A second loss to Kentucky in four years gave Gator Nation the opportunity to air their frustrations with Dan Mullen. The grievances ranged from the details of individual play calls to the head coach’s overarching program management.
For as varied as they are, the complaints all boil down to one concept: margin for error. Mullen doesn’t always build it where he can, and he makes some decisions that actively reduce it. Without a large margin for error, unexpected events too often turn wins into losses. Let’s go from the small scale to the large to illustrate.
How many field goals get blocked? Not many. Then, how many of those blocked field goals get returned for touchdowns? Again, not many. The Wildcats’ second score on Saturday was an anomaly within an anomaly.
When you build up margin for error, low probability events don’t sink your team. That touchdown should’ve been a funny footnote that merely made the final margin a closer Florida win. Instead, it was a critical play that gave free points to a team that couldn’t score without a defensive bust or a short field.
Mullen played things conservatively all night, trying to trade some of the margin for error inherent in the quality gap between the teams for reducing the chances of a big play going against him. Such was even his actual explanation for not trying to score right before the half.
However, sometimes the universe doesn’t play along. Sometimes the other team gets an anomaly within an anomaly. Sometimes one of your own guys throws a shoe after what would’ve been a game-sealing third down stop, enabling the opposing kicker to hit a 57-yard field goal despite literally not being able to see the goal posts through the fog.
Yet, Mullen doesn’t consistently press his advantages. He didn’t against Kentucky. He didn’t in the first half last week against Tennessee. He didn’t in the second half of last year either.
After offensive supernovas against Georgia and Arkansas in 2020, he chose to go vanilla in the four contests leading up to the SEC Championship Game. It worked until he hit an LSU team that, while shorthanded, had no athletic deficit to the Gators. The margin for error was therefore smaller than in the prior three contests against Vandy, UK, and UT. Playing for the “safe” win eliminated enough of what margin still existed that a handful of unlikely occurrences were the deciding factor instead of interesting trivia. Sound familiar?
Look at how the greats do it. Steve Spurrier never turned his offense down a notch or two to win games safely. He got a reputation for running up the score because he never gave up margin for error and always stayed on the attack.
Or, look at Mullen’s old boss Urban Meyer. Meyer used special teams as an avenue for increasing his margin for error. Stealing points and possessions or just improving field position via blocks and returns was a staple of his philosophy. If the better team can manufacture some extra advantages through the third element to the game, that squad becomes nearly unbeatable.
Mullen, meanwhile, has not tried to use special teams for much of anything aside from the very occasional fake. He’s been content to settle for fair catches and rarely sends the house to try for a punt or kick block.
Taking a step back from tactics, Mullen sometimes reduces his margin of error with personnel choices. His well-known preference for experience and seniority means that a Nick Buchanan or a Donovan Stiner gets major playing time after he’s proven himself not to be true SEC material. Mullen committed to Feleipe Franks despite, when the opportunity arose, Kyle Trask showing himself to be the superior player from the moment Franks went down. I don’t need to explain how this kind of thing whittles away at a team’s margin for error, particularly against elite teams.
I won’t keep harping on this because it’s going to sound like me denigrating players who gave their all but just weren’t cut out to excel at the highest levels. I will leave it with this much, that Mullen has more decisions to make of this nature before the season is out.
Look at how a recent two-time national championship coach did it. Did Dabo Swinney keep Deshawn Watson on the bench for long in favor or the older Cole Stoudt, or keep Kelly Bryant in ahead of an inexperienced Trevor Lawrence? He did not.
Staff loyalty and recruiting are a pair of factors that go hand-in-hand. Mullen has some members of his staff who are very much His Guys despite them being subpar recruiters. This does two things.
One, a sense of absolute job security reduces sense of urgency. For instance, it appears that John Hevesy will be by Mullen’s side as long as he wants to be. He does not regularly land top-shelf talent, instead building a pipeline of lesser-regarded players who largely won’t be ready to contribute until at least their third seasons.
Being okay with that setup meant that Mullen signed up for two seasons of substandard line play after the 2018 veterans all left. He cut down his margin for error greatly in 2019 and to a lesser degree in 2020 to fall on the developmental side of a sharp development/recruiting tradeoff. It had worked this year until it didn’t on Saturday when the line was a clear detriment with all of the penalties.
The line does have some depth this year, but it’s mostly by luck. Three of the seven players who get meaningful snaps are only at UF right now due to either the COVID eligibility mulligan (Stewart Reese, Jean Delance) or because Arkansas hired a career offensive line coach as head coach (Joshua Braun). The slow pipeline approach is (barely) working for now, but it has little margin for error since only one lineman per signing class so far has been able to contribute within a year or two of arriving.
Second, because only some of the staff are great recruiters, they take on outsized importance. The non-Buck linebackers haven’t been especially well-coached these past few years. Yet when Michigan took a run at Christian Robinson last winter, UF scrambled the jets to get him to stay because the staff couldn’t afford losing both him and the NFL-bound Brian Johnson in the same offseason.
Look at how the greats do it. Nick Saban doesn’t make tradeoffs between recruiting and development. He pulled a coup in hiring recruiting ace Tosh Lupoi, but he demoted him a few years in when the defense slid after Lupoi became co-DC. Lupoi would leave for the NFL after the season. Saban also landed ace defensive line developer Craig Kuligowski but fired him after one year following personality clashes and few results to speak of on the trail.
