The year is 2014. The Gators have just finished a 6-5 regular season where their defense was one of the best in the country and their offense was, well, it’s better left unsaid. In other words, it was a typical Will Muschamp team.
In the land of the Fun ‘n’ Gun, Tim Tebow and three national championships, that wasn’t acceptable. Muschamp was fired after a brutal 23-20 overtime loss to South Carolina but was allowed to coach the last two games of the season.
It was obvious that changes needed to be made offensively. The team really needed an offensive guru in charge, maybe even someone who had recently won two national championships as an offensive coordinator in the SEC.
That’s right, they hired Dan Mull- wait, that’s not it.
Jim McElwain, yeah, that guy!
The McElwain era in hindsight was a disaster, a foundation built on a flimsy stack of cards. McElwain inherited an incredible defense from Muschamp and completely failed to develop it after Muschamp’s recruits graduated. But most importantly, he totally failed at putting together an even competent offense.
Obviously, the Gators made up for passing on Mullen in 2014 by snatching him from Mississippi State after firing McElwain midway through the 2017 season, but one has to wonder what would have happened if they had hired him in the first place.
Yes, bringing him to Gainesville after taking the Bulldogs to the top of the polls in 2014 would have been difficult, but for the program to not even consider him in the first place is still inconceivable.
For one, I feel pretty confident that Florida’s offense would have made a significant jump. Mullen would have done far more with a wide receiving corps of Brandon Powell, Antonio Callaway and Demarcus Robinson and a backfield with running backs Kelvin Taylor and Jordan Scarlett.
In Mullen’s first year with the Gators, he took an offense that finished 2017 ranked 51st in Bill Connelly’s SP+ (a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency) to 15th in 2018. To think that the Gators could have made a similar jump from 2014 to 2015 isn’t far-fetched. They definitely wouldn’t have needed overtime to beat Florida Atlantic.
Another significant change would have been the strength and conditioning program, which was notoriously ineffective under McElwain. An anonymous player told Saturday Down South that it was a “joke.” McElwain's teams were often dominated at the line against elite competition and had a laundry list of injuries.
Under current strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage, it appears that players are now getting a proper training regimen. Because of this, it seems that the players are in way better shape and less likely to get injured.
What-if’s about former quarterback Will Grier are for another time, but even if he was still suspended, last season was proof that Mullen has his backup quarterbacks ready to go. Even if they’re Treon Harris instead of Kyle Trask.
Florida’s defenses in the first two years of the McElwain era were unbelievable, finishing in the top 10 in SP+ both seasons. They carried Florida to the SEC Championship Game both seasons while the offense made fans wish Teddy Roosevelt hadn’t saved college football.
UF was undefeated under McElwain when their opponents scored 14 or fewer points but just 5-12 when it did not. Simply put, when the defense needed the offense to just do something, it fell flat on its face.
To put that into perspective, Mullen’s Gators have failed to eclipse the 14-point mark only once, which, funny enough, was against his former team.
The SEC East during this time was about as tough as wet cardboard with Butch Jones at Tennessee and the last year of Mark Richt at Georgia before the Bulldogs had to rebuild under Kirby Smart. With an offense that could actually consistently put points on the board, the Gators still win the division in both 2015 and 2016 before facing off against Alabama.
I’m not saying that Florida would have beaten Alabama, but it definitely would not have been throttled both years by a combined score of 85-31. Keep in mind that UF only lost by 14 in 2015 when it was outgained by over 250 yards.
At the very least, UF keeps it close with Alabama both years, much like how it went toe-to-toe with LSU, a team some would call one of the best of all time, in Death Valley last year. The Gators carry that momentum into 2017, and they have an advantage over Georgia instead of having to play catch-up in 2018 and 2019.
If the Gators had hired Mullen in the first place, there’s no doubt in my mind that they would have been a significant threat in Atlanta and been in playoff contention. Throw in better recruiting and overall program management and Florida could have been the Death Star of the SEC East instead of Georgia in the late 2010s.
And if you knock on the door of playoff contention enough, at some point the door opens.