What if I told you that the SEC East got better today; that both Florida and Tennessee are making hires that make sense for them; and yet neither Florida nor Tennessee represent a threat to Alabama? Because all of that is true. The SEC East may, just may, have gotten a little less derpy.
First, we had the anticlimactic conclusion to the world’s longest-simmering hot seat, as Butch Jones was released following multiple beatings in the SEC. The Vols originally their sights set on a variety of sexy names: Chip Kelly, Matt Campbell, Jeff Brohm, Mike Norvell and, of course, John Gruden. But, it seems the Volunteers have decided, after a decade of pretending otherwise, that they will treat their trash-ass dumpster fire of a program like a trash-ass dumpster fire of a program. It’s time to go full-rebuild.
Few people know as much about rebuilding awful programs quite like Greg Schiano, Rutgers’ magic man from a decade ago. But, this isn’t 2009. He was not a hot name, he’s not an in-demand coach, his results as defensive coordinator of the Buckeyes have been...let’s say...”underperforming relative to roster and competition.”
He landed back in college following a shamefully terrible stint in the NFL. But, it could be that Tennessee sees itself as the SEC’s Rutgers. And maybe a ground-up reclamation project isn’t such a bad idea. But, there are a lot of questions to answer, such as whether Schiano’s staid base 4-3 defense and pro-set West Coast offense will thrive in the modern college game, how well he can recruit the Atlanta/Carolinas region, how he will be received in Knoxville, is there an NFL all-pro running back just laying around the backyard, and a host of others.
Schiano’s probably, at the end of the day, part of a two-part strategy: First, hire the man who can rebuild a stable program, then bring in one who can build a champion. So, we’re at step one and it may seem like a helluva gamble by John Currie and the Vols, but that’s only if you view this hire as the one Tennessee is working towards. Ultimately it’s a safe, boring hire calculated to win 8-9 boring games a year with a safe, boring team, host boring press conferences, go to safe, boring bowls. Yet, at 2017 Tennessee that’s likely not such a bad thing. (So, of course, the local politicians hate it and are going full-on Psycho Vol on the Tennessee administration.)
Florida has had enough -- by god, they want that magic of the Tebow era and are determined to recreate it, if by hook or crook...or ignoring that there’s no Tebow or all-world defensive roster in Gainesville. Last competent offensive coordinator we’ve had? Come on down! Mullen is expected to be named the fifth post-Spurrier head coach of the Florida Gators within the next 24 hours.
Dan Mullen has earned this job. Dan Mullen has done more with less than most coaches in the SEC, at least to the extent of building a program. In his corner: He’s a solid but not all-world recruiter. He hires exceptional defensive coordinators. He has very sound special teams. He develops quarterbacks, even ones that aren’t particularly skilled. He builds from the trenches-out. And, his teams are tough, physical, and can put some points on the board. Those are all good things. They’re things Florida craves and expects and which Dan Mullen can deliver.
But, and there is a tremendous but, Mullen does come with distractions. Besides being a giant narc, he has been at the center of two SEC scandals -- Cam Newton in Auburn and the hot mess of backbiting and finking and cheating in the state of Mississippi. Florida AD Scott Strickland has no problems with that, apparently. But there’s a lot bigger of a pond, with a lot more distractions to manage in Florida.
The other tremendous “but” is that Mullen has not done well at managing championship expectations, nor has he mastered the consistency required to be a championship coach. Yet. Can he? Who knows. But the way that ‘State played on the road this season, the way his Bulldogs have collapsed when they are in the spotlight, and especially that head-to-head result against Kirby Smart would give me pause. It’s not that his teams lose when the stakes are high, it’s how they lose badly, adjust poorly (if at all,) and are completely unprepared for the big stage. Are we going to ignore that it took three years for Mullen to ring up his first Division win, outside of Ole Miss?
I’m not saying that it’s a bad hire. I’m saying I don’t think it’s a championship hire. If Florida wants to get to the mountaintop, the last two guys could have and did do that. And Mullen’s 8-year record in Starkville suggests that he’s a third. Like Tennessee, it’s not a sexy hire, but it makes sense for their program (as well as Florida’s notoriously cheap administration.)
Kirby Smart is no doubt a huge beneficiary of the moves made this weekend: All signs point to years of divsional dominance. Still, Greg Sankey has to be biggest winner. The East got a little better, a little bit more competitive, and a lot more competent -- all without threatening the SEC’s flagship program. And that has to make you smile.