Despite the late-season slump, Florida finished in the top 15 of the AP Poll for the third consecutive season. Can you guess when the last time the program pulled that off?
You probably can: it was Urban Meyer’s tenure-starting run from 2005-09. However, that only works with the AP Poll specifically. Meyer’s 2005 and 2007 teams both finished 16th in the Coaches’ Poll, which means Meyer didn’t get three consecutive consensus top-15 poll finishes even once.
Dan Mullen has done it, with the 2020 squad’s No. 12 finish in the Coaches’ Poll and No. 13 finish in the AP to go with a pair of top-seven finishes in 2018 and 2019. The Gators’ last consensus top-15 run before Mullen, therefore, was the end of Steve Spurrier’s tenure. The Head Ball Coach never had a team finish below the No. 13 AP Poll rank that his first team had in 1990.
It’s true that UF hasn’t been a program that measures itself on top 15 finishes in decades. However, the turbulence between Meyer’s last year and Mullen taking over shows that a certain baseline level of quality and competence is not to be underrated. Mullen hasn’t reached the program’s ceiling, but he has shored up its floor quite a bit.
To further illustrate the point, here is how a number of relevant comparisons work out. I will stick to the AP Poll because I think it’s better than the Coaches’ Poll.
Florida has had two runs this century of finishing in the top 15 at least three straight times: four years under Meyer and now under Mullen. How many has FSU had in the same time span?
One. Jimbo Fisher managed to finish in the top 15 for six straight years from 2012 to 2016. Six is greater than four or three, so the School Out West has that much on UF. However before Fisher’s run, the previous one occurred 15 times in a row under Bobby Bowden between 1987 and 2001. Turns out it was good to play in the crappy ACC of the ’90s.
Anyway, the last three years extend from 1999-2001, so that’s not this century anymore. After Bowden’s streak ended in 2001, he only managed a top 15 finish twice in eight seasons. He got a long time to decline before the school finally pulled the plug.
Under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson, Miami almost never finished out of the top 15. Butch Davis worked through NCAA sanctions from Erickson’s tenure and built a solid enough foundation that the program could still finish in the top 15 in each of Larry Coker’s first four seasons. It was a six-year run from Davis to Coker lasting from 1999-2004.
Since the year YouTube was founded, you can count the number of the Hurricanes’ top 15 finishes on one finger. Richt got them there with a 10-0 start that ended 10-3 in 2017. The slide proved longer and harder to get out of for Miami than for FSU.
Kirby Smart has put the Bulldogs in the top ten in four straight years. His predecessor was typically good, even if not great all that often. How many top 15 streaks of at least three years did Mark Richt have?
One. He had four consecutive top ten finishes from 2002-05. After his second and final SEC title in ’05, the team slipped to a No. 23 finish in 2006. Richt did have three more top ten and one other top 15 finish in him, but never did they come more than twice in a row (2007-08).
Jim Donnan and Ray Goff never pulled it off, so before Richt in the early 2000s, you have to go all the way back to Vince Dooley run of top-six finishes in 1980-83.
Yeah, Tennessee hasn’t done it since they pushed out Phillip Fulmer. You knew that already.
What you may or may not remember exactly is that ol’ Phil wasn’t terribly consistent once years began starting with the number 2. He had four straight top-ten finishes from 1995-99, but he wouldn’t again put three consecutive team in the final polls, much less in the top 15, afterwards. The Vols haven’t done it once this century, in other words.
Quick: how many times did Gus Malzahn finish in the top 15 in his eight years as head coach of Auburn? Not in a row, but total.
It was three, and not even two of them were even consecutive. Tommy Tuberville did manage to get into the top 15 from 2004-07, but Terry Bowden couldn’t manage three in a row. So, the Plainsmen have had just one run of at least three-straight top 15 finishes since Pat Dye did it from 1986-89.
Saban’s the best of all time, but there was no stability between him and Gene Stallings. The latter had four top-15 finishes from 1991-94, but Mike DuBose, Mike Price, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula had only three top-15 finishes among them. It’s still true that every Alabama head coach since the Bear who managed to coach a game has won ten games in a season, but for a number of them, that finish was their only one worth talking about.
Dabo Swinney didn’t start his active run of top 15 finishes until his fourth season. It stands at nine seasons and counting now. The last top-15 streak before him spanned from 1987-90 in Danny Ford’s final three years and Ken Hatfield’s first. Today’s giants aren’t necessarily yesterday’s giants.
So what’s the point?
Aside from Ohio State, pretty much everyone really hits the skids at some point. The Buckeyes finished unranked from 1999-01, which was their only streak of that length since the mid-1960s when the AP Poll only ranked ten teams instead of 25. But that program aside, there are real ups and downs everywhere.
No, Mullen hasn’t won a conference or national title. No, he hasn’t come all that close either. The Gators performed admirably in the 2020 SEC Championship Game, but, thanks in no small part to Mullen’s own clock blunders at the ends of the halves, Florida was never in position to tie or take the lead when it counted.
We can argue at length what condition the program was in. It wasn’t that bad, as UF was only a year removed from a top-15 finish in 2016 and was about to reap the talent rewards of what The Athletic re-ranked as the third-best recruiting class of the ’16 cycle (behind only Clemson and Alabama).
However, three of the four Gator head coaches before Mullen were never short on raw talent and still managed to finish outside the top 15 far more often than not. Ron Zook and Will Muschamp only had one AP ranked team each, and McElwain’s first had to squeak in the last poll at No. 25 to give him two.
Mullen finishing in the top 15 for three straight years is not a sign that all is right once again with Florida football, but it is a bigger deal that it might sound on its face. The above shows that roughly no one does it regularly without an all-time great at the helm. Several of UF’s regional peer programs struggle to do it once a decade.
It is also a sign that a lot more is right than there used to be not long ago. Whether Mullen gets the Gators to the mountaintop or not, he’s built a more firm foundation than most have. Unless there are hidden termites in the walls like there were late in Meyer’s tenure, UF appears to be insulated from the mediocrity and occasional bowl-less seasons that plagued the program for the better part of a decade before Mullen’s arrival.