1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

It’s time to reevaluate the idea that Florida’s Dan Mullen is 1 of the 10 best coaches in college football.

You’ve heard it all by now, those same regurgitated talking points that have fortified the résumé of a coach who has never won a conference championship, yet is held in the same high regard as those with national titles.

A great football mind. A quarterback guru. The best play-caller in college football. A coach the NFL wants.

“There’s so much that goes into hiring a coach, but at the top of the list is, can you recruit and can you win games that matter?” a Power 5 AD told me Sunday. “I’m not sure what any of that other stuff means.”

Maybe we can help.

The great football mind is 2-6 in his past 8 games against Power 5 teams.

The quarterback guru has been playing the wrong quarterback for the past 2 games, and further mismanagement could cost Florida a generational talent (more on that later).

The best play-caller in college football had 6 points in the first half against an LSU defense that was missing 6 – yes, 6! – starters before one of those young replacement cornerbacks blew a Hail Mary coverage and gifted the Gators a touchdown.

A coach the NFL wants blew the biggest offseason decision, keeping embattled defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose unit in 2020 was statistically the worst in school history – and somehow played worse against LSU.

More than anything, a top-10 coach in college football doesn’t have a 6-7 record vs. ranked teams and isn’t 2-8 vs. the 4 SEC coaches in the same salary zip code (Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Ed Orgeron).

It’s the last coach of that group, the recently fired Orgeron — and the past 2 games against LSU — that are beginning to expose the shell game that is the narrative of Mullen as a top-10 coach.

Orgeron and LSU beat Mullen and Florida in 2020 as a double-digit underdog, and with less than 55 scholarship players available because of injury and COVID policy. The Tigers had a freshman quarterback making his first start, and the Gators were an undisciplined mess despite having better talent at most positions (and specifically, the most important positions) on the field.

LSU did it again last weekend, winning as a double-digit underdog in the face of – if this is possible – significantly greater obstacles. The Tigers are a mess, Orgeron’s job security was tenuous (he was forced out Sunday but will coach the rest of the season) and the defense was gutted.

LSU was 127th in the nation in rushing offense going into the game (88.3 ypg.), and ran for 321 yards. Tailback Tyrion Davis-Price had 288 yards in 5 previous games, and had 287 and 3 TDs on 36 carries – much of it coming on the same counter trey play Florida couldn’t stop. Over and over and over again.

More disturbing, an NFL scout who was at the game told me Florida “looked like they didn’t want to be there for the first half.”

And the Florida defense? “They had no idea what they were doing against, honestly, a basic run play that can be stopped any number of ways – the easiest being effort,” the scout said.

That’s a bad look, ladies and gentlemen.

That’s the look of a team playing out a string, a team whose season had reached desperation 2 weeks earlier with another loss to another heavy underdog. This time it was Kentucky, which before Mullen arrived at Florida in 2018, had lost 27 straight to the Gators.

The Wildcats have now won 2 of the past 4 meetings.

That was Mullen smiling and yukking it up with his friend, UK coach Mark Stoops, after the game – after his team had just been all but eliminated from the SEC race, and after the best play-caller in college football ate nearly 90 seconds at the end of the first half of a one-possession game.

After the game, Mullen was asked if he were outcoached by Stoops, whose team had 211 total yards, ran 47 plays, completed 7 passes and converted 1-of-9 3rd downs.

“No. 382 yards, I guess that’s sputtering,” Mullen said. “We had 382 and they had 211.”

Yeah, the NFL must be beating down the door in Gainesville to hire Mullen.

2. What could’ve been …

There were some within the Florida administration who were privately hoping Mullen would get an NFL job after last season.

It’s nearly impossible to fire a coach who won 29 games in his first 3 seasons and led all 3 teams to New Year’s 6 bowls. But after Mullen’s off-field NCAA violations put Florida on probation for the first time in 3 decades, and after 3 public embarrassments during 3 separate postgame press conferences, there were some dicey moments last offseason in the evaluation of the program.

Instead, Mullen received a 3-year contract extension and a $1.5 million a year raise – his reward for (not necessarily on this order) NCAA probation, a head coach show-cause edict from the NCAA, 3 straight losses to finish the season and a Heisman Trophy finalist in QB Kyle Trask.

That, more than anything, is where the Mullen narrative was born and has been nurtured over the years: He’s a quarterback guru.

From Josh Harris at Bowling Green, to Alex Smith at Utah, to Tim Tebow at Florida, to Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, to Trask. He developed them, they won games and some won championships.

