During halftime of Florida’s men’s basketball game against Baylor on Saturday, new head football coach Dan Mullen grabbed the microphone and walked onto the court.
Donning a bright orange T-shirt with the design of a basketball jersey over his Florida Gators golf shirt, Mullen addressed a full O’Connell Center. Close to 10,000 fans looked on, as he gave an inspirational speech and promised national success.
Mullen was the offensive coordinator on Florida’s 2006 and 2008 national championship teams, and made stars out of quarterback Tim Tebow and wide receiver Percy Harvin. Before being hired last November, Mullen spent his time as the head coach at Mississippi State developing quarterbacks Dak Prescott, whose career off to a promising start in the NFL, and Nate Fitzgerald, who’s accounted for 66 touchdowns the last two years for the Bulldogs.
“That standard is not just SEC, but national championships,” Mullen said. “That’s what we promise we’re going to bring back to you here in the Swamp in Gainesville and put the Gators back on top as the most dominating team in the United States of America.”
Considering where the football program currently stands, Mullen has his work cut out for him.
Among the three major men’s sports at Florida, the football program has easily been the least successful since 2010. The basketball program made a run to the the Elite 8 last season as a No. 4 seed, and has made five such appearances in the last eight years. This season, the Gators (15-6, 6-2) have spent much of the year ranked in the top 25 and are currently second in the SEC standings.
The baseball team has become one of the country’s most dominant, winning its first national championship in program history in 2017 to go with six appearances in the College World Series since 2010.
Though they’ve won or shared the division title four times, the Gators haven’t won the conference since 2008, and have lost the SEC Championship to Alabama in 2009, 2015 and 2016, losing by an average of 23.7 points.
Mullen is tasked with rebuilding an offense that hasn’t had star power in a decade. Last season, the Gators’ offense was pathetic, ranking 115th (out of 130 teams) in passing offense, 98th in rushing offense, 124th in total offense and 109th in scoring offense; the team scored more than 20 just once after September.
“Our guys are working their tail off right now to live up to what we know the Gators standard is,” said Mullen, whose Gators began their offseason conditioning program Jan. 16. “And that Gators standard is about having a national championship baseball team, about any team that tries to come in here as No. 1 in the country like Oklahoma tried to do [Friday] night [in gymnastics,] they’re going to go home with a loss.”
A rebuild project isn’t new for Mullen, who took Mississippi State from perennial SEC West doormat to division contender for a couple of years. Mullen’s Bulldogs never finished with a losing record in the regular season after his first team went 5-7 in 2009.
It helps that Florida plays in the SEC East, a division that’s so mediocre it makes Jeff Fisher look like a winner. Vanderbilt and Tennessee combined to win one conference game in 2017, Kentucky and Missouri both finished with .500 records in conference games and South Carolina is coached by Will Muschamp, who was run out of Florida after going 7-13 in his last two years.
While the SEC East as a whole has been horrendous the last few years, Georgia appears to be the biggest obstacle in Mullen’s path.
The Bulldogs took the SEC by storm in 2017 by winning the conference championship over Auburn, throttling Florida 42-7 along the way. Georgia won its playoff semifinal against Oklahoma before blowing a 13-point halftime lead to eventual champion Alabama.
Head coach Kirby Smart has Georgia looking like Alabama-east, with a powerful rushing offense combined with tenaciously physical defense. Assuming Mullen gets Florida playing at the level it was more than a decade ago, his national championship aspirations may hang on how well his Gators perform in the annual clash against the Bulldogs.