan Mullen won the press conference on Monday when he spoke of relentless effort, ensuring that players understand the standards and expectations of Florida, and talking about how everything in the program is now a competition.
But winning a press conference does not have any correlation with winning football games. Lots of Florida fans will go back and listen to Jim McElwain’s initial press conference and cringe at his comment about his dog being his quarterback. But it’s also easy to forget that the program was so starved for offense at that point that some people lauded the comment at the time.
It’s hard to believe that Mullen’s offenses could be any more inept than the ones run under McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. There are many points you can identify that says Mullen is a slam-dunk hire. But there are also areas that should give Gators fans pause as well.
That’s just the reality with any coaching candidate at this point. Chip Kelly probably had the fewest warts of any candidate out there, at least as far as on-field coaching was concerned. But with Kelly spurning the Gators in favor of UCLA — and Florida reportedly being turned down by Scott Frost as well — athletic director Scott Stricklin decided that Mullen was the candidate that checked the most boxes on the positive side of the ledger.
He’d better hope that he’s right, as this is the move on which his tenure at Florida will be judged.
Case against Dan Mullen
Initially, I have to say that I was underwhelmed by the decision to hire Mullen. This has some basis in that the fact that the Florida administration decided that Will Muschamp was a better option than Mullen when Meyer left the program in 2010. If he was that good, wouldn’t Florida have welcomed him back with open arms then?
The Meyer connection hurts Mullen in other ways as well. Fans will no doubt cite many of the quarterbacks that Mullen has coached, including Josh Harris, Alex Smith and Tim Tebow. But it was also pretty well understood that the spread that Meyer brought to Florida was his offense. Mullen certainly had input and called plays, but I think it’s fair to ask how much of the development of those QBs was the result of Meyer vs. Mullen.
It’s also hard to find an example where a QB made a significant jump in quality of play under those coaching regimes.
Now, part of that is because players like Alex Smith and Tim Tebow were fantastic players coming in. But again, that doesn’t prove Mullen (or Meyer’s) coaching abilities so much as their recruiting abilities. Josh Harris regressed from his first year to his second under the regime. Chris Leak improved from year to year, but his QB rating in 2004 was 144.9, exactly where he ended up two years later.
The same trend shows up when you look at Mullen’s track record at Mississippi State.
Tyson Lee was really bad in 2009. Chris Relf was slightly above average in 2010 and then regressed in 2011. Tyler Russell was average in 2012. Nick Fitzgerald was slightly below average in 2016 and even worse in 2017.
Dak Prescott is the obvious outlier here. Prescott was a 3-star prospect who was a little below average in 2013 and then was excellent in 2014 and 2015. This is one example where it appears that coaching made a significant difference.
But the track record does not indicate a coach who will take someone like Feleipe Franks and immediately make him perform like Tim Tebow, or even Chris Leak. Likely, Florida’s next big-time QB is someone Mullen is going to have to find on the recruiting trail.
The other major negative associated with Mullen is his record against SEC competition and that he has essentially been an 8-4 coach. This is a completely valid criticism, as Mullen has an SEC record of 33-39 even though he has won 60 percent of his games overall.
But this is a little bit misleading. As discussed on the Gators Breakdown podcast, Mullen has gone 0-9 against Alabama and 2-7 against LSU in that time span. The Tide has had an average AP ranking of 3.1 coming into those matchups. LSU has had an average ranking of 10.9.
To expect a program like Mississippi State to compete with top-10 teams on a regular basis is asking a lot. And if you remove Alabama and LSU from the ledger, then Mullen’s record against SEC opponents is 31-23, only 3 percentage points below his overall winning percentage.
Basically, Mullen offset the losses to LSU and Alabama with wins against cupcakes, then won all other games at about a 60 percent clip. You can even see this phenomenon in Mississippi State’s schedule, as Mullen’s best years (2010, 2012 and 2014) all coincide with the LSU and Alabama games occurring on the road. Obviously those games were more difficult for the Bulldogs, but that meant that its remaining SEC opponents were at home and the team was able to capitalize.
The only even-year that wasn’t a successful season in his tenure at Mississippi State (2016) was the first year after losing Dak Prescott. Florida fans can relate to the impact that losing an elite-level QB can have on an offense and a program.
