Andrea AdelsonESPN Staff Writer
Dan Mullen and Willie Taggart arrived in the state of Florida to rousing welcomes and outsized expectations, hailed as the latest saviors at rival schools just 150 miles apart.
Two games in, Florida and Florida State look like broken-down programs stripped of their parts, exposing problems that demand immediate answers. Rather than showing tangible progress under their new head coaches, both Florida and Florida State earned guffaws on Saturday night — Florida for losing to Kentucky for the first time in 32 years; Florida State for going down to the wire against FCS foe Samford, a week after getting blown out at home by Virginia Tech.
It was an embarrassing weekend, if only because beating Kentucky and rolling FCS teams have been a given at both programs for more than three decades. The Florida and Florida State brands no longer intimidate opponents the way they once did; nor do their respective home stadiums.
Twenty-two years ago, Tim Couch and Kentucky rolled into the Swamp, riding high on his pedigree and advance billing that he would have the answer to the great Florida question. Surely, 1996 would be the year for the long losing streak to end. Florida won 65-0.
It went like that over and over in the series, as Florida toyed with Kentucky for sport. That is, until recently, when it became obvious the edge that made Florida so good under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer had vanished permanently.
At both Florida and Florida State, Saturday night showed that there are no quick fixes for problems that have festered for years.
Add in the fact that Miami, under third-year coach Mark Richt, showed serious deficiencies while getting pushed around by LSU in Week 1, and it’s been a sad state of affairs for Florida’s Power 5 programs this year.
Entering the season, Gainesville and Tallahassee enjoyed the unique brand of optimism that comes with the arrival of a new coach. In both places, however, that optimism covered for the issues that now seem obvious: Neither team has a reliable quarterback, especially now that they both are transitioning to new schemes. Neither team has produced an elite receiver in years. Neither team has produced a dominant offensive line in years. Neither team has depth on defense, nor much of a killer instinct, for that matter.
How does this happen at two schools in a fertile recruiting hotbed, where athletes and speed freaks should fill every inch of the roster? Recruiting misses hurt both schools, but so has a lack of player development and accountability.
You can see that in the way the teams look when they play. There are no obvious leaders on the field, no alphas calling the shots. Nor is there any swagger, the type that the Seminoles carried with them when they crushed their opponents en route to the national title in 2013, the type the Gators always had when they competed for championships a decade ago. There is no physicality, no aggressiveness. Players passively go through the motions, hoping against hope not to make a mistake.
These are all signs the cultures at both schools had to change, and rooting out bad attitudes and bad habits does not automatically happen when a new coach takes over. The programs that often have the easiest transition between head coaches are the ones that already had solid foundations to start, and players eager and willing to accept the changes.
Taggart and Mullen had no real foundations to speak of, not after poor seasons stripped players of any sense of team, camaraderie and confidence. At Florida State, Taggart ordered his players to eat their meals together, switched their lockers around so players on offense and defense could mingle, and instituted accountability teams because he found his players were splintered apart.
After losing 24-3 to Virginia Tech in the season opener, Taggart said he did not see the sloppy, ragtag performance coming. But he has experienced growing pains in his first year at nearly every stop, so watching his players struggle often goes along with every transition he has made.
Maybe he did see it coming but could not admit it because he understands how much pressure is on him to get Florida State back as quickly as possible. Selling “lethal simplicity” as a tagline for the offense only works when the offense actually is proficient at scoring many points. What’s more, it is never a good sign when players vow after one game not to let the team break apart the way it did in 2017, when Florida State went 7-6.
In Gainesville, many expected Mullen to work a miracle at quarterback given his history at both Florida and Mississippi State. But Florida has not had a serviceable quarterback since Tim Tebow left, nor has it had much in the way of skill position or offensive line talent, speaking to its recruiting failures most especially under Jim McElwain.
Mullen and Taggart have won at their previous stops, and uniquely understand how much is required to fix at their respective schools. It is natural for a new head coach to lay much of the blame for what they inherited at the feet of the previous coaching staff. But the responsibility to change is now theirs. While it is true patience is never a virtue in college football, both are in jobs that expect more of them than ever before.
“One game never defines anything,” Mullen said after the loss to Kentucky. “That’s one game in a long season. Much more important to me is where our attitude is gonna be on Monday.”
If he and Taggart want to be judged on the finished product, not the first two games, people need to see progress — even if it is small. Their jobs demand nearly instantaneous results, especially in a state they once dominated so easily.
Now they both find themselves looking up at UCF, which may be the self-proclaimed national champion, but at the very least is the undisputed king of Florida.