One week after suffering the worst loss of his 13-year head coaching career, Florida’s Dan Mullen suffered his worst win. The collective toll of the accumulated embarrassments for Florida football has careened Mullen’s head coaching fate at Florida from a possibility of a departure to a virtual inevitability.
The single-most shocking half of football this 2021 college football season took place at Florida on Saturday, with a mediocre FCS team, Samford, scoring 42 points on the Gators. A sputtering Gators program so desperate for a spark that it fired its defensive coordinator and offensive line coach this week somehow managed to speed up the program’s regression. Florida responded by playing the worst half of defensive football in program history.
The 42 first-half points marked a program record by an opponent, and that’s mind-blowing considering Samford lost 55-13 to Chattanooga last month and is tied for fifth in the FCS Southern Conference.
There’s flat performances. There’s lifeless performances. There’s listless performances. And then there’s the performances that combine all those so obviously that they end coaching tenures, alter the financial futures of athletic departments and send reverberations throughout the coaching carousel.
And that’s ultimately how Florida’s 70-52 win over Samford will be remembered. The 15 penalties against Kentucky kicked off Mullen’s spiral, the late first-half collapse against Georgia perpetuated it and the blowout loss at South Carolina crystalized how severe the problems were. But the struggles with Samford transcend explanation, and barring something unforeseen ended any chance Mullen had to save his job.
Don’t expect Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin to act rashly. There are games at Missouri and home against Florida State left, and the school has already fired two veteran coaches — DC Todd Grantham and OL coach John Hevesy — leaving no obvious interim. Mullen is also the play caller, and no one on staff has close to his experience with that. There will be a final evaluation at the end of the season, but this is headed exactly where it appears.
The Gators didn’t appear significantly impacted by how the victory unfolded. Locker room video showed dancing, and Mullen called it a “great win” in his postgame television interview.
He added: “Calling a win a disappointment is disrespectful to the game.”
Mullen’s rhetoric has been off all season — pointing blame to players, fumbling questions about recruiting and generally leading with ego over humility. So it’s no surprise to see him fumble again in front of a microphone.
The reality for Mullen is that he’d built mountains of equity coming back to Gainesville — where he served as offensive coordinator on a pair of national title teams — and starting his tenure 29-6. But since then, the Gators have lost eight of 10 to Power Five programs and recently shown a spiral that speaks much more to engagement, effort and connection than to schematics or even overall talent.
Florida is flailing, and at the start of a three-game referendum on their coach’s future, Florida’s defensive players did nothing demonstrably to show they wanted him back. They yielded the most points an SEC school ever allowed to an FCS program, the strategy of firing a coordinator in-season backfiring. With 31-year-old linebacker coach Christian Robinson thrust into the awkward position of calling the first game of his career, there was no discernible bump in energy or effort.
Same as it has been. According to ESPN stats & info, Florida’s four-game total of giving up 175 points is the most the school has allowed in more than a century.
Parting ways with Mullen isn’t untenable. We’ve reached the point in the SEC — and college football in general — where paying $12 million to fire a coach isn’t even considered all that expensive. There’s no buyout incentive to keep Mullen, as he’d also get $12 million if he’s fired next year.
With Mullen’s future in the balance, his players answered the question on Saturday afternoon. They laid down for a historically bad performance. Much like Ron Zook’s tenure will be tied to losing to Mississippi State and Will Muschamp never got over losing to Georgia Southern, Mullen’s first half against Samford will reverberate in Florida infamy.
Florida job and the college football coaching carousel
With the opening of the Florida job appearing imminent in the upcoming weeks, the backdrop of the coaching industry thrusts forward and becomes just as compelling as the competition for one of the four College Football Playoff spots.
With the LSU and USC jobs already open, the addition of the Florida job to the landscape means that there will be three definitive top-10 jobs in the sport open. And the likelihood of Virginia Tech opening combined with the increasing possibility of Washington and Miami opening project this to be one of the most volatile coaching carousels in recent memory.
“That [Florida] domino is going to fall,” a coach said late Saturday, “and holy crap it’s going to be nuts.”
There’s a very good chance the LSU, USC and Florida jobs also create open head coaching jobs, which means there could be weeks of reverberations, buyouts and teams left without their coaches.
Saturday marked a bad day for some coaches earmarked for those jobs — Penn State’s James Franklin, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher. Heck, even Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley had one of the worst weekends of his career with OU’s offense disappearing at Baylor.
We’ve spent a lot of time speculating who’d get USC and LSU. The potential addition of Florida into the carousel will create an extra notch of aggression, especially if Jimbo Fisher decides to stay at Texas A&M and not follow his close friend and former boss, LSU AD Scott Woodward, to Baton Rouge.
With Fisher out and the possibility of Cincinnati reaching the playoff, which would keep Luke Fickell in Cincinnati — via awkward scheduling — for another year, it’s becoming apparent that the scramble to fill the high-profile jobs is headed toward a frenzy. (What happens if the NFL plucks a coach later in the cycle?)
Who could get hot to help fill some of the jobs? Does the allure of recruiting back in the Southeast draw Mario Cristobal from Eugene? Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson has the Demon Deacons undefeated in the ACC and a favorite to play in the title game. Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien remains more qualified than most in the college space. Does Mel Tucker ride the momentum of Michigan State’s sublime season out of East Lansing? Does Kalani Sitake get a look in the West Coast shuffle?