So while on the surface Mullen’s record may look unimpressive, I actually think there is some positives to take from it. Obviously, it would be better if the LSU and Alabama games were more competitive. But whether that is something that is reasonable to expect from Mullen is unclear.
The one thing that is clear is that he’s going to have to do a lot better than 33-39 against SEC competition in his new gig. There won’t be any excuses in Gainesville.
Case for Dan Mullen
While there are some concerns, there is also plenty to like about this hire. I mentioned earlier that some uncertainty comes from Mullen’s association with Urban Meyer. But that also has it’s positives as well.
Those teams under Meyer recruited unbelievably well. According to Rivals, other than the 2005 transition class (ranked No. 15 nationally), all other classes while Mullen was there were top-3.
There wasn’t much difference in overall recruiting rankings between Meyer and Muschamp. Where the difference lies is in elite-level talent. Again, according to Rivals, Meyer brought in an average of 16.3 blue-chip recruits during his tenure (blue chip are those rated 4 or 5 stars by Rivals). Muschamp brought in three fewer blue chip recruits on average and McElwain brought in three fewer than Muschamp.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Florida is struggling. If you look at any recruiting class, about half of the blue-chip recruits typically become what you would consider regular contributors. That means over a four-year period, if you bring in 10 blue chips per year, you’ll get about 20 regular contributors. That means that there are two 3-star athletes on the field as starters and filling in when the inevitable injuries occur.
However, if you bring in 16 blue chip recruits, that should correlate to approximately 32 regular contributors. That means you have a full team of 22 starters with another 10 high-level talents to put on special teams and fill in for injured starters.
Gators fans have been hard on McElwain and special teams coach Greg Nord for the struggles Florida has had in that area. But the reality is that special teams is the first place that you would expect to see the effects of this gap in recruiting.
So the question is whether Mullen can close that gap and get back to bringing in elite-level talent at the rates of the Meyer regime. There are two things that point toward his being able to do that.
First, Rivals allows us to examine the primary recruiter for all of the blue-chip players from Florida’s 2006-2008 classes (all the classes with Mullen minus the transition year in 2005).
It becomes obvious pretty quickly that Mullen wasn’t a slouch when it came to recruiting. Both he and Billy Gonzales brought in eight blue-chip prospects, which didn’t lead the team but was 25 percent of the blue chips brought in during those three years.
Greg Mattison (now a defensive line coach at Michigan) and Charlie Strong (head coach at USF) were more prolific, but they aren’t coming back to Gainesville.
One coach who stood out in this analysis was Stan Drayton. Drayton was the running backs coach at Florida from 2005-2007. He left to go to Tennessee in 2008 and so was only a primary recruiter for two of the three years shown here. Despite that, Drayton brought in 14 blue-chip players, more than any other coach on the staff.
Drayton is currently an assistant head coach, running backs coach and running game coordinator at Texas under Tom Herman. If Mullen thinks he needs to give recruiting a jolt, he would do well to reach out and gauge the interest of Drayton. To have a coach bringing in almost as many blue chips yearly as McElwain’s entire staff was bringing in would obviously be beneficial.
One thing I think is also worth mentioning is that while I stated above that Mullen’s record of improving QBs has some question marks, his record of recruiting them does not. The most important of those eight blue chips who had Mullen as his primary recruiter? Tim Tebow.
One other thing to consider is that it is rare for a coach to move from a mid-tier Power-5 school to a traditional power, especially with a 9-year track record. It was suggested to me on Twitter by Randy Stern (@RLSTERN9) that a good comparison for Mullen was Nick Saban transitioning from Michigan State to LSU. That got me thinking about what other coaches face a similar situation and what their track records were (h/t to Tyler Rosenberger, @tyler_rosie and @RealRedneckyoda for additions to this list).
What becomes immediately apparent is that there are quite a few success stories on this list. Rich Rodriguez going from West Virginia to Michigan is by far the biggest hiccup. Mike Riley from Oregon State to Nebraska is the only other coach who didn’t improve his overall winning percentage.
And there are reasons for these two. Rodriguez switching Michigan to spread system was never a cultural fit with what Michigan wanted to do. Florida will embrace Mullen’s spread because it has won championships previously, and because it is desperate for some semblance of a competent offense.
And I remember wondering what possessed Nebraska to think Riley would be a fit for that job when the hire was made. He had never been a dynamic recruiter and was being asked to go to a location with less talent than out in Oregon. Particularly juxtaposed next to the success of Chip Kelly in the same region, that one was puzzling.
