Dan Mullen vs Jeremy Pruitt was a mismatch. Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel should fare better | Adams
HOOVER, Ala. - The Tennessee-Florida rivalry seemingly was headed for an intriguing turn after the 2017 football season. Both programs were replacing failed coaches, and the new matchup would feature Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt vs. Florida’s Dan Mullen - or defense vs. offense.
Pruitt had been a defensive coordinator on national championship teams at Florida State and Alabama. Mullen was Florida coach Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator on his 2006 and 2008 national championship teams.
If you thought Tennessee could change the course of a rivalry long dominated by the Gators, you had to believe that Pruitt's defense could stop - or at least significantly slow down - Mullen's offense.
That possibility didn't stand the test of head-to-head matchups. Based on the coaches' résumés, we shouldn't have been surprised.
Mullen had distinguished himself as a head coach at Mississippi State before returning to the Gators. Pruitt didn’t have any experience as a college head coach. And his inexperience showed too often.
Three years later, Pruitt is a senior defensive assistant with the New York Giants after establishing himself as one of the worst coaches in Tennessee history. Conversely, Mullen has won 29 games and one SEC East championship in three seasons.
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The Vols will go after the Gators from a different angle this season.
A defensive-minded, inexperienced head coach has been replaced by Josh Heupel, who has been all about offense ever since he quarterbacked Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship. UT hired him after he posted three consecutive winning seasons at UCF while enhancing his reputation for gobbling up yards and scoring points at a rapid-fire pace.
If he could just come close to the Gators in his first season, there would be a surge of optimism among UT's fan base.
Beating Tennessee won't do any more for Mullen than beating Kentucky or Missouri. Former Florida coach Will Muschamp never lost to UT. Jim McElwain, another fired Gators coach, also beat the Vols.
Mullen, who was the first coach to the podium at SEC Football Media Days on Monday, has won just enough for Florida fans to expect him to win more.
Forget McElwain and Muschamp. Mullen will be measured against the Gators’ two national championship coaches, Steve Spurrier and Meyer. And Gators fans aren't wondering whether Mullen can maintain his mastery over Tennessee. They will judge him by how he fares against Georgia in the SEC East and Alabama when a conference championship is on the line.
And they will keep a close eye on recruiting.
In the past five years, Alabama has had the No. 1 recruiting class in the 247Sports Composite three times. Georgia has been No. 1 twice. Neither team has been ranked lower than sixth.
Mullen’s three Florida classes have been ranked 14th, eighth and ninth. That’s good, but is it good enough to beat out Alabama and Georgia for championships?
It’s worth noting that Florida beat Georgia last season and extended one of the best teams in Alabama history into the fourth quarter before losing the SEC Championship Game. However, coming close in the championship game eventually won’t satisfy Florida fans. Mullen also is aiming higher.
"We have been to three straight New Year's Six bowls," Mullen said at SEC Media Days on Monday. "Hopefully, we can take it one step further (to the College Football Playoff)."
But he admits that winning a championship is harder than during his offensive coordinator days at Florida.
"You had high-end teams back then," he said. "But the depth of the conference from top to bottom has grown. That has made it more difficult."
As usual, Mullen's chances for success will rest heavily on his quarterback. He’s one of the game’s best offensive coaches, in part, because he's so adept at developing quarterbacks. That's encouraging for Florida fans even though the Gators are breaking in new starter Emory Jones this season.
Jones is more of a runner than his predecessor, Kyle Trask. Mullen will adjust accordingly.
"I've had every different kind of quarterback," he said. "The key is never trying to take a square peg and put it in a round hole."
Tennessee's chances for success also could be tied closely to quarterback play. Heupel's track record with quarterbacks is cause for optimism among fans, regardless of which quarterback he chooses among four candidates.
So, you can expect the Vols to average more than the 14.3 points they scored against the Gators under Pruitt.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, that won’t help a defense that has given up 37.3 points per game against Mullen’s Gators.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.