Dan Mullen did something that only Urban Meyer has done in the post-Spurrier era. He guided consecutive teams to top ten finishes in the polls. His 2018 team finished sixth in the Coaches’ Poll and seventh in the AP Poll, and his 2019 team reversed those to land seventh in the Coaches and sixth in the AP.
Each of Meyer’s first five teams finished ranked, but only in 2008-09 did he land in the top ten in back-to-back seasons. They were top three in fact, with the ’08 team winning the championship at No. 1 and his ’09 outfit landing third in both polls. Mullen didn’t get that high, obviously, but Meyer did that in Years 4 and 5 after he had teams with all his own players.
None of Ron Zook’s teams finished ranked better than 24th. Will Muschamp’s 2012 team barely finished in the top ten at tenth in the Coaches’ Poll and ninth in the AP Poll. That was his only team to finish ranked, though. Jim McElwain’s first two teams each finished ranked, but neither cracked the top ten.
The fact that Mullen got to the top ten in his first two seasons sets him apart in school history.
Steve Spurrier’s first team in 1990 couldn’t appear in the final Coaches’ Poll because of lingering probation from prior to his arrival. It did finish 13th in the AP Poll, though. Meyer’s debut team in 2005 ended up 16th in the Coaches’ Poll and 12th in the AP Poll.
In the poll era — the Coaches’ goes back to 1950, the AP to 1936 — only two other coaches besides those two and Mullen have ever led UF to a top ten finish. They tag-teamed a run of two straight in the Coaches and three straight in the AP.
They were Charley Pell, whose 1983 team finished sixth in both, and Galen Hall, who took over as an interim after three games in 1984 and guided the Gators to seventh in the Coaches and third in the AP. As full-time coach, his 1985 team finished fifth in the AP but couldn’t appear in the Coaches’ Poll for the same reason the 1990 team couldn’t.
So Mullen matched Hall if you want to give the latter the whole ’84 season since Pell went 1-1-1 in the first three and Hall went a perfect 8-0 from there. I don’t and you shouldn’t because he was an interim and wasn’t the head coach for every game. Therefore, Mullen is the only coach in program history to land in the top ten in his first two seasons.
If you believe the way-too-early top 25 listings — which are never wildly off and always entirely accurate — Mullen has a great chance to extend his streak. Dennis Dodd at CBSSports.com (6th), Mark Schlabach at ESPN (7th), Stewart Mandel at The Athletic (7th), Paul Myerberg at USA Today (8th), and Brett McMurphy at Stadium (8th) all have the Gators in their January top tens.
Unless a hailstorm of unexpected things happens, UF will likely stay that high and end up in the top ten of the official preseason polls. Kyle Trask is the top returning quarterback in the conference, though he may get some competition for preseason first team All-SEC from Wake Forest grad transfer Jamie Newman at Georgia and Mac Jones at Alabama. The schedule is also favorable, as UF drops Miami for a third cupcake and only requires three out-of-state trips. Those three are the murderer’s row of Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt. The Vols might be frisky after a relatively strong ending to 2019, but they won’t scare too many teams if they can’t find some better options at quarterback.
The teams that reliably end up ahead of Florida are the perennial playoff contenders (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma), the defending champs (LSU), the ace recruiters (Georgia), and a couple of brand names getting bowl bumps (Oregon, Penn State). The first set are predictable. The last are returning nine starters on one side of the ball (defense for Oregon, offense for Penn State) and therefore look to hit cyclical peaks. Whatever you think of Florida’s prospects in 2020, the program isn’t hitting a cyclical peak in that way.
The Gators can do something about the middle two though. If they can split those games, 11-1 is on the table given the rest of the slate consists mostly of gimmes and rebuilds. Mark Stoops at Kentucky is on the firmest ground of any opposing coach after Ed Orgeron and Kirby Smart and may offer the Gators their third toughest game.
If UF fulfills the prophecies and finishes in the top ten, Mullen will tie the streak from the ’80s and get halfway to Spurrier’s six top tens in a row (1993-98). I do wonder if a third straight finish in the latter half of the top ten, where all those prognosticators have UF, will satisfy every corner of the fan base. Another 10-2 campaign with losses only to LSU and Georgia would be a success, but I know a lot of Gator partisans are itching for a win over the Bulldogs. The talk about expectations is something to have another time, though.
For now, appreciate what Mullen has done. He took over a team that lost seven games the year before he arrived and failed to win nine regular season games in three of the four seasons before that. He immediately turned things around with 9-3 and 10-2 regular season campaigns, both of which then had New Year’s Six bowl wins to cap them off. He became the first head coach in program history to start his tenure with consecutive top ten finishes.
We’ll see where things go from here, but Mullen is already putting himself in rarified air in the annals of Florida football.