Only there’s one teeny-weeny problem: Smith led an unbeaten season at Utah under coach Urban Meyer and with Mullen as offensive coordinator. Tebow won 2 national titles.

Trask’s most memorable game as a Mullen starter? A win over Georgia, or a near win over Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

Prescott set nearly every Mississippi State passing record and led the Bulldogs to the No. 1 ranking in 2014. That team also lost to Alabama and rival Ole Miss to end the season.

The argument isn’t necessarily against Mullen as a successful coach. It’s against Mullen as 1 of the top 10 coaches in college football.

And a coach Florida should continue throwing millions at.

3. The great football mind, The Epilogue

The quarterback guru is in his most precarious spot yet at the most important position on the field.

Anthony Richardson is the best quarterback on the Florida roster, a unique talent with a rare skill-set who can elevate the program to the top of the SEC for the first time since 2008.

At one point during the LSU game, former NFL general manager Michael Lombardi tweeted, “I’d buy stock in Richardson to be a very high draft pick in three years. Wow.”

The question: For which college team?

Richardson told Gators Territory after the LSU loss that “time is the only thing that can tell, but right now, I’m a Gator.” Hours later on Twitter, he clarified his comments and said he’s not going anywhere.

If you believe he’s not considering transferring if he doesn’t start, you also believe Mullen wasn’t outcoached by Stoops.

If neither Richardson nor Emory Jones gives you confidence managing the offense, it’s an easy choice – especially with the state of the SEC East Division race – to play the better player.

Richardson sees the field and throws with anticipation. The offense moves with rhythm and consistency – even if there are mistakes and/or turnovers.

Jones struggles to throw on time, and is often late (the last play of the Kentucky game, a TD if thrown on time, a perfect example). And there are turnovers – 2 interceptions against LSU that led to 14 points (one a pick-6).

You don’t have to be a former NFL personnel executive to see Mullen had been playing the wrong quarterback.

Or as one NFL scout told me Sunday, “One of those guys will play quarterback in our league, the other won’t.”

4. Corral to Kiffin to … LSU

To fully comprehend the impact of Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, you only have to look at Rebels quarterback Matt Corral.

From petulant talent before Kiffin to Heisman Trophy candidate and potentially the first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.

That’s why this weekend in Oxford will be a critical game for Kiffin. LSU arrives, and another big performance from Corral and an Ole Miss win moves Kiffin closer to the LSU job.

LSU AD Scott Woodward has a history of going after big-name coaches in comfortable situations – and convincing them to leave. He did it in 2013 with Chris Petersen at Washington, pulling Petersen from a Boise State job no one in the coaching fraternity thought he’d ever leave.

He did it in 2017 with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, pulling Fisher from an easier path to the national title at Florida State (where Fisher won it all in 2013), to the meatgrinder SEC West Division – and did it with a fully guaranteed $75 million contract.

Kiffin loves Oxford and is a perfect fit at Ole Miss. But he can only get so far there, and certainly not as far as he can get at LSU – which has won 3 national titles with 3 different coaches this century.

Kiffin is a fantastic recruiter and offensive coach, and a charismatic face of the program. Just like Fisher.

Kiffin has matured in the Ole Miss job and avoided so many of the nonsensical off-field issues that stunted his growth over the years.

A perfect example: the chaos at the end of Ole Miss’ win over Tennessee. Instead of buying into the madness, Kiffin calmly kept his team ready to play and got out of a bad situation with a win.

That’s what athletic directors want to see: wins, measured, consistent leadership and points.

Believe it or not, that’s Lane Kiffin, circa 2021.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread.

  • Tennessee at Alabama (-27.5)
  • LSU (+11) at Ole Miss
  • Mississippi State at Vanderbilt (+23)
  • South Carolina at Texas A&M (-19)
  • Arkansas-Pine Bluff (+51.5) at Arkansas

Last week: 3-2.

Season: 19-15-1.

6. Your tape is your résumé

An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Auburn CB Roger McCreary.

“I really like the way he has played this season. He could’ve come out last year and probably moved up to early third day, maybe second day (pick) with a strong individual workout. He’s a physical guy who can really run. The big question is his technique, and he has gone a long way in improving that this season. He’s finding the ball with greater consistency on 50-50s; he’s getting his head turned. He’s more fluid this season. These are all things you hope a guy will improve on, work on, when he decides to stay another year. He was given a draft grade by the (NFL Draft Advisory) board, and he went out and improved on his deficiencies. That’s a guy who wants to get better, and who takes coaching.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Play him more.

