Florida season preview: Best and worst-case scenario

Dan Mullen, head football coach at the University of Florida, speaks during a press conference on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018 in Gainesville, Fla. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Dan Mullen, head football coach at the University of Florida, speaks during a press conference on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018 in Gainesville, Fla. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

How quickly can Dan Mullen turn things around for the Florida Gators as he takes over the program in 2018?

Looking back on Jim McElwain’s tenure at Florida, it’s surprisingly hard to describe. Though he was named SEC Coach of the Year and sent two teams to the SEC Championship Game, he never really fit at Florida and there’s nothing memorable that sticks out from the past three seasons.

It was abundantly clear from just the introductory press conference that Dan Mullen would bring a dramatically different coaching style and overall culture to Florida. Obviously, the program made the decision to hire Mullen based on a number of factors, but the stark contrast to McElwain probably didn’t hurt. Just looking at what Mullen brings to the table as a coach, there are three major boxes he checks:

  • Prior experience/success with the program.
  • Shown he can build program for sustained success.
  • Demonstrated loyalty and long-term commitment to a program.

After spending nine seasons in Starkville as the head coach at Mississippi State, he comes back to a very different Florida program than the one he left in 2008 after winning a second national championship in three years. In terms of personnel, the biggest problem the Gators have had is a revolving door of quarterback. The team hasn’t had a season with one primary starter taking 70-percent of the team’s snaps since 2012. John Brantley had 2,044 passing yard, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011 and that was the best single-season out of any Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow.

Not surprisingly, the biggest question Mullen has to answer during camp is who will start under center Week 1. True freshman Emory Jones, the program’s hope for the future or the more experienced redshirt sophomore, Feleipe Franks? Experience usually has a positive connotation but Franks’ college experience last season produced 9 touchdowns and eight interceptions on a four-win team. That Jones hasn’t yet beaten Franks out as the starter may not be a great sign but there’s nowhere to go but up under Mullen.

Outside of quarterback, the Gators are with athletes at skill positions and very talented on defense. They’ll bring back what is arguably the top secondary in the SEC and probably one of the top three or four defensive line units in the conference led by All-SEC defensive end, CeCe Jefferson.

In an SEC East Division that has one really good team in Georgia and a handful of question marks and rebuilds like Florida, the Gators have a very favorable schedule in Mullen’s first season.

Florida 2018 schedule

  • Sat, Sept. 1 vs. Charleston Southern
  • Sat, Sept. 8 vs. Kentucky
  • Sat, Sept. 15 vs. Colorado State
  • Sat, Sept. 22 at Tennessee
  • Sat, Sept. 29 at Mississippi State
  • Sat, Oct. 6 vs. LSU
  • Sat, Oct. 13 at Vanderbilt
  • Sat, Oct. 27 vs. Georgia (neutral site game*)
  • Sat, Nov. 3 vs. Missouri
  • Sat, Nov. 10 vs. South Carolina
  • Sat, Nov. 17 vs. Idaho
  • Sat, Nov. 24 at Florida State

Best-case scenario: 10-2

Florida should head to Knoxville at 3-0 to play a Tennessee program that finds itself in similar circumstances. After Tennessee finds a way to lose to the Gators, they’ll be 4-0 going into a very significant game on the schedule: Mullen’s return to Mississippi State.

This feels way too early for a reunion. Mississippi State fans will forever love Mullen as the winningest coach in school history but they won’t truly appreciate him 9 months later when they’re focused on their new coach with a good team that Mullen built. Losing to Mullen feels like a very Mississippi State thing to do so the Gators are moving onto LSU, still undefeated.

LSU should be a better team than Florida in 2018. That said, the coaching battle between Dan Mullen and Ed Orgeron gives Florida an edge in one area that could make the difference.

Florida should roll past Vanderbilt and head into the biggest game of the season against — the Cocktail Party vs. Georgia. By “biggest game”, I just mean best team they’ll face. Georgia should be favored by two touchdowns. Florida has a legitimate shot to cover the spread, but they’re not beating Georgia.

That leaves Missouri, South Carolina, Idaho, and the season finale against in-state rival Florida State on the schedule. South Carolina might be the second or third best team they’ll face all year. Missouri had one of the best offenses in the SEC last season and will be a challenge. Both Missouri and South Carolina are still winnable games but I don’t see Florida beating both and LSU. There is at least one other loss besides Georgia at this point in the Gators 2018 season.

Idaho is a cupcake opponent.

Florida State has a new head coach in Willie Taggart in 2018. He’s been generating quite a bit of hype among the Seminoles faithful after pulling in the top recruiting class of any new head coach but I am still very confused by the hire, have been more confused by the positive reaction from Seminoles fans, and I was flabbergasted by the six-year, $30-million Florida State paid him. I think Florida will beat in-state rivals Florida State which would give them 10-2 record.

This best-case scenario may say more about the ease of their schedule than how good Florida actually is in 2018, but it would be quite a turnaround for Mullen.

Worst-case scenario: 6-6

After Georgia and probably South Carolina, Florida could lose to: Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Missouri and Florida State. If Jones just can’t do anything at quarterback and Franks finds a way to regress with a better coach in a more quarterback-friendly system under Mullen, I could see them losing four more games especially since Tennessee, Mississippi State and Florida State are road games.

Most-likely scenario: 9-3

9-3 sounds too high for the Gators after last year. I just don’t expect them to lose games outside of Georgia, LSU and South Carolina.

Conventional wisdom would point to Florida State as the most likely fourth loss but it’s the last game of the season and under Mullen, Florida is going to be a better team by season’s end  (barring a string of major injuries) than the team that takes the field in September.

I have no idea what a Willie Taggart team is going to look like over the course of the season. He’s coached one season at a power-five school and it was a 7-5 season at Oregon last year. The Noles were 7-6 last year and trading Taggart for Jimbo Fisher doesn’t feel in any way like an upgrade. Florida should have a significant edge even on the road and will beat Florida State to bring the ninth win of the season.

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