Mullen's next move: Why a big jump in Starkville signifies another step forward at Florida


Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen speaks to the media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency-Birmingham.

Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen speaks to the media during SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency-Birmingham.
Photo by: Vasha Hunt/USA TODAY Sports



Ben Portnoy



HOOVER, Ala. -- Florida coach Dan Mullen relishes high expectations. 


Mullen loves a high barometer so much he conceded he welcomes the chance to improve on last season's 10-3 record at SEC Media Days Monday in Hoover. 


"I like to set the bar really high," he said. "I don't know if there's anybody out there that has higher expectations for the team as a program than I do. We like to set that bar high, and we're constantly striving to be the absolute best that we can be." 


Heading into his first year at Florida, Mullen took over a team reeling from the previous administration.  


After a toxic breakup between former coach Jim McElwain and the university in October 2017 -- one that included a string of strange press conferences highlighted by McElwain's loose references to death threats his staff and their families received -- the Gators were nosediving. 


McElwain had brought some life to the program following the Will Muschamp era with a 10-4 debut season in 2015. But McElwain's teams quickly regressed each year of his employment -- bottoming out at 4-7 in 2017. 


Given the disorder, the job Mullen pulled off in 2018 is no small feat. That said, the Gators have their eyes set on this year's SEC East crown. 


"A lot of it I think comes from year one to year two," he said of when teams improve. "I think coming in now, everyone understands the program." 


Mullen's theory is not without traction.  


When he took over at Mississippi State ahead of the 2009 season the Bulldogs had just two winning seasons since the turn of the millennium and had won four games or fewer in seven of the past eight years. 


The narrative quickly shifted. 


Mullen's Bulldogs finished 2009 5-7, narrowly missing out on a bowl game after a 3-5 start doomed their postseason fate. 


The real signal of change came in year two. MSU earned its first nine-win season since 1999, defeating Michigan in the Gator Bowl, 52-14.  


The Bulldogs finished No. 15 in the Associated Press Poll -- the program's second-highest postseason ranking since 1957. 


History aside, a four-win improvement in Gainesville is unlikely. More relevant are the statistical jumps players have made in the past -- particularly at quarterback. 


During Mullen's first season at MSU starter Tyson Lee totaled 1,444 yards passing with four touchdowns and 14 interceptions. By contrast, Chris Relf finished the following year with 1,789 yards through the air and 13 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. 


A similar trend can be seen in Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks after just a single season under Mullen's tutelage.  


After tossing a meager 1,438 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2017, Franks nearly doubled his passing output last season as he threw for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns to six interceptions. 


"I think once he was able to block out all of the things out, all of the outside noise, and really look at his skill set, what he does well, he was able to improve," Mullen said of Franks. "And I think that helped build his confidence and improved his performance on the field." 


It's also worth noting the entire team's progressed understanding of the playbook.  


Senior running back Lamical Perine -- an 826-yard rusher last season -- said he has seen a vast improvement in the Gators this spring as the system becomes more subconscious. 


"I just feel like guys are faster and able to come out and play and have fun because they know the offense and know the defense as well," Perine said. "A lot of guys last year were still learning plays and things like that so we came in and didn't move as fast as we wanted to. But now in year two a lot of guys feel more comfortable."  


A jump from 10 wins to a spot in the SEC title game or beyond may be a stretch for this year's Gators while Kirby Smart still patrols the sidelines at Georgia. But Mullen's track record at MSU showed marked improvement in year two -- something Gator fans hope spells another double-digit win campaign. 


"When we go to drills, everybody knows what the expectations are," Mullen said. "They've run the offense and run the defense. So I think that gives you the opportunity to have a big jump in the second season. Obviously I think we had a great year last year, but would love it to be even better this year."


Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.


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