Even if Dan Mullen eventually wins 15 national championships, 20 straight SEC titles, coaches 12 Heisman Trophy winners and discovers a cure for the paper cut, he will forever be remembered for what happened Saturday night in Gainesville.
The Florida Gators lost to LSU on Senior Night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium when they were four wins away from the national championship. With the loss, those dreams are out the window. Now, the most likely outcome to this season is a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, which would result in an 8-3 record and a berth in a second-tier bowl.
It didn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t have been this way.
This week was supposed to be about Mullen and the Gators stepping squarely into the national spotlight, where a win over Alabama would lock up a spot in the College Football Playoff, a place the Gators have never occupied.
The Gators were a 24-point favorite over a wounded LSU team that arrived in Gainesville with only 40 scholarship players, including a quarterback depth chart that featured only two true freshmen. One of those freshmen, Max Johnson, was making his first career start against the Gators.
Most LSU fans were dreading the visit to Florida for what was sure to be a beating along the lines of what the Tigers suffered against Mississippi State, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M. All of those losses were by double digits.
Gator fans were as confident as Tiger fans were pessimistic. It’s fine for fans to feel that way. It’s not OK for the coach of the Gators to send the message they were just going to show up and get an easy win.
That’s what Mullen did, and it’s a decision that will follow him for the rest of his career.
The tone was set for the upset earlier in the week when Mullen told ESPN’s Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge he didn’t think the Gators needed to beat LSU to make the College Football Playoff. His reasoning was that a win over Alabama would make Florida the SEC champions and would lift the two-loss Gators into the playoffs.
McDonough and Blackledge both expressed their shock upon hearing that opinion. But it was going to be a moot point once Florida easily handled LSU.
Then came the second part of this saga. Mullen decided after pregame warmups that star player Kyle Pitts would not play in the game so he could be rested for the only game that matters, the one against Alabama.
Pitts went through warmups and looked healthy. He begged Mullen to let him play. His pleas even continued after the game began. But Mullen had made up his mind that this game didn’t matter and the Gators would win even if their best player was not on the field.
Casual fans believed that was true. Even the information on the TV guide read: Dan Mullen’s Gators tune-up for an SEC title clash with Alabama looking to avenge last year’s 42-28 loss to Joe Burrow-led LSU. Kyle Trask has Heisman hopes of his own for UF.
Those Heisman hopes were severely damaged by three turnovers and the embarrassing loss. With Pitts on the field, it’s likely neither of those things would have happened. Trask could still change that narrative with a strong performance and a win over Alabama.
But today, few people believe that’s going to happen. The loss to LSU doesn’t diminish Florida’s chances to beat Alabama, but it does change the excitement around the game and the intrigue about whether this is the team that has a legitimate chance to slow down the Tide.
The answer is no. During this unusual season, Alabama became the first team to win 10 SEC games. That number will likely rise to 11 this weekend against Florida and possibly 12 if a rematch with Texas A&M takes place in the playoffs.
The Aggies already lost by 28 points to Alabama this season, but does Iowa State or USC have a better chance to challenge the Tide in the postseason? Very doubtful.
The most likely playoff scenario has Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson winning conference championship games and reaching the playoff. That leaves Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Cincinnati in the running for the final playoff spot.
One team that is no longer in the running for the playoff is Florida. The Gators have their own coach and his overconfidence to thank for that.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. and on the iHeart app.
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