Will this be the year that Clemson’s Tony Elliott or Brent Venables takes a job? Could Texas A&M’s Mike Elko make the jump or Georgia’s Dan Lanning ride this historic UGA defense to a top job?
Texas is the opposite of back
Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte oversaw two seismic moves to reposition Texas athletics in the last calendar year. He fired Tom Herman and his entire staff at a potential cost of $24 million and oversaw the athletic department’s departure from the Big 12 to the SEC.
A few months later, these decisions are both appearing to collide in cruel fashion. The Longhorns have lost five consecutive games for the first time since 1956, the latest of which was an embarrassing home overtime loss to Kansas, 57-56, on Saturday. (Kansas was 1-8 and hadn’t won a Big 12 road game since 2008).
It’s only Sarkisian’s first season, but he’s already staring at an uphill climb back to the levels considered acceptable by Texas’ brass. Herman had four bowl wins and finished his last three seasons in the Top 25. Sarkisian is 4-6 with games at West Virginia and home against a very good Kansas State team.
The worst bellwether for Sarkisian’s future is that Texas will eventually be transitioning to the SEC. And considering that Texas got ragdolled by Arkansas — a mediocre SEC team — by 19 points earlier in the year, it’s daunting to envision a path there. Texas does have the country’s No. 5 recruiting class, per Rivals.com, and it will be interesting to see if the faith of any of those recruits is shaken by the Kansas loss.
Sarkisian’s job isn’t in danger. Even Texas isn’t that crazy, as the buyout is more than $20 million. Expect staff changes, as coordinator roulette has offered Texas fans more entertainment than the product on the field the past decade.
Del Conte’s expensive bet will soon collide with the school’s grand ambitions, and it’s hard to muster a lot of optimism in the short term for those working in synch at a high level in the long term.
The Oklahoma football resume always felt light. It’d sputtered through too many close calls. It’d looked too impotent on defense. Heck, the Sooners trailed Kansas in the second half earlier this year.
The grand comeuppance of the No. 8 Sooners finally came on Saturday in a 27-14 loss at No. 13 Baylor. The loss came with a few juicy plot twists. The first was that the Sooners couldn’t move the ball most of the day on the stout Baylor defense, as OU’s second touchdown of the day came with less than three minutes remaining.
On the day, Oklahoma mustered just 260 yards of total offense, the lowest output of Lincoln Riley’s tenure. It gave second-year Baylor coach Dave Aranda a signature victory, as it snapped Oklahoma’s 17-game win streak and helped position Baylor for a shot at the Big 12 title.
To get that shot, there may be a tiebreaker involved. And in the Big 12’s convoluted tiebreaker, one of the sub-categories is point differential. It could theoretically come into play amid a thicket of two-loss teams vying for a spot in the Big 12 title game. That explains Aranda’s decision to kick a last-second field goal to win by 13, which ended up getting Riley riled up.
After Baylor fans had already stormed the field and the Sooner players cleared to the locker room, the fans were cleared and players returned for the Bears to line up for the field goal. Aranda noted the tiebreaker, but it didn’t sit well with Riley. He mentioned a “code of sportsmanship” and that he “didn’t agree” with Aranda’s decision.
“I just, I don’t believe this situation was handled well by a lot of people,” Riley told reporters after the game, per ESPN. “Doing it with class is important to me.”
Oklahoma’s challenges on the field will continue, as it’ll host Iowa State and play at Oklahoma State.
We aren’t in Kansas anymore
From his seat on the Kansas charter plane, well after midnight, Lance Leipold could hardly contain his giddiness. He was attempting to explain the improbability of walk-on tight end Jared Casey catching the game-winning two-point conversion in a stunning 57-56 overtime win at Texas.
Kanas was a 31-point underdog and hadn’t won a league road game since 2008. And the improbable star was a walk-on listed as a fullback. “We don’t have fullback,” Leipold said. But when you’re a 5-9 tight end, that probably doesn’t look good in the Big 12.”
To accentuate the improbability, Leipold yelled to offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki:
Lance: “How many plays from scrimmage did Jared play before tonight?”
And after the way the night unfolded, Casey would well have been regarded in infamy on one of the worst plays if Kansas hadn’t completed the comeback. No play allowed Texas back in the game more glaringly than a Marcus Washington punt block in the third quarter. That set up a three-play, 17-yard Texas drive that cut the Kansas lead to seven in the third quarter.
Leipold said that Casey was out of position on the punt block, as he left the shield to check the protection. While checking it, the long snapper snapped the ball and he was out of position. “He goes from a guy that messes up, so to speak, to a guy where he’s kind of a hero in this thing,” Leipold said.
So there was Casey, after Kansas had squandered 21-point third-quarter lead, a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and gave up the game tying touchdown with 30 seconds left. After Texas went ahead on the first overtime possession, Kansas answered with a Devin Neal rush.
Leipold said he told the team prior to the possession they’d be going for two if they scored a matching touchdown. (“With the new OT rules, if you’re the second team, you might as well go for two,” he surmised.)
After backup quarterback Jalon Daniels got flushed from the pocket, he wobbled a pass to Casey, who was about two yards into the end zone. He hadn’t taken an offensive snap in a game all season before Saturday. And he snared the ball with a defender draped on him, snapping Kansas’ 56-game road league losing streak. (Leipold said he had no idea it was that long.)
So how will this win be remembered at Kansas?
“Hopefully it’ll be one where this program gains some confidence and trust in each other,” he said. “Hopefully we can continue to believe in the process of what we’re going to do here.”