Regardless, 80 percent of the coaches I could remember in this situation relatively recently have shown an uptick in winning percentage, by an average of 10 percent (14 percent if you remove Rodriguez’s flop). That kind of improvement to Mullen’s winning percentage would put Florida in position to be regularly going 10-3. You add a special QB and that’s a championship-level squad.
This analysis doesn’t just work going one way though, and I think that’s where the evidence that this kind of move works becomes more significant.
If you look at coaches who made moves from higher-level Power-5 programs to what I would consider either lower-level or similar-level Power-5 programs, their winning percentage immediately decreased by an average of 9 percent.
Bobby Petrino excelled in his first stint in Louisville and had some good seasons at Arkansas. And he may have reached the heights he did at Louisville had he not been caught engaging in inappropriate behavior. But Saban was building what we now see and that would have made it difficult to compete in the SEC West for much longer.
Will Muschamp struggled at Florida and – at least by winning percentage – has continued to struggle at South Carolina. While the Gamecocks have looked better than they did in their final year under Steve Spurrier, I’d be surprised if Muschamp builds South Carolina into an elite-level squad.
Perhaps the best example is Bret Bielema, who essentially did a reverse of the move of Paul Chryst in the first chart. Chryst went from Pitt to Wisconsin. Bielema went from Wisconsin to Arkansas. Chryst has seen an immediate jump in winning percentage and now has Wisconsin poised to get into the playoff. Bielema was just unceremoniously fired after arriving at Arkansas with hopes of building a consistent winner.
None of this proves that Dan Mullen is going to be able to win at Florida. But I do believe that it indicates that the quality of player that you have greatly impacts your ability to win. We see that with the talent differential between the squads put together by Meyer and Mullen compared to Muschamp and McElwain. But we also see that when coaches jump from a mid-tier school to a high-tier school or do the reverse.
The point is that Mississippi State’s record against elite teams shouldn’t be held too strongly against Mullen. There isn’t anything that he would have been able to do at that particular stop to bridge the gap. Had he been hired instead at a school like UCF, it is entirely conceivable that he would have been able to build what Scott Frost has built. Frost has done a magnificent job in Orlando, but there’s a reason his team isn’t ranked in the top-5. They don’t have to compete with Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson.
Florida missing out on Chip Kelly hurt. It hurt because his record as a head coach (46-7) at a program that wasn’t traditionally a national powerhouse indicates that he is pretty close to a sure thing from a football perspective. It also hurt because it always hurts to get rejected and because the rejection seemed to drag out in a very public way.
But Dan Mullen isn’t a second-tier candidate. Florida could have gone with Willie Taggart, Mike Norvell or Jeff Brohm, but that would have involved hope that their success at non Power-5 schools would translate. Jim McElwain proved that is a move that involves significant risk.
You’ll hear people talk about Mullen as a “high floor” candidate. But that’s really a lazy way of saying they don’t know how to predict whether his success in Starkville will correlate, but they know he’ll win at least 60 percent of his games at Florida because he won 60 percent there.
What they really mean is that Mullen is a low variance candidate. With someone like Frost or Norvell, there is just no objective way to say that you know what they will become. Sure they may be the next Urban Meyer. But they also may be the next Charlie Strong.
Strong seemed like a sure thing when Texas hired him away from Louisville. He had spent a long time working for his first head coaching job, succeeded when he went to Louisville and seemed primed to succeed at Texas. Except that he didn’t.
At that point, Louisville was in a Big East that was collapsing. The games he was winning were more like the AAC to come (against Cincinnati and Syracuse) rather than a gauntlet in a Power-5 conference. This isn’t to denigrate Strong. He showed he was a good coach in the 2012 Sugar Bowl and has continued to show it at USF.
But Florida isn’t looking for good. Florida is looking for elite. Sure, Mullen could turn into the next Rich Rodriguez. But he could also turn into the next Paul Chryst, Mac Brown or even Nick Saban. There is no objective way to be able to say that about Frost, Norvell, Taggart or any of the other candidates mentioned for the job.
We can’t know whether Mullen will be able to recreate the Meyer glory days. What we do know is that he has a much better chance than any other candidate who was interested in coming to Florida. And regardless of what you think of the quality of this particular hire, one thing is abundantly clear.
At least Stricklin didn’t try to hire Greg Schiano.