Though it was LSU’s Ed Orgeron who entered Tiger Stadium under scorching heat, Florida’s Dan Mullen was the coach who left under heightened scrutiny after the No. 20 Gators’ 49-42 loss.
It still seems premature to talk about Mullen going on the hot seat five months after getting a raise and extension that makes him the sixth-highest paid coach in the country. But the pressure, undeniably, is cranked up now.
The margin for error decreased because UF (4-3, 2-3 SEC) lost as double-digit favorites for a pair of obvious reasons. Both come back to Mullen.
The first is an atrocious run defense that surrendered 321 yards — the most UF had allowed in a regular-season game since the humiliating loss to Georgia Southern in 2013. Mullen was asked about the performance three different times after the game. Were the Gators outschemed? Were they outplayed? Were they out of position?
Mullen didn’t say much, beyond the fact that they’ll evaluate everything during the off week before facing No. 1 Georgia on Oct. 30.
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, however, seemed to say a lot.
“I mean, we made the adjustments we were given to make,” Diabate said.
What about his level of confidence in the defensive scheme? “I’m confident in my teammates and my teammates’ ability to play hard and be where they’re supposed to be,” Diabate said. “I’m confident in my teammates.”
Left unsaid: Whether Diabate is confident in the coaching staff to put his teammates where they’re supposed to be.
That responsibility ultimately falls on coordinator Todd Grantham, who was embattled last year as the leader of one of the worst defenses in UF history. Mullen chose not to replace him in the offseason, instead changing assistants in the secondary, and all but said he won’t fire him during the off week.
Grantham’s defense had been much better through the first half of this season. But after Saturday’s performance, it’s — again — fair to question whether Mullen made the right decision in the offseason.
It’s also reasonable to keep questioning Mullen’s handling of quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. Jones was loyal to Mullen and the program as he waited his turn. But he’s not as talented as the dynamic redshirt freshman. That was obvious — again — with how Richardson led UF on four consecutive scoring drives Saturday once he took over after Jones’ second interception.
Richardson wasn’t perfect; he threw two interceptions, too, including an ill-advised one in the closing minutes that threw away UF’s final comeback shot. But Richardson was responsible for four touchdowns to Jones’ one (a Hail Mary at the end of the first half). More reps for Richardson might have made the difference in a one-score game.
Mullen, to his credit, seems more open to the idea of a long-term change.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?” Richardson said.
That question applies to lot of things in Gainesville after Saturday.
For the second year in a row, Mullen’s Gators lost as big favorites to an embattled Tigers coach with a depleted roster. The LSU defeats bookend a stretch that’s beyond concerning for Mullen and the trajectory of his program.
UF has dropped six of its last eight games against Power Five opponents. Jim McElwain never did that, though Will Muschamp did in 2013.
Even the two wins aren’t impressive; Tennessee was in the first month of the Josh Heupel era, while Vanderbilt is one of the worst teams in the country.
Though Mullen deserves credit for making three New Year’s Six bowl games in his first three years, he also deserves scrutiny for a second straight season that will have at least three losses (with a probable fourth L coming at the end of the month in Jacksonville).
The fact that Mullen is not a skilled recruiter — UF’s 2022 class ranks No. 14 nationally and fifth in the SEC — doesn’t generate enough optimism to overshadow another down season that’s below what he calls the “Gator Standard.”
That phrase was trending in the late afternoon Saturday, and not in a good way.
“We’re all frustrated,” Mullen said. “We’re still grinding away.”
Mullen and his Gators will do that this off week, looking for answers in as they evaluate a season that looked promising a month ago against Alabama but will now end, again, in disappointment.
It’s probably not enough to put Mullen on the hot seat, the way Orgeron will be with his next loss. But it’s enough to make you start searching for the thermostat.
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