Luckily, Mullen has displayed a pattern of saving his best coaching jobs for the biggest games. If he keeps with that pattern in Jacksonville, Florida is in good hands.
By nature, Mullen is a creative offensive mind. Coaches typically don’t get much time to tinker with new play designs and schemes during the season, though, as much of the week of preparation involves specifically game planning for the next opponent, identifying weaknesses in the film room and then working on attacking that weakness on the practice field. The lone exceptions to that are bowl practices- and bye weeks.
As such, Mullen has a history of installing plugins to his offense during bye weeks- or sometimes just holding onto things he’d created in the offseason, waiting for the right moment to unveil them. First there was the introduction of fullback Billy Latsko to the offense on a full time basis. Then came the Andre Caldwell reverse. Then there was the Tebow package in 2006, which evolved into the jump pass option. Then came the triple option shovel pass, the tight end throwback pass with Lucas Krull, the expanded Emory Jones package and so on. No great coach ever stops adapting and evolving, and Mullen is no exception.
One thing that’s already on Mullen’s side tomorrow is that Georgia has not seen an offense like Florida’s all year. Kyle Pitts presents an inherent mismatch at the tight end position that no other team the Bulldogs have played had, and Florida’s wide receiver corps is one of the deepest and strongest in the country. The big difference, though, is at quarterback. Despite playing in one and three quarters fewer games than Jake Fromm, Kyle Trask trails him in passing yards for the season by the distance of a personal foul penalty (1,406 to 1,391). Trask also resides in an offense that’s much more naturally equipped to throw the ball than Fromm, and that only compounds the Bulldogs’ issues.
Because Trask is so accurate on so many different types of throws, that means Georgia’s defense is going to have to defend against every route at a high level. The Bulldogs are already at a disadvantage by not having a particularly dominant pass rush, totaling all of four sacks in their last four games against Notre Dame, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina, and for a team with an offensive line that’s struggled as much as Florida’s, Trask can realistically hope to have enough time to throw to burn Georgia wherever on the field he desires.
But Florida is also at an extreme disadvantage with its lack of a consistent running game. Through eight games, 14.3% of Florida’s 1,139 rushing yards on the season have come on two plays- Dameon Pierce’s 75 yard touchdown run against South Carolina and LaMical Perine’s 88 yard touchdown run against Auburn. Part of that is the offensive line not opening up holes and part of that has been some impatience and lack of sound vision by Florida’s runners; regardless of the ingredients that lead to this fact, though, paper says that Georgia’s rangy linebackers will be able to contain the running game.
That’s where Mullen and his coaching come into play.
It’s very difficult to imagine Florida winning this game without a running game that can at least hold its own and not just get stuffed. Or, I’ll rephrase that: it’s very difficult to imagine Florida winning this game without a running game or something that can spell a running game that can at least hold its own and not just get stuffed. All the Gators need to do is have something- anything- resemble a running game enough for Georgia to respect it. Otherwise, the Dogs will simply play five cornerbacks the whole game, including one on Kyle Pitts, and be able to devote enough on field resources to Trask’s safety valve to make any potential throw extremely low percentage. Since Florida doesn’t have a true running game, Mullen will have to improvise and come up with an alternate way to force Georgia to defend against plays that are only designed to get three or four yards in order to open up his passing game.
And to date, Mullen has done that consistently. Remember last year? Mullen essentially dinked and dunked his way to victory over Mississippi State and LSU teams that were stout against the run with lots of quick passes and a big trick play in each game (a double pass from Kadarius Toney to Moral Stephens against MSU and the Krull throwback against LSU). To a degree, high percentage quick passes to guys like Trevon Grimes or Toney are extensions of the running game, especially the tunnel and bubble screens that Mullen likes to run. And when blocked for well, they can be lethal.
Here’s where we bring back the fact that Mullen loves to get creative during his bye weeks. We’ve seen enough of that quick-pass-extension-of-the-running-game on tape before to know that in some form, we’re going to see it tomorrow. Mullen is usually good about using this in situations where opponents aren’t equipped to defend against it, like near the goal line or right after a big play to Kyle Pitts, but we can pretty much assume it’s coming. What’s far more exciting is the prospect that Mullen has just come up with something we haven’t seen yet this year- maybe playing Emory Jones and Kyle Trask at the same time, or a diamond formation with all three running backs in the backfield and Pitts and Krull lined up outside the C-gaps, or maybe he even brings back the triple option with Jones- and is waiting for the right time to spring it on Georgia.
Because if anything we’ve seen this year from either team is any indication, this game is going down to the final few minutes one way or another. Though very different types of teams, this seems to be as dead even a matchup as either squad has been a part of this year. The personnel is fairly even from a talent standpoint, the teams’ strengths and weaknesses are pitted against each other, and of course both teams come in ranked in the top ten, needing this win to all but lock up the SEC East.
It’s in this type of game where the game planning and in-game coaching make the difference. And because Mullen has demonstrated far better results following bye weeks than Kirby Smart, it’s difficult to not like Florida’s chances.