I sometimes contemplate life’s mysteries.
Like, what is a non-fungible token, and why are people paying big bucks for them? (Instead, invest in Coca-Cola and reinvest the dividends.)
Why is everyone obsessed with Chick-fil-A? (It’s just a chicken sandwich, folks.)
And how did Matthew McConaughey end up trapped inside that bookcase at the end of “Interstellar?” (Watching the last hour of that movie felt like what I imagine a magic mushroom trip must be like.)
Here’s one more to ponder: What happened to Dan Mullen’s Florida Gators last year?
Before proceeding, I must confess: I drove the Mullen Bandwagon as recently as September, before getting ejected with such velocity that it’s a small miracle I’m here to tell this tale.
After Florida defeated Tennessee for the 16th time in their past 17 meetings, I wrote that Mullen showed his chops as one of the nation’s “cleverest play callers.” The Gators whipped the Vols, 38-14, one week after nearly upsetting Alabama. I covered both games at the Swamp. Florida looked tough and dangerous, even if not as explosive as the previous season. The Gators didn’t play like a team on the verge of collapse.
Collapse isn’t a strong enough word for what came next. Florida came unglued, never more than in a 40-17 loss to South Carolina. Mullen went from quirky mastermind to loon.
A familiar narrative surrounding Mullen is that he’s an offensive whiz but a run-of-the-mill recruiter. That narrative caught fire amid Florida’s October and November woes. But that doesn’t explain the in-game coaching malpractice Mullen committed in his final game, a loss to Missouri.
Mullen led Mississippi State to an unprecedented eight straight bowl appearances before taking the Gators to three consecutive New Year’s Six bowls. But one bad season is enough to get a coach fired at a high-pressure SEC job.
Mullen reportedly is in talks with ESPN about a television analyst role, but I’m not giving up on him returning to a sideline. Coaches fired from SEC jobs have a way of landing on their feet, many of whom had a less-impressive résumé than Mullen.
I also redeveloped belief in Mullen because of an unexpected source: Tennessee’s second-year coach Josh Heupel, and an aggressive booster-funded collective that's offering a name, image and likeness assist to the Vols.
I first covered Heupel while he was Missouri's offensive coordinator. He developed a reputation as an intense, all-business perfectionist while jumpstarting a previously anemic Tigers offense.
Heupel is a bright offensive coach who has a skilled touch with quarterbacks. Sounds like Mullen, eh? But, while likable enough, Heupel never struck me as someone to whom recruits would gravitate, and his recruiting track record before Tennessee was just OK.
Heupel's second recruiting class at UT indicates otherwise. Four months shy of the December signing period, the Vols' class ranks 11th nationally. It includes a commitment from five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava. The Vols haven’t signed a five-star QB in 20 years.
Tennessee has recruiting momentum after a strong July, and Heupel is exceeding his reputation on the trail.
How? I point to three reasons:
He’s loosened up a bit from his coordinator days.
It’s not difficult to recruit to Tennessee.
Collectives can dish name, image and likeness deals. The collective linked with UT is, by all accounts, a juggernaut.
Factor No. 3 makes me re-evaluate Mullen’s future.
So what if Mullen had modest recruiting success at Florida? He did sign two top-10 classes, and if he reboots his career at a school with a well-oiled collective, then NIL can assist with the recruiting legwork.
Plus, transfers are more important than ever to building a strong roster. Florida fired Mullen before he could truly take advantage of the rule change making transfers immediately eligible. Another talented offensive coach, Lane Kiffin, has positioned Ole Miss as a hub for transfers.
If Mullen could combine a quality NIL collective with a system that appeals to transfers looking to polish their NFL credentials, that relieves some of the recruiting burden.
Maybe, Mullen will find a TV gig to his liking. He can show off his beloved sneakers for the camera and dial up the Goofy Dan persona to a 10.
But the sport is evolving. Recruiting remains integral, but NIL and a hot transfer market offer other avenues for roster building. A gifted play caller who needed a recruiting assist might find that college football's evolution suits him.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Why Josh Heupel's Tennessee football success gives hope for Dan Mullen