TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – When Dan Mullen was hired as the new head coach of the Florida Gators and Willie Taggart was picked to lead Florida State prior to the 2018 season, both men inherited teams with huge upside and a lot of work to do.
As both teams ended their regular seasons in a 41-14 Gators’ win, it’s clear which coach has been the better hire. Mullen’s Gators finished the season with a 9-3 record and could play in a New Year’s Day bowl game, while Taggart’s Seminoles finished 5-7 and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 1981.
Mullen stepped into the job far more prepared for what he would face, and it showed. After guiding Mississippi State for nine years, Mullen understood what it takes to play the role of head coach in the SEC. It’s as much of a CEO position as football coach. He also understood the culture at Florida. Having spent six seasons on Urban Meyer’s staff in Gainesville.
Mullen did wonders for quarterback Feleipe Franks, who, while certainly not a finished product, too major strides in his sophomore season. As a redshirt freshman last year, Franks threw nine touchdown passes. This season, he had thrown 20 entering Saturday’s rivalry showdown. Franks tossed three more against the Seminoles. Even though Mullen considered making a change at quarterback before the South Carolina game until Kyle Trask was injured, it is easy to see Franks’ upward trajectory. There figures to be a quarterback competition between the two in advance of the 2019 season.
Florida State recorded the school’s first losing season since 1975. After watching the Seminoles all year, including in person against Samford early in the season and Saturday against Florida, my eyes tell me that, aside from the offensive line, there is enough talent to win in Tallahassee. Perhaps they don’t have the depth on the defensive line that they did in their national championship contending seasons, but there is talent. There is also a disconnect with the utilization of talent, especially on offense.
Quarterback Deondre Francois has an NFL-caliber arm and wants to be a pocket passer. He does have the ability to run, as he showed on a third quarter touchdown drive when he raced 32 yards to set up his own 4-yard touchdown run. His skill set does not fit the kind of offense that Taggart ran at Oregon and USF in his previous jobs. However, it is the responsibility of a coach to put his players in the best position to succeed, and this year, Taggart did not do that with Francois. Neither did he utilize the talents of Cam Akers, arguably the most dynamic athlete on the Seminoles offense. Akers, a running back who was once expected to step into the spotlight once occupied by Dalvin Cook, showed his hands on a touchdown reception in the second quarter. He was underutilized this year, running 148 times for 669 yards before Saturday’s game, an average of just 13 carries per game.
The Gators will also have the advantage of another five weeks of practice as they prepare for their bowl game. That can only help Mullen to continue to develop his program.
It’s only the first round of the renewal of the rivalry, but Mullen and the Gators are the undisputed winners after year one.