1. Georgia: QB JT Daniels. When he’s healthy, he must play. Georgia can’t beat Alabama – or win CFP games – with Stetson Bennett.

2. Alabama: WR Jameson Williams. Time to start featuring him like Tide has done in the past with DeVonta Smith, Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy and Amari Cooper.

3. Texas A&M: WR/RB Devon Achane. Fastest player on the field needs more than an average of 12 touches a game.

4. Kentucky: TB Kavosiey Smoke. A dynamic changeup to the bruising style of Chris Rodriguez, UK needs to get him in space out of the backfield.

5. Ole Miss: LB Mark Robinson. Three starts this season, and clearly makes plays when he’s on the field. Has shown pass-rush skills.

6. Auburn: TB Jarquez Hunter. Hard to ignore 8.6 ypc and the relatively low number of carries (57).

7. LSU: WR Deion Smith. Physical, speedy receiver has had nagging injuries. Has big-play potential.

8. Florida: LB Ty’Ron Hopper. Active and athletic, what he lacks in experience he makes up with lateral quickness and attacking the ball.

9. Arkansas: QB KJ Jefferson, the thrower. Averaging 23 attempts a game despite a strong receiving corps and a completion percentage of 62.1.

10. Tennessee: RB Jabari Small. Tough, deceptively quick option in the backfield who protects the ball.

11. Mississippi State: RB Dillon Johnson. A philosophical question more than anything. MSU needs to run the ball more, and Johnson (4.8 ypc.) is underused.

12. Missouri: DL Mekhi Wingo. Freshman isn’t the biggest guy inside, but he plays hard and has athletic ability – for a defense that’s lacking both.

13. South Carolina: RB JuJu McDowell. McDowell is undersized (5-9, 177), but he has the one thing other South Carolina backs don’t: the ability to make defenders miss.

14. Vanderbilt: LB De’Rickey Wright: Could grow into a DE, but a guy who is physical and can run. Once he figures it out, he has All-SEC potential.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: How does something like this happen at LSU? Coach O wins a national title 2 years ago, and already they’re paying him off and trying to hire someone else. I distinctly remember Joe Burrow saying Coach O saved his career. How quickly we all forget. — Henry Fish, Atlanta.

Henry: It’s a brutal business. One that overpays with unthinkable fringe benefits (multimillion dollar buyouts to not coach), but one that demands excellence on the field above all else. There are a multitude of short memories in the coaching business, and frankly, the coaches themselves are the only ones to blame.

I’m all for coaches (or anyone else, for that matter) getting all the money they can when they can, but there are ramifications. Return on investment must be immediate, or the clock starts ticking toward the inevitable end. Even when there is payoff, when the ultimate goal is reached, coaches are never far away from unemployment.

There’s too much money involved, too much invested in football at all levels of college athletic departments, to allow a coach multiple years to get it right. You better believe the looming entrance of Texas and Oklahoma into the SEC played a role, as did Jimbo Fisher’s recruiting surge (and his ability to win big games in the past 2 seasons) at Texas A&M.

LSU can’t fall behind, and the trendline with Orgeron was headed that direction. There are some who believe Orgeron should’ve been fired last season, that Woodward should’ve cut his losses after the 2020 season and tried to lure Fisher away from Texas A&M — before he locked into a more lucrative extension of the long-term deal Woodward orchestrated 4 years ago.

This business waits for no one, and the next coach at LSU won’t have much longer than Orgeron got to make it work. The early favorites (alphabetical order):

  • Dave Aranda, Baylor: Former LSU DC has done a remarkable job in 2 years at Baylor.
  • Mario Cristobal, Oregon: Harder to reach the CFP in the SEC, but access to elite players greater in the SEC, too.
  • James Franklin, Penn State: Could have his choice between mega programs USC and LSU – or stay at Penn State.
  • Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss: Hang a big number on LSU this weekend, with Woodward in attendance, and things get interesting.
  • Mel Tucker, Michigan State: Former LSU assistant is as close to Nick Saban as LSU can get without hiring Saban or Kirby Smart – and neither of those guys are available.

9. Numbers

59. A week after the Alabama offense bogged down in the red zone – and at one point failed to score inside the 10 after 3 straight passes – the offensive philosophy flopped nearly 180 degrees. In the loss to Texas A&M, Alabama threw the ball 60% of the time (59 passes, 41 rushes). Against Mississippi State, Alabama ran the ball 59% of the time (41 rush, 28 pass).

10. Quote to note

First-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, on the heightened pregame festivities before the Ole Miss game: “I gotta be honest, man. That’s why I wanted to be here.”