Not everyone can be Saban and have coaches falling over themselves to join their programs. Most staffs have some number of assistants who are strong on recruiting but weak on coaching or vice versa. However when you make the Venn diagram of good coaches and good recruiters, you want more than half the staff to reside somewhere in the overlapping zone. It’s hard to confidently put more than four of the ten current Florida assistants in that zone right now.
Saban’s insistence upon having all of his coaches be good recruiters means that he stockpiles immense amounts of talent. Simply having better players than the other team generates extra margin for error, and it grows as depth and the talent gap do.
Did misfortune strike and a key player goes down? Saban probably has another blue chip guy right behind him. Did someone make a mistake during a game? The player’s elite athleticism may allow him to get away with it, or his elite athlete teammates may make up for it. Mullen has improved the overall talent since his arrival, but he gives up some of his potential margin for error by having too few good recruiters on his staff.
This issue even extends into the realm of cultivating trust and goodwill with fans and the administration. Mullen built some with winning ten games his first year, 11 the next, and beating Georgia in the next. A second loss to UK is hard for Gators to swallow regardless, but it’d be easier if the preceding was the dominant narrative around him.
However, Mullen erased some of that goodwill with three high profile PR snafus last year (pack the Swamp, Darth Vader, pre-announcing bowl excuses). Then either he or someone close to him pretty clearly tried to parlay mild-to-nonexistent NFL interest into a raise and extension shortly after the season’s end. This, despite losing his last three games and it coming to light around then that he got the program put on probation for the first time since the ’80s.
He could’ve build back some of that margin by assigning someone to come up with ways to give fans more access in spring and fall camp. Fans missed that kind of stuff in 2020 but understood why it didn’t happen with the pandemic and all. This year, plenty of other programs came up with creative ways to give their die hards some of the glimpses behind the curtain that they crave. Or, in some cases, they went with the uncreative method of just giving out normal access.
UF did neither of those things. Mullen kept the media out of both practice sessions, and the only thing on offer was next-to-useless Instagram Live streams.
Mullen is not on a true hot seat right now. The only reason anyone has to say that, though, is because of the way he has frittered away some of his relational capital with unforced errors without making a real effort to gain some of it back.
If you find yourself mad at Dan Mullen right now, it probably comes down to how he manages his margin for error.
He’d have more if he put the same creativity into game plans for Kentucky this year or LSU last year as he did for the Alabama games. It’s strangely impossible to say with total certainty that he always plays his best players at their best positions, and he’d have more margin for error if he did. He’d also have more if he put effort into game-changing special teams plays. He could build more margin for error by making sure he had more guys on his staff who are good at both Xs and Os and signing Jimmies and Joes.
Mullen doesn’t max out that margin. He consistently gives it up for what appear from the outside to be bad reasons, and it makes the program less resilient.
What happens when a very good Texas A&M team gets unexpectedly thrown onto the schedule in 2020? The Gators can’t survive a fumble late because years of recruiting mismanagement at defensive tackle meant the defense couldn’t get a run stop to save its life. What happens when the star quarterback has a relative off night and turns it over three times against a weakened LSU? It means the bland game plans on both sides of the ball aren’t sufficient to win anymore. What happens when the team collects 15 penalties and gifts an opponent a pair of touchdowns via special teams and a turnover? Another bland game plan becomes inadequate because the offense ran out of elite performers behind center and out wide.
None of those losses had to happen. With their outcomes flipped, Mullen becomes 35-8 (.812) and has a third-straight double-digit campaign under his belt. UF would still be alive for all of its potential goals this year, and the narrative around the program and its coach would be completely different.
Instead, Mullen is 32-11 (.744) and the Gators can best hope for a nice bowl and maybe ten wins. In other words, the same exact thing they strived for in his first season.
The programs that hit a consistently high level of performance aren’t perfect all the time. They have their good games and bad. They also experience misfortune. Fluke injuries happen. The ball bounces a weird way.
What allows them to win as often as they do is that they have so much margin for error that the periodic struggles and bad luck can’t defeat them. Every game plan against anyone with a pulse gets full attention to detail with the intention of destroying, not subduing, the opponent. There are so many great players everywhere that competition for playing time at practice is fiercer than competition on Saturdays. Everyone in the organization has to excel at all parts of their jobs or else they find somewhere else to be.
If you don’t have much margin for error, you have to be essentially perfect to win championships. Perfection is, by definition, nearly unattainable. Therefore, Mullen has to decide which is the better path: hoping all the breaks go right often enough to make perfection repeatable, or overhauling his approach to create more margin for error so that perfection is no longer a requirement.
You hit the nail on the head. The question will be can Dan Mullen adapt and make changes, or will he double down like certain of his predecessors have done.
Best Article about Mullen I’ve read in awhile. Great job!
Absolutely terrific article David. Agree with every word.
In the second sentence of the first paragraph you lost me. Kidding great stuff. Wonder if he’d leave before he gets fired, he’s an awfully proud dude. As Spurrier used to say, ‘there is always hope.’ I think that’s what he said???
Great article! You voiced what so many gator fans are feeling right now!
Took the words right out of my mouth. This loss has left an extremely sour taste in my mouth. Reminded me of the muschamp/mcelwain errors. Either no adjustments or lackluster gameplans against lesser teams. This is nowhere near the “Gator Standard” he constantly speaks on. Things need to change or he’s gonna lose the fanbase
You just nailed it.