When Dan Mullen's Florida Gators closed the gap on Georgia during their 2018 and 2019 meetings in Jacksonville and then defeated Kirby Smart's Bulldogs last season, a prominent pairing seemed set.
The two 40-something football coaches would battle well beyond the next decade for supremacy in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, with Smart's ability to compile talent matched by Mullen's knack for producing efficient offenses no matter the style of quarterback. A new golden age of the once-labeled "Cocktail Party" was here, and it was for everybody to enjoy.
Oops. Change of plans.
Florida's free-fall in Mullen's fourth season, which included a 34-7 loss to Georgia late last month, resulted in Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin making a move Sunday that seemed ludicrous at October's dawn.
Mullen was 29-9 through his first three seasons with trips to the Peach, Orange and Cotton bowls, but this year's 5-6 derailment included a 2-6 mark in SEC play. He becomes the third consecutive Florida coach, following Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, who failed to last 50 games in Gainesville.
"I think the landscape across college football is what it is," Smart said Monday during a news conference. "The stakes have gotten higher. The pay has gotten higher, and with that comes expectations. It's a different landscape now than it was even four or five years ago in terms of the portal, recruiting and the early signing period. Everything changes so fast. It makes it tougher. It's a much tougher job.
"You've seen a lot of people in our level go to the next level, because it has a little less strain on your family. I know it's a tough atmosphere, but most people would say, 'They pay you so much, so it doesn't matter.' At the end of the day, I hate it for Dan, because I think Dan is a good person. It's a tough situation, but it's a profession that we chose to be in. I know Dan will be fine. He'll be perfectly fine."
Mullen is the second SEC coach to lose his job this season, with LSU athletic director Scott Woodward announcing last month that Ed Orgeron would be replaced. There are four first-year coaches this season in the league, and there were four last year as well.
So if there are no more changes — a sizable "if" in this day and age — then Smart, Alabama's Nick Saban, Kentucky's Mark Stoops and Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher will be the SEC's only coaches in 2022 who had their jobs in 2019.
"I think it's important to build on a strong foundation and not trying to have a great one year," Smart said. "Administratively, you've got to have tremendous support, because you've got to be able to go out and hire all the things you need in recruiting. It's so important to have help, and we've got tremendous help here in terms of our staffing. I think signing good, quality high school football players is extremely important to building your program.
"You can't have a lot of holes from year to year, because the holes will cost you if you have one poor class or you have a max exodus at a position. We've been fortunate to recruit well, and we've got a good recruiting base around us."
Mullen was given the option of coaching this week's game against Florida State but declined, while the top-ranked Bulldogs have their own in-state test Saturday at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have won just three games each of the past three seasons under coach Geoff Collins, and any momentum that was built with this year's 3-3 start has eroded with a five-game losing streak that included last weekend's 55-0 humiliation at Notre Dame.
The Bulldogs demolished Charleston Southern 56-7 this past Saturday without having to strain, but Smart believes his players will be motivated in Atlanta despite being five-touchdown favorites. Georgia routed the Yellow Jackets 52-7 in 2019, but last year's meeting was scratched when the SEC played a 10-game conference schedule due to the coronavirus.
"It will be completely different," Smart said. "These kids were all recruited by Tech. They know Tech's players. They know a lot of those guys. That doesn't concern me. Our guys are very mature and handle things very well.
"We're going out to play our best game. That's our goal, to play our best game of the season."
A win by the Bulldogs would result in the first 12-0 regular season in program history. Georgia had 11-0 regular seasons in 1980 and 1982.
"During our summer workouts, I could just tell it was going to be different," senior inside linebacker Channing Tindall said. "We became closer and we talked about just knowing our 'why' and not just going out there and playing for this or for that. Now, we are playing for his mother or his family or his situation.
"Also, our workouts have just been 10 times harder than they have been in the past, so I just knew this year was going to be special just based off of that."
Odds and ends
The Bulldogs lead the series with Georgia Tech 68-39-5, according to Georgia records. ... Smart expressed optimism that tackle Jamaree Salyer, outside linebacker Nolan Smith and safety Christopher Smith would play this week.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.