ATLANTA — Dan Mullen landed at Florida as the Gators’ new coach and immediately attracted the Georgia Bulldogs’ attention with his remark to a fan group. Five months ago, he said of the Bulldogs’ recent SEC Championship, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
In case Georgia fans have forgotten — and most probably haven’t — Mullen’s complete statement was: “Listen, making it to one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying? I mean, two out of the last three years we’ve still been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”
Mullen wasn’t firing off any similar salvos Tuesday as he addressed reporters at SEC Football Media Days here in Georgia’s back yard. But the nine-year Mississippi State head coach who has been with the Gators all of seven months now said he recognizes the importance of having some success in that storied rivalry.
“It’s such a great rivalry because you’re looking at two great teams, two great fan bases, two great universities and really great football programs that expect to win championships,” Mullen said as the last coach up on Day Two of the four-day SEC talk fest. “The makes it an awfully big game. You’re looking at two teams that usually have to beat the other one if you want to get there to do that. But the rivalry is a fantastic rivalry. It’s one of the most fun games you could be a part of down there in Jacksonville.”
Mullen was certainly having fun against Georgia as offensive coordinator at Florida from 2005 to 2008. The Gators won three of the four games in which Mullen oversaw Urban Meyer’s offense by an aggregate margin of 50 points. His team was on the short end of that 42-30 loss in 2007 in which the entire Georgia team rushed the field following the opening touchdown.
But that was with quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at his disposal. At the moment at least, who Mullen might be employing as his starting signalcaller in Gainesville is largely up in the air. He has a few viable choices, starting with sophomore Felipe Franks, last year’s mainstay, and continuing through rarely utilized sophomore Kyle Trask and incoming freshman Emery Jones.
Jones, a one-time commitment to Meyer and Ohio State who happens to hail from La Grange, is considered the prospect with the greatest upside. But it’s the athletically-gifted Franks that offers the most promise in the short term.
Of course, Mullen’s reputation is making the most of athletically-gifted quarterbacks. He famously developed Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. The thinking around the Sunshine State is that Mullen — national head coach of the year in 2014 and national assistant of the year in 2008 — can get more out of Franks than the previous regime.
The 6-foot-6, 219-pound Franks resembles those aforementioned protégés in some ways. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Mullen will fashion an offense to match.
“Sometimes you have to change the offense to the strength of the quarterbacks,” Mullen said. “We’ll see how that how that goes this summer and into fall camp.”
The reality is, it’s not the same Florida that Mullen left behind nine years ago. The question is how quickly he can rebuild it into a program that resembles the one that played for the SEC championship in three of Mullen’s four years there.
A lot of it will depend on winning that rivalry with Georgia. And while the Bulldogs still own the overall series 51-43-2, last year’s 42-7 victory was the first in the last four years and just the fourth in the nine years since Mullen was last part of it.
“I think it’s a healthy rivalry,” Mullen said of the rivalry, which has been waged late October in Jacksonville every year but two since 1933. “A lot of times in college football and college sports there are some rivalries that are not as healthy. They’re tough, they’re nasty; they’re a great rivalry, but they can become unhealthy. I think this is a healthy rivalry between the two fan bases. Both programs know it’s such a critical game as far as accomplishing the goals that both teams have, which is to win the SEC East.”