College football has always had various rules of thumb for how to judge which coaches are doing a good job, and they change as the sport changes its format.
Winning ten games used to be the surefire mark of a great season when the regular season was only ten or 11 games long and ties still happened. It’s still a good mark to hit but meant less after everyone used the 12th game for cupcakes and bowls got plentiful. There are still those who will argue, for instance, about whether Dan Mullen really won ten games in 2018 because he only got to double digits with a postseason victory.
Making a bowl used to be a big deal back when there were only a handful of them. Now that there are upwards of 30 of them, it matters far more to the coach at Vandy than the one at Florida.
Making a BCS bowl was a big deal when that format came into existence. The New Year’s 6 games are the continuation of that. However, making the four-team playoff is sufficiently set apart from the going to one of the other big games that getting an NY6 invitation doesn’t quite carry the same weight that a BCS bid did.
The proposal for a new 12-team playoff format will almost certainly be approved. There may be some wrangling left about whether quarterfinal games will happen on campuses or in bowls, but the expanded field is all but a done deal. It’s getting fans all over the country excited, and it comes with the backing of the SEC commissioner, two other commissioners, and Notre Dame. It’d be a colossal surprise for the rest of the sport’s power brokers to shoot it down.
It seems likely that the new format will come into being in 2023. They’ve already said this year and next are too soon, and 2022 would complete another three-year semifinal rotation of the current format. None of the big money bowls that are key partners in today’s system would feel shortchanged about losing out on hosting a semifinal game compared to the others.
So, it’s likely that two years from now, the way we all evaluate coaches will change once again.
In some ways, the new format will be good for Mullen. As long as Nick Saban stays on at Alabama and Kirby Smart keeps recruiting at the level he does now, it’s going to be difficult for Mullen to start winning SEC titles regularly unless the new facilities will make as big a difference to recruiting as he seems to think they will. Despite hand wringing from some corners, winning conference championships still has a lot of currency. Winning divisions, not so much — just ask Jim McElwain — but conference titles never stopped mattering so much with possible exceptions for juggernauts that expect to compete for national titles annually like Alabama and Ohio State.
It will be easier to compete for a spot in the expanded playoff, though it’ll still be a notable feat to get in. Indeed, Florida is one of only a handful of schools that would’ve made the 12-team format every year since 2018, and the list doesn’t even include Saban’s Crimson Tide. Routinely making the latter half of the top ten sounds more appealing when it gets you into the playoff instead of those somewhat devalued New Year’s 6 games.
At first making the 12-team playoff will carry meaning enough, but that too will lose a little luster over time just as the major bowls did going from the BCS to New Year’s 6. Getting a first round bye will matter — and since doing so requires a conference title, that accomplishment too will retain its significance — and landing in the 5-8 range will be a big deal too since those schools will host first-round games on their campuses.
Going off of the past committee rankings, UF only would’ve had a home game once in Mullen’s hypothetical three-year playoff run: in 2020, hosting Iowa State. The other two years would’ve required playing at Michigan in 2018 and at Wisconsin in 2019. The Gators demolished the Wolverines in the air conditioned domed stadium in Atlanta, but could they have done the same in front of a hostile crowd with temperatures near freezing? We’ll never know, but it’d be a lot harder.
It’s easy then to see where this might go in five years if Mullen continues to put most of his teams in the bottom half of the top ten. If he can get into the 6-8 slots regularly, he’ll been seen positively for delivering home playoff games and not leaving it up to chance whether the Gators will have to play snow games. If he’s more often below the 8 spot, then it’ll be seen as like going to a non-semifinal Peach or Cotton Bowl now: better than the alternative, but not a big boasting point.
The big way it’ll be different than mere NY6 games is that what Mullen’s teams do in the playoff can offset any angst about what seed they start as. If Mullen can use his powers of game planning to consistently make the quarterfinals or even semifinals, then people will care less about what number was by his team’s name.
This is Florida we’re talking about, ultimately. The Gator Standard is national titles, and Mullen himself talks about that. There was once a time when UF coaches could be held in the highest regard without a national title, but that time is long past. Winning an SEC championship for the first time since 2008 would be a most welcome sight, but winning the big one matters most.
No matter what the postseason format changes into in the future, that fact won’t change.