SEC Media Days Football

Head Coach Dan Mullen, of Florida, speaks during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Monday, July 15, 2019, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill) ORG XMIT: ALBD117

HOOVER, Ala. — Dan Mullen, supporter of performing arts, son of a ballet teacher, knows plenty about the importance of technique and detail.

How fitting a reminder was the Florida coach's introduction at Southeastern Conference media days, when league commissioner Greg Sankey said Mullen was perhaps the only kid in his neighborhood who left his mother's ballet practices to go to football practice.

Mullen would have noticed how much savoir-faire both require, how both football and ballet cannot succeed without the correct positioning and intended choreography.

Decades later, the 47-year-old New Hampshire native is widely regarded as one of the top offensive minds in football, the crafty offensive coordinator behind two Florida BCS national titles in 2006 and 2008, who rose Mississippi State to national prominence in nine seasons as head coach before returning to Gainesville in 2018.

Florida went 10-3 in Mullen's first season, finishing it off with a 41-15 beatdown of Michigan in the Peach Bowl, the Gators had their first top 10 finish since 2012.

Mullen was behind the rebirth of the Florida offense, which ranked No. 22 nationally in scoring with 35 points per game in 2018, and he molded his spread attack around his players, maintaining communication along the way.

"Oh he's intelligent," said Florida running back Lamical Perine, who led the Gators with 826 yards rushing and seven touchdowns in 2018. "I talk ball with him all the time. He's an offensive guru." 

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Mullen's a master of the match-up game, the offensive flip-side of what Louisianans have become accustomed to seeing out of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, a guru of his own right, who earned the nickname "the professor" by tinkering with formations and personnel to get the matchup he wants on the field.

"If you look at football, there is very much a match-up game," Mullen said Monday. "It's something that we started to really work on about 15 years ago when we created the offenses on how to create advantageous matchups out there on the field, how to work to get one of our better players or our best players on one of your weaker players. I think that was always a big focus that we have."

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Mullen's offenses have confounded SEC defenses for several seasons, and he is one of the few coaches outside of Alabama that has had consistent success against Aranda's Tiger defenses.

Mullen has a 2-1 career record against Aranda, a two-year win streak that includes a 37-7 win in Starkville in 2017 and a 27-19 win in Gainesville in 2018.

There's always a "chess game back and forth" in football, Mullen said, and in 2018 Florida used LSU's defensive formation against itself by running an option run toward the near side of the field, where Perine was usually matched up in open space with an outside linebacker.

One of the options resulted in a 23-yard gain.

"It was just a little something we always work on," Perine said Monday. "Something we always have in our little duffle bag."

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LSU has its cross-division rival at home in 2019, when Florida comes to Tiger Stadium in Week 6 on Oct. 12, and it's possible that the stakes could be even higher this season for the programs that will likely both begin the season ranked in the top 10.

Florida returns quarterback Feleipe Franks, who passed for 2,457 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior can be a matchup nightmare and also rushed for 250 yards and seven touchdowns.

"I thought he took huge strides this spring," Mullen said. "Not just understanding himself but how to use his skill set and better understanding of making plays within the offensive system."

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Florida has won once out of its last four games in Baton Rouge, the most recent one, 16-10, in 2016.

"I always like how the game is always built up with LSU, it being a rivalry game," Perine said. "Just us both being great teams with great athletes, it always equals out as the game goes. I'm always excited for that game every year."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.