The 2021 favorite to win the SEC East? Not Florida

Florida football coach Dan Mullen addresses the media dressed as Darth Vader Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla.
Florida football coach Dan Mullen addresses the media dressed as Darth Vader Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Gainesville, Fla.

If the 2021 college football season started today – yes, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, seeing as how one game remains in the current season – you’d pick Georgia to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs just finished second, albeit by a half-game in the conference standings, to Florida, but this was a Georgia team that had, depending on whether you count Jamie Newman, four No. 1 quarterbacks in 2020. The Gators are coming off a season when their QB was a Heisman Trophy finalist. (He finished fourth, FYI.)

I know, I know. Not so long ago, this typist suggested the SEC East — namely, Florida — might have gotten too good for the Bulldogs, at least as constituted. Two things happened. First, the Bulldogs reconfigured themselves, making JT Daniels their starting quarterback and winning their final four games. Their season culminated in a rousing victory over unbeaten Cincinnati, which had more at stake than any other team gracing a New Year’s Six bowl.

Second, Florida fell apart. It lost its final three games. The first was because of irrational exuberance: Cornerback Marco Wilson threw an LSU player’s shoe, in the words of referee James Carter, “20 yards down the field.” The clever Gators lost by three. They lost the SEC Championship game to Alabama, though the final score (52-46) slightly flattered Florida, which never led and was outgained 605 yards to 482. Then came a 55-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, a result that coach Dan Mullen suggested shouldn’t be counted against his 2020 Gators.

To be fair, almost every decent Florida receiver opted out of the bowl. So did three defensive starters. Mullen called the squad that played Oklahoma “the scout team,” though few scout teams feature a Heisman finalist at quarterback. This capped a season dominated by Mullen utterances, the bulk of which made him seem a brat. (A brat coaching Florida? Say it ain’t so, Steve Spurrier.)

Florida coach Dan Mullen argues a unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty call against Florida during the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship game Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, against Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Florida coach Dan Mullen argues a unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty call against Florida during the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship game Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, against Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Speculation holds that Mullen might be interested in an NFL job, there being seven openings. Three months ago, the Gators might have done everything in their power — the Gators have lots of power, meaning money — to keep the man who was leading the rowdy reptiles back to Atlanta. Today it’s a bit less clear.

The Florida athletic director is Scott Stricklin, who may or may not be my cousin. (We’re both related to a Williams who hailed from Paintsville, Ky. In my case, the Williams was Mom.) I know from conversations that Stricklin is high on Mullen, having hired him after the two worked together at Mississippi State. I also know that Florida takes NCAA violations seriously. Almost lost in the bizarre series of weekly Mullen proclamations — he referred to Wilson’s hurled shoe as “a football move” — was a huge embarrassment.

On Dec. 22, the head ball coach at Florida was handed a show-cause sanction by the NCAA. Such a penalty is generally limited to someone who’s between jobs, so it wasn’t as if the Gators had to go back and give reasons why they should be allowed to hire Mullen. He is, however, banned from on-campus recruiting during three different periods on the 2021 calendar. He was cited for a failure to create a climate of compliance. Some SEC outposts would shrug off such a failing as business as usual in a league where it just means … well, you know. Florida isn’t such a place.

Said maybe-Cousin Scott: “NCAA rules are in place to create fairness and integrity, and the University of Florida has an established history of adhering to those rules. It is important for our coaches and staff to remain diligent and take responsibility for compliance and extricate themselves from potential NCAA violations.”

The NCAA hit came after a season in which Mullen lobbied for the Swamp to be packed to its 88,000-seat capacity during a pandemic. Almost on cue, he tested positive for COVID-19. The Gators’ game with LSU was pushed back to Dec. 12, whereupon Wilson threw the shoe and Mullen’s team came off looking unhinged.

The NCAA’s penalty marked his second docking in two months. He was fined $25,000 by the SEC after doing his darnedest to incite a brawl at halftime against Missouri. That day, he conducted his postgame briefing dressed as Darth Vader. (That day was Halloween.) Said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey: “Running on the field to confront a game official, the gathering of teams in an on-field confrontation and student-athletes throwing punches are all disappointing at any time, but even more so as we work to support healthy competition during a pandemic.”

It’s doubtful Florida would push Mullen aside, though Stricklin moved with alacrity in 2017 to rid himself of Jim McElwain, who won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016. Also at issue: Would any NFL franchise entrust its precious product to a guy who spent the year making headlines for the silly stuff he was saying/wearing, as opposed to how well he was coaching?

If Mullen stays at Florida, he’ll have a lesser team — no Kyle Trask, no Kyle Pitts, no Kadarius Toney. Given that no other East member besides Georgia finished above .500, the Bulldogs should again be favored to win the division. (South Carolina and Vanderbilt changed coaches; Tennessee will dump Jeremy Pruitt soon.) They know their quarterback will be Daniels, unless Brock Vandagriff beats him out. Their once-lamented receivers could be the nation’s best in 2021. With Kirby Smart coaching, they’ll never have a bad defense.

What has been true for decades is true still: The SEC East schools with the greatest resources are Florida and Georgia; the one with the better coach tends to prevail. The Evil Genius trumped Ray Goff and Jim Donnan; Mark Richt trumped Ron Zook and Will Muschamp; Urban Meyer trumped Richt. Mullen’s Gators won in 2020, but they shouldn’t repeat in 2021. Heck, they might not be Mullen’s Gators much longer.

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